Kennett Watkins

The Phantom canoe: a legend of Lake Tarawera

The Phantom canoe: a legend of Lake Tarawera by Kennett Watkins

Artwork Detail

Ten days before Mount Tarawera erupted spectacularly in 1886, destroying the famed silica terraces of Rotomähana, a number of people witnessed a disturbing sight - a ghostly, fully-manned waka gliding across Lake Tarawera in the shadow of the mountain. Interpreted as an omen of impending death and disaster, the sighting was reported in local newspapers and after the eruption received much attention from artists and writers. One of the better known representations of the apparition is this grandiose composition by Kennett Watkins, a leading nineteenth century exponent of Mäori history painting. Although the spectre was seen in broad daylight, Watkins presents it in a dramatic nocturnal setting illuminated by a full moon amidst billowing clouds, foreshadowing the volcanic blast to come. Conforming to European conventions for the sublime landscape, a lone, fearful spectator in the foreground witnesses the vast canoe passing under the looming peak. More specific sources in European art include representations of Vesuvius in eruption in the Bay of Naples and spectacular Alpine scenes by artists such as J. M. W. Turner. Born in India, Watkins studied art in Switzerland and France before emigrating to New Zealand in 1873. He worked as a photographer and schoolteacher in the Bay of Islands then moved to Auckland where he became principal of the Auckland Free School of Art. (from The Guide, 2001)

The Phantom canoe: a legend of Lake Tarawera
Kennett Watkins
Production date
oil on canvas
1175 x 1858 x 70 mm
Credit line
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Mr H E Partridge, 1915
Accession no
Copyright Expired
New Zealand Art
Display status
Not on display

To find out which artworks are available for print requests and reproduction please enquire here. This service only applies to select artworks in the Gallery's collection.