“I dreamed that there was an organ placed in my master’s woolshed; the wool-shed faded away, and the organ seemed to grow and grow amid a blaze of brilliant light, till it became like a golden city upon the side of a mountain, with rows upon rows of pipes set in cliffs and precipices, one above the other, and in mysterious caverns, like that of Fingal, within whose depths I could see the burnished pillars gleaming. In the front there was a flight of lofty terraces, at the top of which I could see a man with his head buried forward towards a keyboard, and his body swaying from side to side amid the storm of huge arpeggioed harmonies that came crashing overhead and round. Then there was one who touched me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Do you not see? It is Handel’; but I had hardly apprehended, and was trying to scale the terraces, and get near him, when I awoke, dazzled with the vividness and distinctness of the dream."
Butler described a musical landscape that sang out to him, both beautiful and discordant. The music of George Frideric Handel was a source of great inspiration to him and he managed to cart a piano up to Mesopotamia that took up half his hut. Musical content for our project has been composed and created by Demarnia Lloyd.
"There's this side of the town that kind of.... resents that there's people having fun, the very conservative side of town, "Ignore this, this is not even happening". Sort of like, "those people don't exist"... because if you go down there, you might see somebody dressed colourfully, having fun, it might be awkward.... It's almost like the [Victorian] precinct, within Oamaru, is a bit like Erewhon over the hill, being ignored, or like them ignoring everyone else... So you could say actually, we might be in the real world, and the actual people in the town are more Erewhonian than we are"
In his novel, Butler's protagonist upon reaching Erewhon, strolls into the Art School of the University: "Here I found that the course of study was divided into two branches - the practical and the commercial - no student being permitted to continue his studies in the actual practice of the art he had taken up unless he made equal progress in its commercial history". It is a satirical and pointed attack on the educational institutions of Butler's time during the advent of the Industrial age, where rather than functioning as the "critic and conscience" of society they began demanding students train to create art/research for the marketplace. Even Butler may not have been able to conceive just how horrifically prescient this prophesy would become in our universities of today where students are unadulterated "customers" and which operate as businesses with former deputy governors of the Reserve Bank at their helm.
The brutal conformity that follows a society which diverts the creative desire to be curious and to dream of new possibilities into the interests of the banking system, is one that artists and communities know well. A Professor at the Colleges of Unreason tells Butler's protagonist "If a man gets to know more than his neighbours he should keep his knowledge to himself till he has sounded them, and seen whether they agree, or are likely to agree with him".
Oamaru's Victorian and Steampunk communities offer a glimpse of difference within the New Zealand provincial tapestry of conformity and consumerism. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and William Morris' idea of beauty and function, members spend their time making beautiful and functional things that last rather than buying cheap ugly plastic things that don't. Rather than a rejection of modern technology it is more a rejection of the easy consumerism of late-capitalism.
Within the Steampunk community there is a fetishism for old machinery and skilled craftsmanship (hence the name), where humanity and beauty aren't lost in the process of an object's creation. Within the Victorian community Donna Demente has made and exhibited her paintings and creations at the Grainstore Gallery for 20 years and now also runs it as a music venue with her partner Oliver who supplements this work at the local freezing works. She also organises street festivals and events for the community. We had the pleasure of watching old friend Karin Reid perform in the Gallery with Alex Wolken. Local Bookbinder and owner of Craftwork Brewery Michael and his partner Lee-Ann have made a business making Belgian beer.
All the people we interviewed emphasised the importance of finding a community of "my people" that encouraged participation and the desire to be nonjudgmental and accepting of difference. While the term "punk" appears to divide the community, Simone Montgomery explains that "there are as many philosophies of Steampunk as there are people who participate in Steampunk". For Ms Purple, Steampunk is a "pre-electrikery and plastic" world where people "participate in a creative exchange with each other". For Roscoe Dangerfield, La Falconess and Agent Darling (who also works in the freezing works), Steampunk is an opportunity to redefine the people they are in their everyday lives and has been quite clearly a genuinely liberating and life-altering experience.
Many members dress in Victorian or Steampunk attire in their everyday lives. For them they are not "costumes" but "clothing". This kind of insistence on the legitimacy of their "difference" and their playing it out in their everyday lives creates a reversal - the clothing or "costumes" and behaviours of the "average" or "normal" kiwi start to look strangely contrived and a deliberate aesthetic choice. This reversal is what Butler aimed for in Erewhon.
