Terra Forma: viewing Christchurch's changing landscape through painting

At the encouragement of one of our resident artists/art historians/cyber archaeologists, Annthalina, I took a visit to the newly-reopened Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery over the weekend.[1] Annthalina knows I love landscapes, both the painty-brushy kind, and the bushy-brushy kind, and sent me out to take special note of the Te Rua O Te Moko exhibition, which displays a work of art for each of the 18 Papatipu Rūnanga of Ngāi Tahu. Seeing these works, and other Canterbury landscapes within the museum inspired me to write this post, about how we’ve changed the lay of the land, particularly in terms of its vegetation.

As I said, I love landscapes, and when I’m working I’ll look out across the landscape and my eyes will glaze over as I try and imagine what the land looked like to the ghosts of Ōtautahi/Christchurch past. My eyes also occasionally glaze over when my colleagues begin a tirade about traffic, or the inaccuracy of costumes in period dramas, or ‘architecture crimes’, or frozen yoghurt, or any of the many other foibles of modern life. But I promise, most of the time, I’m thinking about landscapes. Anyway, and luckily, dead dudes put paint to canvas when they were alive, helpfully making my leaps of imagination that much easier.

As we all know, Christchurch was built on a swamp, and many recall how that swamp came bubbling forth vengefully from the earth once again in 2011, like the almost-defeated underdog protagonist in the third act of a sports film, yelling “Adrian! Adrian!”. But it can seem hard to get a grasp on that over 160 year old scene while concrete and steel loom over you. The 'Black Maps'  series of survey maps produced by chief surveyor Captain Joseph Thomas in the 1840s and 1850s are an invaluable source of information about the nature of the land and vegetation in Ōtautahi/Christchurch at that time.

Detail of Christchurch ‘Black maps’ of A) Cashmere; B) Linwood; and C) St Albans. “You get a swamp! And you get a swamp! And you get a swamp!” Image: Christchurch area: showing swamps & vegetation cover. Compiled from ‘Black Maps’ 1856. 1963. Christchurch City Libraries.

This beauty of a watercolour was painted by Charles Haubroe in 1855 of a kāinga on the banks of the Horotueka/Cam River in the Kaiapoi area. If you’ll allow me to wax lyrical about it, I might suggest that this work shows the duality and tension between the natural and cultural worlds. The calmness of the river belies the tension between the kāinga on the far bank, with its tidy clearing for some handsome whare (houses) and pātaka (storage platforms), and the dense swampy bush of the near bank, where the raupō and tī kōuka (cabbage trees) give a leafy middle finger to humanity and its green organics recycling bins, content in its soggy supremacy. If you won’t allow me to wax lyrical, there’s literally nothing you can do about it, because from the security of my front room in the past, you cannot possibly wrest my keyboard away from me. So there.

The first Māori settlers started the 700ish year ongoing campaign of terraforming Aotearoa/New Zealand. They brought with them part of what archaeologists often refer to as the ‘Polynesian suite’ of cultigens, including kūmara, taro, uwhi/yam, hue/gourd, tī pore (an imported species of cabbage tree) and aute/paper mulberry (Furey 2006: 10). Once here, further changes to the landscape were made by transplanting some native plants well outside their natural range, due to their value. One such is karaka, native to the far north of the North Island, and brought to the South Island due its value as a food source. The stands of karaka you see around the Port Hills and Banks Peninsula are likely the remnants, or very near the original transplantations of these trees by Māori in centuries past, as they don’t naturalise very well (Stowe 2003).[2]

Figure 3. I think that I shall never see, a thing as lovely as a karaka tree. But do not eat the seed inside, unless it is detoxified. No, for real, though. Don’t eat it. My poems don’t fool around. Image: John Frederick Miller. 1774. The Endeavour botanical illustrations. Natural History Museum.

The character of the Canterbury plains before Pākehā settlement is somewhat poetically captured in an account from 1844 of Dr David Munro's first view of them, having ascended the hills from Rapaki:

looking westward, we had a magnificent view – and immense plain, apparently a dead level, stretched away below our feet…backed by a far remote chain of grand snowy summits. The colour of the plain was a brownish yellow indicating it being covered with dried up grass, and several rivers, with tortuous folds, marked themselves upon its surface by the glitter of their waters. On this immense sea of plain, there appeared to be hardly any timber – one or two isolated groves of gloomy pines were all that we could see...

(Wigram 1916: 7).

