Paintings launch seldom-heard tales

HORSE TALKING: Information gathered by art historian Jane Vial about this painting by EJ Brock goes beyond details about the racehorse Manuka it portrays
HORSE TALKING: Information gathered by art historian Jane Vial about this painting by EJ Brock goes beyond details about the racehorse Manuka it portrays

Museums hold the memories of a community and 10 stories will be told in a new exhibition opening at the Marlborough Museum on Sunday.

Titled Hidden Gems and curated by art historian Jane Vial, each exhibit has four key elements: the artist, the painting's subject, the owner and the donor.

Vial was commissioned to unravel those elements, says museum chief executive Steve Austin, calling Vial a real "Miss Marple of the museum" in reference to author Agatha Christie's fictional detective.

Vial will outline her findings at a 2pm presentation on Sunday.

One of the pictures is of a Marlborough race horse, Manuka, painted by English veterinarian EJ Brock. The horse belonged to Henry Redwood, regarded as "the father of New Zealand thoroughbreds" who moved to Spring Creek, Marlborough, from Nelson. A cafe, The Stables, in Richmond near Nelson is named in his honour, and the family name lives on in Marlborough in the form of place names like Redwood Pass and Blenheim's Redwoodtown and Redwood St.

Manuka won many races and went to Australia to compete in the Melbourne Cup. Injured during the voyage, however, he never entered the race and was eventually put out to stud in 1869.

But Vial's story about the painting goes further. EJ Brock had left England to serve in the Crimean War, caring for the horses used in battle. Coming to New Zealand after the war, Brock often gave evidence in court against people accused of mistreating animals. His painting of Manuka illustrates good horse welfare, Vial says.

The animal is standing in a clean, stable, its brick floor glimpsed under a layer of dry straw and a bin fitted to one wall for water or chaff. Manuka is clearly a well-cared for horse - but Brock's painting needs to be restored, Vial says, pointing at features where the paint (oil on artist's board laid on canvas) has started to flake.

It was gifted to the museum by the Redwood House, Henry's Spring Creek home that is now part of the Spring Creek camping ground facilities.

Another Hidden Gem was given to the museum by Decci Date, the daughter of Dr Julius Tripe. It shows Picton as viewed from the hill above the ferry terminal, although that wasn't there when EC Wyvell painted the scene in the late 1800s.

The start of the Elevation railway line, opened in 1874, can be seen. Vial believes the work was one of four small oils Wyvell exhibited in Wellington in 1882.

Wyvell was an Anglican vicar who came to New Zealand in 1858 then farmed at Tuamarina. A Wellington reviewer described his paintings as "very taking, faithful portraits of the places they represent . . . although perhaps a little too highly coloured".

Austin says it is exciting to uncover those sorts of details and he believes most people in Marlborough have little idea about the depth of heritage at the museum.

The Marlborough Express