The Wonderland Album – New Zealand Part 1

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Friday 19 June 2009
Ron Brownson

Currently on show in Picturing History, we have on display The Wonderland Album – New Zealand. We made an accompanying DVD featuring all the photographic images within the album so that visitors to the exhibition could view the contents in the sequence that they have in the bound volume. I acquired The Wonderland Albumfor the Auckland Art Gallery’s collection in 1999 from the Peter McLeavey Gallery, where it had been in Peter’s own private collection.

Bound in Moroccan goatskin, blind-stamped and tooled with gold leaf, the album is a really impressive object. It contains 184 albumen photographs all of which are in exceptional condition. We do not know who created the album but it appears to have been assembled in the last five years of the 1890s by someone who had significant means.

The Wonderland Album – New Zealand is, arguably, one of the most important assemblages of 19th century topographical photography. Almost all the photographs were created by Alfred Burton (1834 – 1914), although there are some by James Valentine (1815 – 1880) and also an unknown photographer.

I made a selection of some of my favourite images by Alfred Burton -

Ruined WharepuniWhakahoroWanganui River (1999/18/43) appears to date from the May 1885 trip that Alfred Burton made down the Wanganui River. This image comes from one of the most important sequences of photographs made in New Zealand during the 19th century. The Wharepuni must date from the mid-century.

Gigantic cabbage trees, Papakai, King Country (1999/18/63) is a beguiling image. The Cabbage tree, or Ti tree (Cordyline australis), at right appears to be dying from some disease and the landscape looks as if it has just been prepared for farming.

Lake Taupo from Motutere (1999/18/66) is another photograph from 1885. Burton made a number of views at this location on the same day but this is the most interesting one in terms of its novel composition. He always had an eye on what would be a saleable image so the abstract quality of this work, with its against the light viewpoint (what we call contrejour) is especially notable.

Taupaki Kauri Bush (1999/18/71) was taken on the forest property of Mr M.H. Roe and is one of a number of Burton's brilliant photographs of Kauri milling. By including the timber workers, we see a portrait of 19th century industry that is not as commonly found as we would expect from photographs of the period.

Image credits:

The Wonderland Album – New Zealand circa 1898-1899
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki
The Ilene and Laurence Dakin Bequest, purchased 1999