The ‘big P’ down under

By John Adam

Sir Uvedale Price’s Picturesque as applied by Bishop GA Selwyn to Auckland’s Symonds Street Cemetery 1842-1908s. 

IT IS PERHAPS TIMELY in 2016 to describe how the ‘Picturesque’ in Colonial New Zealand landscape design was expressed by the relatively unknown Uvedale Price. Capability Brown (1716-1783) is celebrated in Britain this year while Stephen Deed has published, last year, Unearthly landscapes: New Zealand’s early cemeteries, churchyards and urupā, that is a dismissal of the idea and practice of the Picturesque having been applied ‘down under’ and specifically to public cemeteries.

Bishop George A. Selwyn (1809- 1878), a ‘high’ Anglican Church leader, was a practitioner of the Picturesque through the 1840s and 1860s as articulated by Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829) in the form of a gift (and a tool kit) of Price’s book to Selwyn by the Scottish artist Montague Stanley (1809-1844). This gift was the 1842 and second edition (first 1794) of Sir Uvedale Price on the picturesque: with an essay on the origin of taste, and much original matter/ by [Sir] Thomas Dick Lauder. Stanley had drawn the sixty odd woodcuts for this book found by the writer in the 1980s on the open shelves in the Kinder Library of St John’s College, Auckland, with a hand written note signed by Stanley to Selwyn in the front of a well-used book.

Our contemporary understanding of the Picturesque has been greatly assisted internationally
by the publication in 2012 by two Price scholars, Charles Watkins and Ben Cowell, of Uvedale Price (1747-1820) Decoding the Picturesque. [Boydell Press, Woodbridge, UK.]. Fifteen properties that Uvedale Price advised on landscape development through the 1770-1828 are detailed, including his famous farm called Foxley.

The Symonds Street Cemetery Conservation Plan (1996) states that the “Cemetery contains a mixture of created [designed] informal deciduous woodland, similar to many parks developed in the English Landscape School manner, and the indigenous forest which existed prior to European settlement in New Zealand.” The English Landscape School was cultivated by the likes of Capability Brown, Humphrey Repton, Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and John Loudon.

The vegetation density and husbandry (management) recommended by these men could be represented and husbanded on a scale of a wild, rough, and bushy scene to an open pasture with scattered groves of pollarded trees. When Selwyn selected the Church of England cemetery site in 1842 the landscape was regenerating from Māori occupation over hundreds of years. It was not a virgin landscape by any means. The topography of the Grafton ‘ravine’ protected the vegetation close to the stream sides because of the associated springs seeping up through the volcanic rock that can still be observed today. A path was named here in the 1880s as ‘Bishop Selwyn’s Path’.

I concluded from my 2013 study of the cemetery that the contemporary Symonds Street Cemetery comprises four character landscapes – Naturalistic, Picturesque, Ornamental and Recreation/Open Space. The two most relevant are next described.

The Naturalistic Landscape 1840 to present
This character evolved from a landscape dwelt upon by Tangata Whenua (Māori) and then
in 1840-1841 fire was used as a management tool (by the likes of Felton Matthew the Government Surveyor) to clear the landscape and allow surveyors to peg out the township blocks. From the 1920s onwards botanists from Auckland University College, such as Dr Lucy Cranwell with modern ecological values and practices (protecting land in Scenic Reserves) argued successfully for protecting the private lands all about the eastern side of Symonds Street Cemetery that has remained the focus of Government and City officials since 1920.

Once bounded with earth ditches and live hedges that protected from further fire and wandering animals, the vegetation regenerated rapidly with seedlings from neighbouring plantations (gums, pines, wattles) and intermittent disturbance from accidental fires about the Grafton Gully footbridge (built 1884) where wild gorse and broom became a fire hazard in the summer months.

The Picturesque Landscape 1840s -1908
This is the preferred landscape character husbanded through the 1840s with a distinct trajectory established by Bishop GA Selwyn who project-managed its cultivation through his Church of England Cemetery Trustees included Dr Charles Knight – himself a naturalist and an expert on lichens – George Pierce and Shirley W. Hill. The pedestrian circulation pattern and improved enclosures were placed on the ground by a team of Royal Engineers of Miners & Sappers lead by Lieut. Major Daniel Bolton (1796-1860). Oak trees and conifers began to dominate the landscape centred on the ravine covered in flax, hebe, cordyline and tree ferns.

Watkins and Cowell describe the ‘international reach’ of Price’s books and essays through Europe and into North America through Andrew Jackson Downing (1815- 1852) and Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903). Symonds Street Cemetery provides a place that challenges popular understanding of the picturesque. I argue we have the practice of what is sometimes called ‘the big P’, the Picturesque, expressed on part of a public cemetery. Go there and imagine and experience this other world.