Painting the province

Friday 11 January 2019

Amongst Canterbury Museum’s art collection is a group of paintings by James Edward FitzGerald, one of Canterbury’s most significant early European settlers. FitzGerald Avenue in central Christchurch is named after him.

James Edward Fitzgerald

James Edward FitzGerald was an enthusiastic painter as well as one of Canterbury's most significant early European settlers. Dr A C Barker photograph Canterbury Museum 19XX.2.953. No known copyright restrictions.

FitzGerald's paintings depict the settlements of Christchurch, Lyttelton, Port Levy and Akaroa, as well as outlying farms and the surrounding countryside in the earliest days following European colonisation. They are an important record of the province at that time, if not necessarily important works of "art".

It seems documenting Canterbury's development was FitzGerald’s main intention; he gave his paintings much more detailed captions than might usually be expected. The Bridge over the Avon in the Market Place at Christchurch shows the centre of Christchurch in 1852. The painting is captioned in Fitzgerald’s own hand, “The great north road passing by Papanui bush and village passes over this bridge”. Similarly, The Plain Around Christchurch is captioned by FitzGerald “taken from the Bridle Path above the Heathcote Ferry, looking west” almost as though it was a photograph rather than a painting.

The paintings and captions tell us just how sparsely populated Christchurch was in the years following its foundation. Papanui today is a suburb but in 1852 it was a village in its own right.

The Bridge over the Avon

The Bridge over the Avon in the Market Place at Christchurch shows the centre of Christchurch in 1852. Canterbury Museum 1938.238.36. No known copyright restrictions.

FitzGerald was a prolific painter and produced many works. But painting was a pastime for FitzGerald, not a career. In England he had helped to plan the new settlement of Christchurch while working as Secretary of the Canterbury Association. He arrived in the new colony on 16 December 1850 aboard the Charlotte Jane and went on to become Sub-Inspector of Police, Superintendent of the Province, Leader of the Executive Council of the Province, and the representative for Akaroa on the Provincial Council. He founded the Lyttelton Times and The Press newspapers, and bestowed the name of Christ’s College. FitzGerald also became an outspoken supporter of Māori rights, arguing strongly against land confiscations and for Māori representation in government.


The Plain Around Christchurch by James Edward FitzGerald shows the Heathcote River and ferry from the Port Hills in 1852. Canterbury Museum 1938.238.37. No known copyright restrictions.

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