Living in this way is a precarious life and one that will be confronted by the needs of the marketplace. While money doesn't determine social relations within the community most of them have conventional day jobs outside of it. Perhaps what keeps these communities in Oamaru more visible than they might be elsewhere is their reflection in the grand beauty of the buildings that they inhabit within the historic precinct - having a home is important, a place to create an identity, and this is something we have encountered in our other project interviews.
Aside from the community aspect, the attraction for one gentleman we interviewed was the "Englishness" of Oamaru with its old buildings, isolation and history of sheep export. This desire has inflections of nationalism and what back in England might have been the fire behind Brexit - a rejection of modernity for the nostalgic ideals of a simpler "more English" Victorian era, and this was how it was successfully sold to the British public. But what we also know is that this is clothing for a political movement that would put capitalism on steroids and destroy the very notion of community in favour of private enterprise. Not to mention the problem this fantasy has with regard to the implied superiority of white people, and the denial of current global concerns, including climate change, starvation and the millions of people made refugees from countries where the wars that make it impossible for them to live there are in large part the end result of their colonisation by white people.
But the community seems aware of these contradictions. Oliver acknowledged that there are aspects of the Victorian era that must be rejected (extreme poverty for example) but that it is possible to take some elements from it to refashion our own present way of life. As in Butler's novel, by offering a criticism of the present by rejecting some of it for values of the past, what these communities seem to insist on is the possibility of a more joyful present and future. The people we interviewed were characterised by their unabashed desire to live a meaningful and creative life and to nurture a community around these shared values. By chance we met and interviewed renowned broadcaster and local councillor Jim Hopkins during the community's post-Covid lockdown festival. He spoke of Butler's Erewhon as looking forward to something rather than back, as something visionary, forecasting and thinking ahead rather than fleeing in terror. Butler came to New Zealand to escape a proscribed way of life, but doing so was also an act of dreaming of and creating the possibility for a different future. The desire for this was present in all the people we met in these communities. By embracing such worlds of innovation and creativity perhaps we might find some of the solutions we need to address the looming crises in our future.
Club Member (and Past President and General Manager) Mr John Wilson met with us to discuss the history and present role of The Christchurch Club, of which Samuel Butler was a prominent early member. Mr Wilson related the infamous story recorded in Shagroons Palace - a record of the Club's History - of Butler's race to Christchurch from Mesopotamia to register his land claim. The club was founded by rural landholders in 1856, and in it Butler mingled with people including Julius Haast, William Rolleston, William Moorhouse and James FitzGerald.
The walls of the club are adorned with these men who are more well known to us now as street names and mountains. This was the place of the newly landed gentry. Within a mere 20 years of settlement every inch of Canterbury farmland had been claimed by settlers. These new English colonists had land and therefore, wealth, power and influence. The networks they consolidated at the club, the alliances and allegiances they formed - still hold sway today. The club was especially formed for land owners and farmers and was distinct from the Canterbury Club formed later in 1872 and described as a breakaway club for urban professionals. In other reaches of the city, the many Workingmen's Clubs played equivalent roles in the formation of Christchurch's class based identity, just without the wealth, power or exclusivity of The Christchurch Club. Mr Wilson emphasised the fact that women are now allowed as members and the election of their first female president has recently taken place. The rules around wearing a tie have also now relaxed. One expects the business deals and networking continue.
It's a beautiful building, with ornate wooden interiors, and has an intimate and cosy feel. The historic part of the building was designed by Benjamin Mountfort. Mr Wilson says it feels like a home to him. How did Butler fit in here? Educated at St Johns College in Cambridge he was well educated and from a devout family who travelled to Italy on Winter holidays. The success of his novel Erewhon which he wrote back in England, 8 years after his time in New Zealand, catapulted him to literary fame and as a result he is The Christchurch Club's most famous member. A plaque near the entrance on Worcester Boulevard attests to his status with a wry quote from "The Way of All Flesh". But when he was actually a member, he would have been a landowner and sheep farmer, tethering his horse outside the club like everybody else. Was he alone in his desire for an artistic life in addition to his working one? Was Christchurch in the South Island finally the place he could rid himself of his family expectations for a life in the clergy saddled with the "Old Testament" puritanical teachings of his upbringing? What conversations did he have at the bar, now an immaculate and smooth marble countertop with views out to the tennis courts?
“I am now going to put up a V hut on the country that I took up on the Rangitata, meaning to hibernate there in order to see what the place is like” - Samuel Butler
In 1860 almost all the land in Canterbury was completely bought up by new settlers. After months of searching Butler laid a claim on what he called Mesopotamia at the headwaters of the Rangitata. Here he fantasised about the founding of a new utopian civilisation in the middle of nowhere. Erewhon (Nowhere spelled backwards.....almost) was born here. But like many fantasies of utopia there was a dark reality, and eventually Butler like his protagonist desired to escape - "My plan was this - that Arowhena and I should escape in a balloon together".
