Today Frank Barnes is considered one of New Zealand’s most prolific maritime artists, although little is known about his somewhat solitary life. Barnes was an oil painter who specialised in ship portraits. He lived for the majority of his life in the Wairarapa.
Frank Barnes first worked as a sailor and then as an itinerant shepherd, living in a musterer’s hut ‘Barney’s Whare’ on the Riddiford family’s isolated station at Orongaronga, near Turakirae Head, Palliser Bay Wairarapa, from 1895 until his death in Upper Hutt in 1941. The latter part of his life was spent in a hermit-like existence training dogs for the station and painting portraits of ships in the Cook Strait which sailed through the harbour entrance, which he could observe from the window of his little hut. A binge drinker, admirers would often approach Barnes in the Hutt and Wellington pubs he frequented and would commission paintings upon the promise of payment for more drink.
Graeme Smith, who inherited a Barnes painting of the Union Steam Ship Company vessel Takapuna from his grandfather who engineered the ship, remembers his grandfather saying “Frank is always a drunk but he paints good ships.” Barnes painted from memory with considerable accuracy, utilising his association with ships before becoming a shepherd as his source of reference. Thus his painting career spanned about 40 years, his earliest works dating from 1899 and the most recent recorded as from 1940.
Barnes was a highly competent maritime painter in the naive style. He is significant in the history of New Zealand maritime art because of the length of his career that spanned the transition from sail to steam power. His subjects included both coastal and overseas vessels that ranged in size from tugs to warships to passenger liners.
His work is well represented at maritime museums around New Zealand as well as at public institutions overseas. The Edmiston Gallery at Auckland’s National Maritime Museum held a commemorative exhibition for Barnes in 2006, A Shepherd and His Ships, which featured sixty works by the artist.