The inside of a dairy in Lyttleton. On the window is written 'London Street Dairy' with a drawing of an ice-cream. On the wall inside is a framed portrait of a young man.

Bringing Lyttelton’s Past to Life

13 Feb 2017
Historic figures have been brought to life in a new exhibition of 23 compelling portraits, accompanied by archival sound recordings from the RNZ collection at Ngā Taonga.

By Sarah Johnston

Artist Julia Holden used current Lyttelton residents as models for the portraits – first creating the costumes, hats, wigs and (on occasion) clay, for the hair, before painting directly over everything with house paint, then photographing the results. Listen to Julia talking to RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan about the project.

Hero image: 'The British Naval Officer' portrait is on display in London Street Dairy in Lyttelton - Singer Marlon Williams posed as the doomed Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott.

A ceramic figure of a nurse wearing a hat and apron.

'The Nurse' is on display at Lyttelton Health Centre - Nona Hildyard is modelled on Laura MacKay.

The finished photo portraits are then hung in various locations around Lyttelton, which relate to either the subject or the sitter. The port town’s museum was destroyed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes and the project, which is called Lyttelton Redux, aims to help the museum maintain visibility in the community while it operates without a physical building or exhibition space.

A map and audio walking tour of all the portrait locations are available until the end of March 2017 via a free app.

By downloading the app you can listen to the sound recordings and view each of the portraits, making the exhibition accessible to everyone, even if you can’t make it to Lyttelton.

As well as archival audio relating to the historical figure (courtesy of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision) all of the modern-day sitters also contributed recordings, including members of Lyttelton’s well-known music community.

A ceramic figure of a man with a red beard and red hair wearing a vest and a kerchief

'The Sheep Stealer' is on display at Lyttelton Police Station - a portrait of the Scottish immigrant James Mackenzie.

Excerpt from 'The Romance of Lyttelton' (1953)

Adam McGrath, singer with folk band “The Eastern,” was the model for “The Sheep Stealer”– a portrait of the Scottish immigrant James Mackenzie, who infamously stole 1,000 sheep in 1855 and hid them in what is now known as the Mackenzie Country. Mackenzie was imprisoned in Lyttelton after his arrest and his portrait appropriately hangs in the town police station. Adam McGrath recorded a folk ballad about Mackenzie and his dog for the app. This portrait hangs alongside “The Sheriff of Lyttelton: Henry J. Tancred (Sgt Dave Knowles)” at the Lyttelton Police Station.

Singer Marlon Williams posed as “The British Naval Officer,” doomed Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, whose expeditions set off for the South Pole from Lyttelton in the early 1900s. Marlon recorded the 19th century folk ballad, “The Wayfaring Stranger” to accompany his portrait, which hangs in the London Street Dairy –where he worked for several years as a student, before finding international singing success.

Other portraits include Wheke, tipuna of Ngāti Wheke (the hapū of Kāi Tahu based at Rāpaki), World War I nurse Nona Hildyard, and New Zealand’s first female MP Elizabeth McCombs – who is portrayed by her great-grand-daughter Carolyn McCombs.

A ceramic figure of member of parliament, Carolyn McCombs wearing a black and white dress and a cross round her neck.

'The Member of Parliament' is on display at the Lyttelton Community Library - New Zealand’s first female MP, Elizabeth McCombs, is modelled on her great-grand-daughter Carolyn McCombs.

'Today in New Zealand History' focuses on the election of New Zealand's first female Member of Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs on September 13, 1933.

Julia Holden will be doing a live “performance painting” using the same techniques, as a special event connected with the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, Leo Bensemann & Friends: Portraiture and The Group. This will be at 1pm, Saturday 11 March at the National Portrait Gallery in Wellington.

Audio clips from Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision sound collection, all rights reserved. To enquire about re-use of these items please contact us.