The inaugural Henry Sarjeant Memorial Lecture was given by historian Jock Phillips on Sunday.
It followed the re-dedication of the grave of the man who left £30,000 to the Wanganui Borough Council to build an art gallery for Whanganui – The Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui.
Sarjeant immigrated to New Zealand in the late 1850s and died on February 12, 1912 at 82.
In conversation with The Four Five Hundred – here’s Jock Phillips on Sarjeant’s contribution.
I was trying to put his gift in the context of other art galleries within New Zealand and also within the Western World.
So, I compared his gift with George Grey’s gift to the Auckland Art Gallery and also James Tannock Mackelvie who gave a huge amount to the Auckland Art Gallery.
And then I looked at Andrew Suter – where his gift came from in Nelson.
Then I got on to Sarjeant and basically tried to say what was different about his gift and what was the same.
Compared with the establishment of art galleries and patronage of art in Europe or America where it was basically led by politicians – that wasn’t the case in New Zealand.
They basically did it because they were interested in improving the education of people in a colonial society. There was a lot of what we have come to call a cultural cringe, you know, a sense of New Zealand was a long way from civilised centres and needed a few examples of European civilisation.
What was interesting for Andrew Suter and for Henry Sarjeant was the influence of their wives was very, very important.
In Sarjeant’s case he was just as much interested in art as he was in science but his wife was an artist.
She was 40 years his younger, he got married to her when he was 63 and she was 23. She was a local painter so it was supporting the art gallery… out of his respect to her.
He was a farmer, then he moved into Whanganui and he started to get active in local community organisations and he obviously had a real commitment to trying to uplift the good citizens of Whanganui, particularly in terms of education.
They were basically focussed on European art so the collection for the gallery for a long time didn’t really encourage local art whereas the Suter gallery for example, they always had a much stronger tradition of supporting New Zealand art.
In Whanganui, obviously, there was a bit of a legacy of cultural cringe and a legacy that art galleries were there to represent European civilisation.
I think he was determined to show Whanganui wasn’t just a hick provincial town – that it had a bit of a civilised side to it.
He supported the museum, he supported the astronomical society, he supported the philosophical society, he was interested in all those things which encouraged culture and learning in Whanganui and I think it’s important for a community like that to have a sense that they did have that side to their civic life.
Obviously, it the most beautiful, beautiful gallery and something Whanganui should be very proud of.
Photo: Michal Klajban