Was Butler as "hard-headed" as the few men he worked alongside in these lonely reaches, far away even from the closest settlement of Peel Forest where he spent many a night playing the piano at the Tripp homestead? Were there aspects to the "hard men" of early European settler Canterbury that unsettle our myths about them and our requirements of these men today? Butler writes that "men here are much fonder of cats than they are at home". Mrs Tripp however found his “peculiar nature and wild theories upsetting” and “did not like it when Butler tried to convert the maid to his ideas”. These ideas probably included the revolutionary new theories of evolution espoused by Darwin and Butler's reasons for fleeing to the other side of the earth to escape his father's plans for him to become a Clergyman.
“I am forgetting myself into admiring a mountain which is of no use for sheep. This is wrong” - Samuel Butler
Malcolm Prouting whose family has owned the station for three generations flew us up Forest Ck to the site of Butler's first hut and over the remarkable rock formations that surely inspired his protagonist's dream of an organ which "seemed to grow and grow amid a blaze of brilliant light, till it became like a golden city upon the side of a mountain, with rows upon rows of pipes set in cliffs and precipices, one above the other, and in mysterious caverns, like that of Fingal, within whose depths I could see the burnished pillars gleaming. In the front there was a flight of lofty terraces, at the top of which I could see a man with his head buried forward towards a keyboard, and his body swaying from side to side amid the storm of huge arpeggioed harmonies that came crashing overhead and round".
Afterwards we talked to Donald Aubrey long time resident and former Manager of Ben Mcleod Station whose religious views are mirrored in utopian Christian vision of Butler's protagonist upon his discovery of Erewhon as an "expanse as was revealed to Moses when he stood upon the summit of Mount Sinai”. Mesopotamia is a spiritual birthplace for Aubrey. Sheep farming has changed a lot since Butler's time he told us and while some may rightly "eulogise" him as an artist "he was no farmer" in the eyes of those who farm there now. Aubrey explained that this is because back then it was in the farmer's economic interests to "rape and pillage" whereas now farmers look after the soil with the intention to make it profitable for future generations.
"Lit a fire, and was grateful for its warmth and company" - Samuel Butler
Paul Maunder film-maker and director was our native guide during our time in Blackball. In 1908 Pat Hickey was fired by his Manager when he refused to finish his pie after a lunch break of only 15 mins. Lucky for him and his 6 supporters who were also fired, the rest of the miners went on strike in support. After three months of collective resistance from the miners and their families the company gave in. This kind of radical resistance can still be seen in Blackball, although judging by the signs on people's fences, it swings to both the right and left.
Paul founded the Blackball Museum, took us through Blackwater to the historic Waiuta mining town, and introduced us to the members of his Drama Group in Greymouth and Runanga, where we had engaging discussions about the kinds of communities that are possible on the Coast.
We also visited Roger Ewer in Barrytown who told us tales of the founding of the Fox River Commune and his own experiences living on the Coast and running a music venue in the Settlers Hall.
#Blackball #Waiuta #Blackwater #Greymouth #Rununga #Barrytown #erewhonproject
Castle Hill Station (Kura Tawhiti) which translates in Te Reo Māori to ‘the treasure from a distant land’ is a site of significant historical and cultural importance to Ngāi Tahu. In the novel the guide abandons Butler during the journey, just after they encounter the ‘circle of gigantic forms, many times higher than myself….a sort of Stonehenge’. One of Butler’s inspirations for this scene may have been Castle Hill.
"It's kind of a lonely place, but if you like that kind of feeling, it's a beautiful place to live"
Last week week we went to Te Mata Hapuku (Birdlings Flat) to visit the home of our friend and collaborator Aaron Hapuku. We asked him why he and his family chose to live here and what this isolated place means to him. #erewhonproject
When Samuel Butler arrived at the wharf in Lyttelton, he went straight to the table d’hôte at the Mitre for dinner - “so foreign and yet so English”. During his four years here he barely mentions Maori other than something to be “passed over unnoticed”, however in his novel, it is a Maori guide who accompanies his protagonist on his journey ‘over the range’ to Erewhon. Last week we met with Hohepa Bowen, a Lyttelton based artist who discussed his pounamu carvings and his perspective on Erewhon with us. #erewhonproject
“How many men at this hour are living in a state of bondage to the machines? How many spend their whole lives, from the cradle to the grave, in tending them by night and day?” – Samuel Butler.
