Hamish Coney: Context is everything

The recent news that Hinemihi o te Ao Tawhito, one of New Zealand’s most important offshore taonga, will soon return to Aotearoa after more than 120 years in England is cause for celebration, not just for the whare’s ancestral iwi Tūhourangi, Ngāti Hinemihi and wider Te Arawa, but for the entire country. Hinemihi today stands in the grounds of the National Trust administered estate, Clandon Hall in Surrey which was sadly destroyed by fire in April 2015. Hamish Coney visited Clandon Park in September 2014 to gain an insight into Hinemihi’s physical and cultural context.

This is an edited and updated version of his article originally published in Content magazine. These may be the last images of the whare and the house together intact as intended by the Governor General of New Zealand, Lord Onslow in the late 19th century. Photographs by Sarah Smuts-Kennedy.

The journey of the whare Hinemihi from the desolation of the Mt Tarawera eruption in 1886 to a new home in the grounds of a Palladian manor house in an English country garden is a grand arc that encompasses war, devastation and recontextualization. It is also the story of the enduring legacy of one of New Zealand’s greatest carver artists Tene Waitere.

Driving through the leafy lanes of Surrey on a balmy English summer’s day is not one of life’s greater chores. After an hour or so bowling along the M3 from London we take the Guildford turn off and soon find ourselves in an extremely green and pleasant land. The adjoining counties are Hampshire, Sussex, Kent and Berkshire of Wind in the Willows fame. We are in the heart of the fertile English Home Counties – a pastoral idyll of thatched roofs, country pubs and the occasional squirrel.

Our destination is Clandon Park, the family seat of the Onslow family, amongst whose descendants was the fourth earl, William Hillier Onslow (1853 – 1911) Governor General of New Zealand from 1889 to 1892. It was Onslow who acquired Hinemihi in the early 1890s as a memento of his time in the colony, effectively saving the ailing whare and removing it from its homeland forever. That Hinemihi is still standing some 127 years later is a cause for celebration and thanks for the prescience of the Earl of Onslow at a time when the whare’s survival was very much in the balance.

The 1881 whare whakairo Hinemihi o te Ao Tawhito is situated in the grounds of National Trust administered Clandon Park, Surrey. This photograph was taken in September 2014, only months before Clandon Hall which dates to the 1730s burnt down in April 2015. Photo: Supplied

Hinemihi was not unknown to me, having first come onto my radar via both photographer Mark Adams peerless body of work focusing on the achievement of the Ngāti Tarāwhai master Tene Waitere (1854 – 1931) and the pre-eminence accorded Tene by Professor Roger Neich in his definitive history of Māori carving in the post-colonial era Carved Histories (2001, Auckland University Press).

The story of Hinemihi is bound up with that of the resourceful and entrepreneurial Te Arawa people of the mid 19th century. Tarawera and Lake Rotomohana in the centre of their tribal rohe in the Bay of Plenty had become a major tourist attraction, a geothermal wonderland. The jewel in the crown, the famed Pink and White Terraces had become the biggest drawcard in Aotearoa in the 1870s. Tourism was in its infancy, but Te Arawa were becoming wealthy on the proceeds of this dazzling natural wonder.

Hinemihi was commissioned by the Tūhourangi chief Aporo Te Wharekaniwha and opened in early 1881 situated at the village of Te Wairoa near the entrance to the Pink and White Terraces. Today this is the site of the Buried Village. Funded from revenues created by visitors to the Terraces (which at their peak topped 6000 pounds per annum or about one million dollars in present day terms) the whare was intended as a community centre for functions and performances. It was also very much intended as an assertion of Te Arawa commercial mana. Legend has it that Hinemihi o te Ao Tawhito (of the old world) was soon referred to as Hinemihi of the golden eyes in reference to the gold sovereigns that reputedly replaced the more usual paua shells used to represent eyes within carved figures – a ‘new world’ affectation, but tellingly an indication that Te Arawa were very much aware of the commercial power they had developed. In less than ten years Te Wairoa became one of the wealthiest villages in New Zealand.

