Robert Atkinson (1863 - 1896)
Robert Atkinson (1863-1896) was a painter and illustrator known for his charming paintings of life in Colonial New Zealand and Australia; in particular his scenes of children, Maori, and of life at the Australian Artists Camp near Balmoral. During his lifetime he gained favourable reviews and was described as an ‘artist of rising fame’ (Sydney Morning Herald , 8 December 1887) before his untimely death at the aged of 32.
Atkinson was born in Leeds, England in 1863. As a young man he studied in Antwerp under Belgian artist Charles Verlat (1824-1890). His health deteriorated (likely from tuberculosis) prompting his move to New Zealand.
In 1885 at the age of 21 Atkinson settled in Auckland, New Zealand, and quickly established himself within the local art scene. He befriended Albin Martin (1813-1888) and painted his portrait, (Portrait of Albin Martin, 1886, Collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki) and was one of the first artists to have a studio in Victoria Arcade where a roll call of significant New Zealand artists had studios. His fellow artists at Victoria Arcade included Louise James Steel (1842-1918), Frank Wright (1860-1923) and his brother Walter Wright (1866-1933), Charles Blomfield (1848-1926), E.W Payton (1859-1944), Kennet Watkins (1847-1933), Girolamo Nerli (1860-1926), and a teenage Charles Goldie (1870-1947) who took lessons there from Louise James Steel and is said to have also taken lessons from Robert Atkinson.
One of Atkinson’s earliest surviving paintings A Spanish Soldier of the 16th Century (1885, Collection of The Auckland City Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki) shows he arrived in New Zealand already possessing great technical skill. His characterful portraits and almost Baroque command of light and shadow would have appealed to the young Goldie.
Atkinson became a member of the Auckland Society of Arts, exhibiting 6 paintings in the Society’s 1887 Annual Exhibition. Once settled into Auckland life many of Atkinson’s paintings were of people at leisure and children playing in the Auckland landscape. However one known painting, Evicted (1887) of a solemn recently evicted woman sitting with a crying child at her lap shows Atkinson was also painting the harder truths of Colonial life. He is also known to have exhibited several portraits, including portraits of prominent Maori.
In 1888 he moved to Sydney, spending time at the Artist’s Camp at Edwards Beach near Balmoral with his friend Albert Henry Fullwood (1863-1930). Other artists at the Balmoral Camp include Julian Ashton (1851-1942), Frank P. Mahony (1862-1916), John Mather (1848-1916), and Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). In Sydney Atkinson painted watercolours and was hired as an illustrator for the Sydney Bulletin.
By 1891 he had returned to England where he exhibited two paintings with the Royal Academy. One of the paintings exhibited was Portrait of Te Uira Te Heuheu (1889, Collection of The Fletcher Trust) a watercolour portrait of the granddaughter of a Ngāti Tūwharetoa Chief, who Atkinson had also painted in Portrait of Te Heuheu Tukino IV, Called Horonuku, (1889, Collection of The Fletcher Trust).
Whilst in England Atkinson illustrated the children’s book A Southern Cross Fairy Tale with his friend Kate McCosh Clark. McCosh Clark was an artist and writer he had befriended in Auckland . A Southern Cross Fairy Tale told the story of a young boy and girl who have a magical Christmas adventure in the wilds of New Zealand.
Atkinson and McCosh Clark would collaborate together on one other book Maori Tales and Legends, which was published the year of Atkinsons death. As the first illustrated book to capture Maori legends for a British audience, his illustrations of characters like Maui, Rangi and Papa, and Hinemoa and Tutanekai would have been foundational in the British understanding of Maori.
In 1895 Robert Atkinson returned to New Zealand, he died within a year, in Dunedin aged 32.
During his life Atkinson exhibited regularly in Auckland, Melbourne, and Sydney. Though reviews and catalogues from this period remain, many of his artworks seem to have disappeared. In particular his oil paintings, and large works are extremely rare.
Atkinson’s artworks are held in collections at The Auckland Art Gallery and The Gallery of New South Wales, and in the collection of The Fletcher Trust.
The quality of his works, in particular the quality of his few known Maori portraits suggest that had Robert Atkinson lived longer he could have become one of early New Zealand’s great artists.
 The painting is now lost, but an etching by Robert Atkinson can be found in the catalogue for the Auckland Society of Arts 1887 Annual Exhibition.
 Kate McCosh Clark had a home and artist’s studio space in what is now the grounds of Remuera’s Kings Preparatory School. It is probable Atkinson may have used this studio.
Written by Arlette Barraclough
(Auckland Art Gallery) 1955, Early Identities, Exhibition Catalogue. New Zealand. Forward by Colin McCahon. pg. 5, 35, 47
(Auckland Art Gallery) 1956, New Zealand Painting, Exhibition Catalogue. New Zealand. pg. 13
(Auckland Society of Arts) 1887, Auckland Society of Arts Annual Exhibition, Exhibition Catalogue. New Zealand. pg. 11, 12, 15
Bell, Leonard. Colonial Constructs European Images of Maori 1840 – 1914, pb. Auckland University Press, 1992 (pg. 245)
Fraser, Ross. Victoria Arcade Some Auckland Painters of Fin de Siecel, Art New Zealand. Issue 20 (Winter 1981), pg. 48
Kerr, Joan, Robert Atkinson b.1863, Design and Art Australia Online Database, Written 1996, updated 2007, https://www.daao.org.au/bio/robert-atkinson/biography/
McCulloch, Allan, McCulloch, Susuan & McChulloch Childs, Emily. The New McCulloch’s The Encyclopedia of Australian Art. pb. AUS Art Editions, 2006 (pg. 224)
McCosh Clark, Kate, A Southern Cross Fairy Tale, pb. London, 1891
McCosh Clark, Kate, A Southern Cross Fairy Tale, pb. London, 1896
Robert Atkinson, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. Accessed Jan 2020
Robert Atkinson, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Accessed Jan 2020 https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/112/
Shaw, Peter, & Diamond, Jo, Portrait of Te Heuheu Tukino IV, Called Horonuku, The Fletcher Trust Collection. Accessed Jan 2020
Shaw, Peter, & Diamond, Jo, Portrait of Te Uira Te Heuheu, The Fletcher Trust Collection. Accessed Jan 2020
Una Platts, Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists a Guide and Handbook, pb. Avon Fine Prints Limited 1980 (pg. 27, 43, 44, 107, 158, 225)