Story: King, Martha

Page 1 - Biography

King, Martha

1802/1803?–1897

Teacher, artist, gardener

This biography was written by Moira M. Long and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Martha King was New Zealand's first resident botanical artist. However, painting and drawing were subsidiary to her principal occupation as a schoolteacher. She was born in Ireland probably in 1802 or 1803, the daughter of a Protestant clergyman. Her mother's birth name was Popham, a name associated with County Cork, but Martha King's place of origin is unknown. The King family were said to be Socinians.

Martha King arrived in Wellington on board the London in December 1840 with her sister Maria King and her brother Samuel Popham King, both of whom were older than she. Their fellow cabin passengers included the Wicksteed family, with whom they formed a lasting friendship. The Kings were foundation settlers in Wanganui, where they had purchased a section from the land acquired by Colonel William Wakefield. They sailed to Wanganui on board the Elizabeth, arriving on 27 February 1841. During their first year in the new settlement they occupied two raupo dwellings, in one of which the two sisters opened the first dame school in Wanganui. Maria Place, named after the elder Miss King, now marks the site of the school. Samuel King became the second postmaster in Wanganui in 1842 and acted as a justice of the peace from 1841. In March 1843 he was appointed police magistrate and in 1844 became harbourmaster.

In December 1847 the King family moved to New Plymouth, sailing on board the Ralph Bernal. A difference of opinion between Samuel King and Captain J. H. Laye, commander of the peace-keeping force in Wanganui, was the cause of their departure. In New Plymouth Samuel King was appointed registrar of deeds in 1847 and postmaster in 1854. In 1859 he became deputy sheriff and registrar of births, deaths and marriages. In 1867 he was made sub-commissioner of stamps and the following year registrar of joint stock companies. In 1848 Mary Jane Sullivan joined the King household when she married Samuel King. She was a talented musician and joined Maria and Martha King in opening a school in New Plymouth, which was also used as the venue for social events such as balls. The King family played an active role in public life and were prominent in cultural activities.

Once in New Plymouth, the Kings were able to renew their friendship with the Wicksteeds, who had settled there earlier. John Wicksteed was until 1847 resident agent for the New Zealand Company in New Plymouth and his wife, Emma Wicksteed, was an artist and teacher. Martha King was friendly with other women who shared her tastes and interests, including Jane Maria Atkinson, Mary Swainson and Jessie Campbell. She was keenly interested in gardening as well as teaching and painting, and on her death left her garden to the New Plymouth Recreation Grounds Board. She died at New Plymouth on 31 May 1897 at the age of 94, having outlived her brother, sister and sister-in-law.

In September 1842 Martha King was commissioned by the Wellington Horticultural and Botanical Society to prepare 'two sets of drawings of the most interesting indigenous botanical specimens, and specimens of native woods'. The first set of 40 watercolours, which was intended for the New Zealand Company, reached London in September 1843. It contained the originals for four of the five botanical plates in Edward Jerningham Wakefield's Illustrations to 'Adventure in New Zealand', published in London in 1845. All the originals were later bound into a volume containing a further five botanical watercolours by an unknown hand. They passed into the collections of the Royal Colonial Institute, now the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, from which the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, acquired them in 1981. Of the second set, painted for the Horticultural Society of London, no trace has been found.

Martha King's extant work consists of the first set of watercolours and 16 pencil sketches of North Island landscapes, dated between 1841 and 1859, which are also held in the Alexander Turnbull Library. This collection has only recently received critical attention. Yet the watercolours display consummate skill, combining accuracy of observation with a balanced and graceful composition. Remarks in the letters of friends and fellow settlers indicate that Martha King's artistic abilities were widely recognised and respected although she is known to have exhibited on only one occasion, at the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879, where she showed a botanical study. While her surviving oeuvre is very small, its quality places Martha King in the forefront of nineteenth century New Zealand botanical artists.