Burton Brothers, Rununga House (Hinemihi), Wairoa, circa 1881–5. Albumen print. Photo: Supplied

That all changed early on the morning of 10 June, 1886 with the eruption of Mt. Tarawera, the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces and the scattering of the Te Arawa people. Hinemihi was one of the few surviving structures in a volcanic onslaught which claimed 153 lives including many of the residents of Te Wairoa. Tene Waitere and his family were amongst the handful of survivors who took refuge within Hinemihi which almost buckled under the weight of volcanic debris.

Hinemihi arrived at Clandon Park in April 1892 and has spent her last 127 years in relative seclusion on the grounds of the estate. In this time she has acquired a few odd additions including the thick thatch roof in 1978, believed to be an error arising from the appearance of the whare covered in ash immediately after the 1886 eruption.

This dramatic history preceded this visitor to Clandon Park in 2014. Hinemihi’s story and her place within the narrative of both New Zealand and the grand Ngāti Tarawhai tradition is both incredible and assured. Still, all of that does not prepare the New Zealand visitor for the almost surreal experience of encountering a Māori whare in the grounds of a Palladian mansion in rural England. The visitor sees the house first, surrounded by expanses of lawn and formal gardens. The house is the work of Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni (circa 1686 – 1746) and dates to the early 1730s.

Clandon Hall which dates to the 1730s, burnt down in April 2015. This image is one of the last to show the house intact. Photo: Supplied

At a distance of some one hundred and fifty metres from the mansion, Hinemihi sits sheltered amongst a grouping of trees and shrubs. She faces the main house and the tension created between the two very different structures opens a visual discourse that is at once perplexing and inviting. Two very different but intertwined cultures are engaged in architectural dialogue. For the New Zealand visitor this first encounter comes freighted with two centuries of history and feels emotionally charged. Regardless of whether the viewer has any knowledge of Hinemihi’s journey it is impossible not to be transfixed by the whare’s presence as well as the magnificent setting.

The interior of Hinemihi featuring a Ngāti Tarawhai signature motif, the embracing couple. Photo: Supplied

Since 1956 The National Trust has managed Clandon Park. In recent years Hinemihi’s condition and future conservation requirements have become a priority and an active plan has been formulated to ensure that the 136 year old whare enjoys a long future as one of New Zealand’s most significant taonga outside our shores.

The establishment of the friends of Hinemihi group Te Maru O Hinemihi in 2012 has helped to strengthen ties to Ngāti Rānana, which represents UK based iwi, the local community and Ngāti Hinemihi in New Zealand. The group has been working with the National Trust to consult with stakeholders to formulate a plan for Hinemihi’s long term care. The aim is to restore the whare as close to her original form as is possible. A number of significant changes are proposed. For example the house is approximately a third smaller in form that her original footprint at Te Wairoa and the goal is to rectify this and to conserve all of the twenty three major carvings. This work will involve the dismantling of Hinemihi and conservation and strengthening of all of her structural parts and the replacement of the current thatched roof with a shingle roof as she enjoyed when first constructed in 1881.

Perhaps the final word needs to come from Jim Schuster, Tene Waitere’s great, great grandson. Schuster is a Māori heritage adviser at Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga and has enormous experience in engaging with marae and historic whare as both important artistic taonga and living buildings performing vital social functions within the daily lives of iwi. Schuster is also a key member of Te Maru O Hinemihi and uniquely placed to share his vision for the future of the displaced whare, “she needs people and to be able to cater for her visitors. When she is ready to come home she will. Probably that will not be in my lifetime. Today she is doing an important job for UK based Māori, their children and visitors.” He goes on to explain that in the course of time most marae houses are constantly upgraded to meet the needs of a marae and iwi, “You know she has survived two world wars when there were bombs dropping all around but today she needs a few basic upgrades.”

I spoke with Jim just before hitting send on this updated article. I reminded him of his comment that in 2014 he did not think that Hinemihi would return in his lifetime and asked him his reaction when he received the news of her imminent haerenga back to her tūrangawaewae, “I’ve always said that when she was ready to return home, she would. But when I heard the news I was dumbfounded. We’ve had so many knockbacks over the years, I’m not sure we were ready for good news. I called my Dad, you know he’s 87, and this will probably happen in his lifetime. Then I called my son and told him he wouldn’t need to pick up the taiaha and keep running with it, Hinemihi is coming home. It makes the heart beat a bit faster.”

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