The illustrated history of Ranolf and AmohiaJanuary 28th, 2016
This is the third in a series of blogs about the processing of the new Cowan family papers, which is a collection that relates to the New Zealand writer James Cowan and members of his family. You can read the two previous installments here: A little history of James Cowan and An annotated history of James Cowan .
I first visited Rotorua from Christchurch in 1978 as a six-year-old. We did many of the wonderful tourist activities on offer such as Hell’s Gate, Whakarewarewa, and a boat trip to Mokoia Island (even bathing in Hinemoa’s pool there). I have visited many times since, as my husband’s family lives there. Many of you will know that some of the main streets in Rotorua are named after local heroes and heroines, such as Tutanekai and Hinemoa. Have you ever wondered who Ranolf Street and Amohia Street were named after?
Ariana posing with her brother at Hell’s Gate in 1978.
They were the protagonists of a long, once-fashionable poem, Ranolf and Amohia, first published in 1872. When looking through Cowan’s personal library during the appraisal of the Cowan family papers, we noticed his first-edition copy of Ranolf and Amohia. On the title page, Cowan has inscribed it with his name, place of residence – Wellington – and dated it as 1908, which is presumably when he came to own it.
Inscribed title page of James Cowan’s copy of Ranolf and Amohia. Ref: MS-Papers-11946-046
Ranolf and Amohia was written by the journalist, public servant, and politician Alfred Domett. The poem is essentially based on a bicultural love story between fictional characters – a British maritime adventurer, Ranolf, and a young Māori princess, Amohia. It takes place around the Rotorua region. As a work of literature, I would describe it as verbose and at times exceedingly florid. It was described in one article as ‘a series of digressions’. As quoted in Stafford and Williams Maoriland book, in 1990 Patrick Evans described Ranolf and Amohia as being ‘Like a stranded whale,’ saying ‘the poem lies rotting on the beach of New Zealand literature’. But within the context of a fledgling national or regional literature, some celebrated it and acknowledged its worth.
Eileen Cowan's depiction of the hero, Ranolf.
Eileen Cowan's depiction of Amohia, the heroine, bathing.
Amongst the loose material that was folded into the book there were two undated clippings. One relates to a talk given by Mr F. Milner at the Teachers’ Summer School in Nelson, on the merits of Ranolf and Amohia as a potential resource for teaching. The other is an article by Cowan supporting that notion, but recommending the poem should be severely reduced first: ‘Some day a publisher may discover this and issue it in a handy volume after revision by an editor who realises that “the story’s the thing”.’
“Treasured little vignettes”
The real reason this book stood out was because it contains more than twenty original watercolour paintings, created amongst the book’s pages by Cowan’s wife, Eileen Cowan. The paintings were a delightful find!
In his article mentioned above, Cowan revealed that his copy had been illustrated: “My own copy of ‘Ranolf and Amohia,’ the first edition, is adorned now with treasured little vignettes in water colours depicting scenes and incidents in the text”. Eileen Cowan’s initials are on the first painting, and because all the paintings are clearly in the same hand, it can be assumed that she did all of them.
Amohia, as painted on the inside cover of the book, with EC initials visible.
Eileen Cowan was the daughter of the Ngāpuhi scholar Henry Stowell (Hare Hongi) and Mary Robson of Te Āti Awa. She was one of seven children (the eldest of six daughters), and grew up in Hawera. She married James Cowan (who was a widower) in 1913 when she was in her early twenties, and moved to Wellington. They had two sons, John and James Robson (Roy), both of whom had artistic talent and studied fine arts. John later became an architect, and Roy an influential potter and printmaker.
Eileen Cowan with her sons John and Roy. Ref: 1/4-020267-F
The Turnbull Library holds other artworks by Eileen Cowan, one of which was in my exhibition, Borderland: The World of James Cowan , held last year. I think the paintings were done between the date the Cowans were married (1913), and the date of the two laid-in clippings, which I attribute to the 1920s.
Eileen had other artistic and literary interests. The library holds some draft short stories she wrote, and I have noticed that some photographs in Cowan’s books are credited to her. She was also (along with her husband and father) a member of the Polynesian Society, and was a close friend of the journalist Eric Ramsden.
We don’t know why she painted all of these watercolours in Ranolf and Amohia, and whether they were ever intended to be published, or if she did them for pure pleasure or as a gift to her husband.
"Now the long spendours of the day were past."
Eileen Cowan’s depiction of a New Zealand ‘Eden’.
Māori weapons, comprising a tewhatewha, taiaha, mere and toki.
James Cowan had a long-time interest in Ranolf and Amohia, as reflected in a much earlier article he wrote for the New Zealand Illustrated Magazine in 1901, which I found on Papers Past. It quotes an earlier article from that same publication, which claimed that Ranolf and Amohia was “the greatest Antipodean poem ”. Interestingly, it includes illustrations by Kennett Watkins. It seems that the poem captured the imagination of more than one illustrator. An article in the Taranaki Herald, dated 1874, refers to some photographs of nine drawings that a Mr T. Colson had sent to the newspaper – his illustrations for Ranolf and Amohia.
The practice of pasting illustrations into published books is called extra-illustration or grangerization, and was a popular pastime in the 18th and 19th centuries in England. Our Rare Books curator, Anthony Tedeschi, has written about this phenomenon in his article ‘Extra-Illustration as Exemplified in A. H. Reed’s Copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson’. But to create original paintings directly onto the pages of a published item, as Eileen Cowan has done here, appears to be less common, and Tedeschi says it harkens back to the medieval manuscript tradition of illustrating the margins of texts.
Another find amongst the loose papers in Ranolf and Amohia was a pressed bunch of purple posies and a fern leaf. According to family stories, Eileen Cowan was a keen gardener and had an interest in botany. You can see from the paintings in the book that she loved to paint plants and landscapes. I am not sure of the significance, if any, the pressed flowers and leaves have to this volume. But that can remain another mystery for now, and something future researchers may wish to ponder!
Flower and leaf cutting discovered amongst the pages of Ranolf and Amohia.
Ranolf and Amohia, sailing off into the sunset.
Further reading about Ranolf and Amohia:
Stafford, Jane and Williams, Mark (2006). Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914. Victoria University Press, Wellington. Chapter 1: The encyclopedic fantasy of Alfred Domett