We find it in the 19th-century immigration section, hanging amid interactive displays and relics of ships’ cargo. We arrive at its shores perhaps the way the crew of Caribou once arrived in New Zealand: expectantly, disoriented, with a slight sense of trepidation.
Almost 15 years since leaving Wellington, I return to Te Papa, New Zealand’s foremost museum, searching for a painting by my great-great-great grandfather, a prominent (at least in Australasian circles) maritime artist and ship’s captain.
Caribou has been hanging in the museum since Te Papa’s opening in 1998, but went unnoticed on my first visit, just weeks after the museum’s opening. Back then, I knew little of the artist. Had my younger self spied the painting, it would have been through very different eyes.
Just to look at the water is to sense the rolling sea-sickness and unsteady legs, the feeling that you’ve left your insides somewhere behind you
There it is, larger than we had imagined: a bold sea in grey-green oils with the ship Caribou in full sail against bruised purple clouds. Small figures on deck lean into the wind at the boat’s prow, attempting balance in the face of some extremely choppy waves. Just to look at the water is to sense the rolling sea-sickness and unsteady legs, the feeling that you’ve left your insides somewhere behind you.
We note the intricate depiction of the rigging, the rioting waters, the imperial flags flying from the mast, the figures on deck. A woman being courted? Has Tom painted himself, as family lore tells us is often the case, into the picture? Is he perhaps up on the mast, looking to the horizon? Or pulling at the wheel, as befits his status as captain? Is he assisting the white-gloved woman on deck in the wind?
We pose many unanswerable questions as we stand there. Who was this painter and mariner we know only through family stories and the art he has left behind? It is impossible to know the mindset of the artist, invisible from view for always.
There’s both a distance and an affinity upon viewing the painting – an amalgam of appreciation and strangeness. The first relatives ever to visit the painting, we can’t help but feel we’ve picked Caribou out of obscurity.