Artist, farmer, nurse, mother and community leader… Edith Stanway Halcombe was a woman who took pioneer life in her stride.
One of the first true New Zealand artists, Edith Swainson was born on 27 April 1844 in the Hutt Valley, Wellington. She was the seventh child of William Swainson, the naturalist and artist, and the second child of his second wife Anne Grasby.
Edith's childhood was spent in the Hutt Valley and on her father's estate in Rangitikei. Like many women artists of the time, Edith was taught to sketch and paint by her father. In those days women who didn't have an artist relative to teach them had no possibility of access to training in the world of art.
At first Edith learnt by copying her father's drawings - the talented young woman became so adept at this that it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two artists work.
She developed a keen interest in recording her surroundings - no doubt an influence of her father - up until this point, most female artists had concerned themselves with painting their restricted lives or their personal activities. Edith's work was to open a window into the world of pioneer settlers that had rarely been seen before.
An Odd Pair
Edith married Arthur William Follett Halcombe at St James Church in the Hutt on 3 December 1863, the couple settled at Westoe, Rangitiki. They were to have five sons and three daughters.
Arthur had a varied and interesting career which often took him away from home. He was at various times a farmer, inspector of schools, a member of the Wellington Provincial Council, editor and immigration agent.
Their marriage was one of independence. One family member commented: "I never saw such an odd pair as Arthur and Edith in all my life - no sooner does one return home than the other goes away."
Despite having a husband and eight children Edith was able to continue her work as an artist throughout her life.
The Manchester Block
As an immigration agent Arthur was involved in large-scale settlement schemes in the 1870s, involved with establishing settlements in the Manuwatu and Hawke's Bay including Eketahuna, Dannevirke and Norsewood.
In 1874 the Halcombe family had moved to Feilding where Arthur was in charge of settling the Manchester Block, a bush and scrub clad area of 40,000 hectares between the Rangitiki and Manawatu Rivers that had been selected by Lieutenant Colonel W.H.A Feilding.
Edith played a vital part in the pioneering days in Feilding, jumping into the new life with enthusiasm and vigour. With the nearest hospital 80 kilometres away in Wanganui, and over extremely rough and rugged tracks, sickness and accidents posed a serious problem for the young community. Edith nursed those in need, as well as helping many newly-arrived women overcome their homesickness and the difficulties of a new life in a strange land.
The Halcombe's home, The Pines, became a centre of activity as the family hosted social and sporting events. Edith helped set up community institutions, and, along with Arthur, was active in the establishment of the St. John's Anglican Church in the little town.
In 1876 the town of Halcombe was established, along with Stanway, (after Edith).
Edith's sketches and paintings of the time are a pictorial record of the first smatterings of European life in the Manchester Block - a record of the transformation of the area from bush to paddocks and towns.
To promote the area Arthur published The Feilding settlement, Manchester block, Manawatu, New Zealand, illustrated with lithographs by Edith. The drawings show a more realistic New Zealand than the romantic images often portrayed by European artists of the time.
While perhaps unintentionally revealing some of the isolation and struggle of pioneer life, Edith's work was still an advertising tool, writes Anne Kirker in New Zealand Women Artists "In retrospect it is clear the works of Edith Halcombe.. (and other artists) were used as propaganda, reaching the public as illustrations to text which stressed the beneficial aspects of settlement…. One has the feeling that these women drew and painted less for themselves than for the expectations of a colonisation programme and an audience far removed from New Zealand."
It's thanks to both Arthur and Edith's efforts that Feilding and the Manchester Block were such a great success.
A cow named Jenny
In the early 1870s Edith was given a Jersey cow named Jenny. The small caramel coloured cow was destined to go down in history as the bovine that kick started New Zealand's Jersey dairy industry.
Over the following years Edith built up a small herd of 20 Jersey cows - the beginning of what was to become New Zealand's top milking breed.
In 1876, Edith sold Jenny to William Hulke, who put a halter on the cow and lead her an epoch-making 250 kilometres to his home at Bell Block in Taranaki. Jenny was the first Jersey to enter the district and quickly became known as the ‘champion dairy cow of Taranaki’.
When Edith sold her herd in 1879 it was the first step in the dissemination of the breed in New Zealand. She had built up a good reputation, and in 1881 was asked to buy Jersey breeding stock on a trip to Europe. The two animals she bought contributed to the bloodlines of herds throughout the country.
On the move
Throughout their married life the Halcombes shifted home many times. In 1881 it appears Edith was living in Auckland, joining the Auckland Society of Arts, painting scenes of the burgeoning town and entering in exhibitions.
By 1885 she was living near Putaruru at Lichfield where Arthur was working for a land company. Unfortunately the settlement scheme failed - this, and other unsuccessful business dealings put the Halcombes in financial difficulties for the rest of their lives.
In 1886 the Halcombes retired south to Taranaki - settling on a farm at Urenui which they called Ferngrove.
Edith built up a Jersey herd, selling butter and milk. She continued with her painting, moving into working with oils - believed to be among the first work in this medium by a New Zealand born artist. Edith remained a member of the Auckland Society of Arts, and won several awards for her Taranaki artworks depicting local scenes and plant life.
A sober experience
In 1890 the artist was asked to join a team of helpers accompanying septuagenarian Sir William Fox on his trip up Mount Taranaki.
The former prime minister was convinced his life as a teetotaller made him equally fit as a man of 45. The journey, which was a dismal failure, was faithfully recorded by Edith - both on canvas and in her diary.
By the end of the nineteenth century pioneer settlers had felled much of the native bush in Taranaki and Manawatu, clearing land for pasture. Unfortunately this also destroyed habitats for native bird and wildlife - whose numbers rapidly declined.
Seeing the problem, and feeling partially responsible for the cause, Edith set about capturing birds to re-home in other parts of the country.
Arthur fell ill around this time, and Edith spent many years nursing him until his death in 1900. Three years later her body was discovered washed up on the beach near mouth of the Waitōtara River. Her death is described as an accidental drowning - but how she got in the water no-one knows.
The Jersey Review, December 1970, NZ Jersey Cattle Breeders Ass. Palmerston North.
Halcombe School Diamond Jubilee Celebration Booklet - 1937
The Taranaki Herald
Cabbage Trees, oil painting by Edith Halcombe. Image: 034-004F Puke Ariki