Still Life at Pompallier Mission

An exciting creative initiative will enable one of the Bay of Islands’ iconic heritage places to be viewed through a fresh lens.

A still life containing a ceramic vase and two ceramic pots.
A still life of printing and bookbinding objects at Pompallier Mission. Photo: Peter Atkinsonexpand/collapse

Artist Peter Atkinson has begun a new collaboration project at Pompallier Mission and Printery, and its garden – a Tohu Whenua and site cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga in Kororāreka Russell.

The project builds on a programme and exhibition that took place six years ago in which Peter applied his unique vison as a still life artist to the Pompallier Mission printery, and the recreated objects associated with printing and bookbinding work that took place here in the 1840s under the direction of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier.

“I was moved when viewing the first series of work Peter did here a few years ago as it reflects and expresses, evokes and manifests very aptly the intangible layers of history here and the beauty of the place. He is breathing a new meaning into ‘still life’ painting,” says Pompallier Mission Property Lead Delphine Moise-Elise.

“I am proud that Peter is the focus of our 2022 collaboration project.”

Peter’s first exhibition was called Teatro – drawing on the Greek word théatron, meaning a place for viewing. The exhibition acknowledged the use of the bookbinding and printing objects as forms of modified theatre props enabling Pompallier Mission tour guides to look back through time and share their skilfully woven stories with visitors.

This time, his vision will be different.

“We’re excited that Peter’s focus will now change from the whare and move into the garden, mixing the objects with the living,” says Delphine.

For Peter, the Mission garden represents a new frontier of creative expression.

“While the ‘inanimate’ objects I paint are chosen for their ability to stand for daily routines lived amongst the ebb and flow of history by past generations, the life of foliage, flower and fruit evokes the steady cycle of seasons in the natural world in which these stories were lived,” says Peter.

“This new project will be a body of still life paintings that seek to bring these two themes together.”

As we enter March, late summer fruit sits at the feet of a Marian figure from the museum collection, a pair of ripe quinces nestle in the shadow of the bindery. All the while changing light from across the Bay filters through the panelled windows, as it has for 180 years, to illumine these parings and fall across the whitewashed rammed earth walls. 

Peter notes that tours of Pompallier Mission begin in the garden where the heritage varieties of apple and pear, first planted in the area by early European settlers and missionaries, tell the stories of mingling cultures and traditions.

“European medicinal herbs are planted at the foot of the pā where rongoā rākau grow now amongst the tangle of imported weeds, and English oaks share the canopy with rākau Māori,” he says.  

“Those who carried these objects from Europe to Kororāreka – who dreamed and prayed, laboured, fought and struggled alongside Tangata Whenua to build the future as they dug the tanning pits and planted trees, inked the printing press and tended the gardens – have gone. Yet the mingled traces of their many stories remain in this ‘haunted’ corner and, we hope, in the work that emerges from this collaboration.”  

Peter’s stunning artwork from the first exhibition is on sale at Pompalier’s heritage shop; further work will be the subject of an exhibition and possibly a book.

"I am humbled by the warmth with which Delphine Moise-Elise and her team at the Mission have welcomed me, enriching my understanding of the complex histories that meet on this shore, sharing and further fuelling my enthusiasm for this project as I return from month to month,” he says.

- John O'Hare