The “isolated groves” are of course Riccarton Bush, which still stands today (though reduced in size), and a similar stand in Papanui. What Munro took as unseasonable “dried up grass” in April 1844, was likely just the natural colour of the endemic swamp grasses that covered the plains at the time. Within a few decades of Pākehā settlement, the Christchurch landscape was beginning to change significantly, as more and more species of plants were introduced, and the English countryside was writ small on the New Zealand landscape. Attempts were made (more or less successfully) to tame Christchurch’s waterways. The swamps were turned over for pasture, requiring digging up large amounts of dead swamp wood, and ploughing up the tenacious roots of the huruwhenua/ferns and tutu.

Figure 4. Digging up swamp wood in Christchurch, 1918. Sometimes there are going to be jokes in here, sometime there’s not. I’m not going to spoonfeed you. Image: Wilson, 1989: 12.

The process of terraforming involved both the clearance of native plants, and their replacement with introduced ones. John Barr Clark Hoyte’s view of Akaroa from the hills shows the first part of this process. Looking out over Akaroa harbour and Onawe peninsula, the view is almost that of tree feller paused in their work, the foreground of stumps the sign of their labour. The rolling slopes of dense yet-to-be-felled forest in the midground and distance though, would likely make most of today’s flannel-clad, hipster-bearded lumbersexuals quake in their boots.

Figure 5. It’s going down, I’m yelling timber. Image: John Barr Clarke Hoyte. 1835. Akaroa Harbour. Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery.

Figure 6. Deforestation of Banks Peninsula. Image: Boffa Miskell 2007: 27.

John Gibb’s view of Bottle Lake shows how introduced species gradually changed the look of Canterbury. What looks like poplar trees stand on the far bank, and cattle do whatever cattle do on the near bank (low? I hear they are known to low sometimes).  For some reason that escapes me, someone has introduced white swans to the area, despite the fact that they are aggressive jerks (sorry, I’ve been biased against swans since high school, when one beat me out for second place in a high jump competition). But the largely idyllic English-ish-ish character of the scene is interrupted by an almost imperceptible tuna/eel bursting forth from the water. To me, this little endemic eel gives a bit of kiwi character to an image which is otherwise dominated by introduced species. Delicious, manuka-smoked, kiwi character.

Figure 7. Na na na na na na na, fishing. Image: John Gibb. 1882. Bottle Lake. Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery.

Figure 8. Some of the plants for sale at Exeter Nurseries, Papanui Road, in 1875. A.K.A. all of the plants. Even in the 19th century, kiwis referred to things as ‘Choice!’. Image: Star 24/6/1875: 1.

Another of Gibb’s paintings shows Christchurch in all its 19th century pastoral glory. The land is divided up into nice rectangular paddocks, with cattle and sheep, stands of introduced trees, and a bunch of nice green grass. Today we tend to forget that the rolling monochrome green pastures of New Zealand are imported, and that ‘European grass’ was a major selling point in 19th century land transactions.

Figure 9. De-ne-ne, de-ne-ne-ne, de-ne-ne, de-ne-ne-ne. Image: John Gibb. 1886. From the Foot of the Hills. Te Puna O Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery.

Figure 10. There was originally a third paddock laid down in Irish grass, but there were some ‘troubles’ and that lot belongs to itself and is no longer for sale. Image: Star 19/8/1869: 3.

These paintings not only look nice, but they provide an invaluable insight into the changing patterns and nature of vegetation in the past in Christchurch. If anybody wants to go back in time, and paint more like them, it would make my job heaps easier. Chur.

Go check out the Christchurch Art Gallery for most of the above landscapes. The Te Rua O Te Moko exhibit only runs until 3 April 2016, but a lot of the other paintings are permanent exhibits.

Tristan Wadsworth


Boffa Miskell. 2007. Banks Peninsula Landscape Study: Final Report. Prepared for Christchurch City Council by Boffa Miskell Ltd.

Furey, L. 2006: Maori gardening: an archaeological perspective. Department of Conservation, Wellington.

Press [online]. Available at <>

Stowe, C. J., 2003. The Ecology and Ethnobotany of Karaka (Corynocarpus laevigatus). Unpublished M.Sc. thesis, University of Otago.

Wigram, H. F., 1916. The story of Christchurch New Zealand. Lyttelton Times Co. Ltd, Christchurch.

Wilson, J., 1989. Swamp to City – a short history of the Christchurch Drainage Board 1875-1989. Te Waihora Press, Christchurch.


[1] Note: this is not a sponsored post, but if the Christchurch Art Gallery would like to send me some priceless landscape paintings out of the goodness of their hearts, I wouldn’t say no.

[2] If you know of any stands of karaka, let me know, as it’s possible there are some that haven’t yet been recorded by archaeologists.