Sometimes you go to the Gallery to see one thing, and you end up seeing other things in new ways… Louise Henderson’s ‘Addington Workshops’ (1930); Shane Cotton’s ‘The Haymaker Series I-V’ (2012); Simon Palenski, Tjalling de Vries and Peter Vangioni’s ‘Pathways of the Flats’ (after Samuel Butler’s A First Year in Canterbury Settlement) (2019) @kowhaipress #erewhonproject @christchurchartgallery
In our nearly 2 years working at Waldheim, Seven Oaks we’ve gotten to know the Waltham community better, working alongside them on recent events. Waltham is full of passionate people who care about community and work hard to nurture community spaces like Seven Oaks which we’re privileged to be able to share with them. We interviewed some neighbours about what their own versions of ‘Erewhon’ might look like. #erewhonproject #waldheim#sevenoaks 🌲🌲🌲🌲🌲🌲🌲 #homeinthewoods
“Sheep will be the one idea in your mind; and as for poetry, nothing will be further from your thoughts.... Were you to shepherd too long your wits would certainly go wool-gathering, even if you were not tempted to bleat”
Butler most likely wrote this poetic reflection in his hut by the light of this tiny candle stick. His sheep brand also took the motif of a candlestick. One allowed him to write, read and play music by the fire in the evenings, the other to make money during the day. This tension exists as much in Butler’s work as it does for artists now. Among the artefacts kept in Canterbury Museum, is a portrait by Butler of Thomas Cass. Thanks to Curator Julia Bradshaw for showing us the artefacts. #artistandfarmer #erewhonproject 🐑 🏔
"Sheep cannot be too closely watched or too much left to themselves. You must remember they are your masters and not you theirs; you exist for them, not they for you" - Samuel Butler, A First Year in Canterbury Settlement
Sheep farming in New Zealand was Samuel Butler's ticket to escape a career in the clergy that his father had planned for him in England. Last week Neville and Sue Sinclair invited us into their home in Scargill, North Canterbury where they have lived for 42 years, built their home, raised their family, created and collected art, and farmed their East Friesian rare breed sheep. Sue who grew up on a more traditional sheep farm, wanted to explore a different way of raising her sheep, which doesn't value them simply as numbers. They live almost entirely self sufficiently. While the fruits of their hard labour are easy to see, they acknowledge the huge amount of work and commitment involved in creating the lifestyle they believe in.
Like theatre - experiencing paintings in the real world can bring them to life in a way that viewing them online can't. Butler's 1873 oil painting 'Self Portrait' is very alive. Thank you Christchurch Art Gallery for inviting us in to view it.
'We always tailor our Education Programme offerings around the themes we are exploring in our artistic projects. With the students on our July Kids Holiday Programme we introduced the idea of an Upside-World - something that was imagined by Butler in his creation of Erewhon, and explored later by Dada and Surrealist artists following the First World War. Kids are resilient and experience seismic events in their own way. We encouraged our students to create their own Upside-down Worlds and to imagine the kind of world they might want to create for themselves.
A meeting with poet Jasmine Gallagher who grew up near Butler’s sheep station and is researching his landscape paintings. 🐑 🖼 Jasmine's poem "A Death On-Board the Voyage from Gravesend to the Antipodes" (2019) was inspired by Butler's account of his voyage to New Zealand on a ship in 1859-60. https://minarets.info/annexe-jasmine-gallagher/
"Exploring is delightful to look forward to and back upon, but it is not comfortable at the time, unless it be of such an easy nature as not to deserve the name". The last few months have seen Free Theatre and its collaborators embark upon a research journey into Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon, inspired by the 4 years he spent in the foothills of the Southern Alps 🏔 at Mesopotamia Station climbing mountains, building cob huts, playing Handel 🎹 in the depths of Winter, ✍️ journals and shearing 🐑, and his forays into the Canterbury 🎭 society and by the 🔥 in the back rooms of Victorian era Christchurch. We are excited to share our own journey with you on our search for an ‘Erewhon’ of today, to uncover the back stories and explore the hidden perspectives and responses to this cultural taonga. Thanks to Creative New Zealand Arts Continuity Funding which has made this research possible.
Everyone in this island country is a traveller or a descendant of one. Before humans first discovered Aotearoa the mountains of the Southern Alps existed and have changed little in the last few thousand years. The plains around them and the spaces suitable for grazing livestock have been shaped recently by human activity, but when Butler travelled into the mountains they would have looked much as they do today. It's easy to see how they would inspire thoughts of mythical and sacred worlds.