The illustrated history of Ranolf and Amohia

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 and brother at 'Hell’s Gate'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-11946-046Inscribed 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 the hero, Ranolf.

Eileen Cowan's depiction of Amohia, the heroine, bathing.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 visibleAmohia, 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 RoyEileen 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.

Ms Papers 11946 046 08"Now the long spendours of the day were past."

Eileen Cowan’s depiction of a New Zealand ‘Eden’.Eileen Cowan’s depiction of a New Zealand ‘Eden’.

Māori weapons, comprising a tewhatewha, taiaha, mere and tokiMāori 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.Flower and leaf cutting discovered amongst the pages of Ranolf and Amohia.


Ranolf and Amohia, sailing off into the sunset.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

By Ariana Tikao

Ariana (Kāi Tahu) is the Research Librarian, Māori, at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field
Chris I January 28th at 6:15PM

Love the story and history, its great to have it preserved so well for future generations. Great pictures.

Maria January 29th at 1:28PM

Miharo! Very beautiful & profoundly moving mahi Ariana! What a privilege to read & enjoy it! Will you be attending Te Roopu Whakahau hui at Taranaki? Would be awesome to see this presented there, if you think appropriate. Arohanui

Nicole January 29th at 1:54PM

Wow, I travel to Rotorua frequently due to whanau connections, and have never heard of this poem before. I will think of it everytime I go through Ranolf and Amohia Streets now. Thanks.

Caroline Christian February 1st at 8:41AM

A treasure, wonderful read, and linked personally to Ariana, showing many of the invisible threads that go into imaginative scholarly writing. Thank you!

Ross February 1st at 10:19AM

Ka rawe! I love Eileen's illustrations. This is a very interesting article, offering a window into our cultural history. And thank you for including the Patrick Evans' quote, priceless!

Kathryn May 2nd at 4:32PM

I was very interested to see the watercolours by Eileen Cowan, though she is always just Mrs Cowan to me. I grew up in the house above where she lived in her later years. I spent many hours as a young child playing there with all the other local children and have quite vivid memories of her house and garden. She was very kind to us all and used to give us little presents. I still have a small pottery turtle and a vase with the initials JRC, so perhaps made by her daughter in law Juliet. She was a very good gardener and her garden was full of interesting plants, as was her sunny porch where you had to push past and almost step over all the potted plants. Even though she died when I was seven she instilled in me a love of gardening that has lasted all my life. I also pressed flowers from a very young age so perhaps Mrs Cowan showed me how to do that too!

Why the watercolours interested me particularly is due to the fact that I have an illustrated copy of Mere Ngamai's Chant of Adoration for Mount Egmont which Mrs Cowan copied out for my mother in 1964, as well as a copy of her whakapapa. She illustrated the text with a lovely watercolour of Mount Taranaki and surrounding bush.

Anyway thanks again for the article that brought back many happy childhood memories.

Ariana Tikao May 13th at 1:47PM

Kia ora Kathryn, thank you for your feedback on the blog and your personal recollections of Eileen Cowan. What precious childhood memories you have, thank you so much for sharing some of them with us! Your memories confirm the stories I heard from the Cowan family about Eileen Cowan's love of gardening. That was interesting about the pressed flowers too.

Regarding the initials on the pottery items, they could well have been made by Roy Cowan as his official name was James Robson Cowan (JRC). This is his name record on our system: https://tiaki.natlib.govt.nz/#details=ethesaurus.95644

I have seen a photocopy of Mere Ngamai's chant taken from an original watercolour painting similar to your one. The item says that the painting was done by Eileen Cowan in 1939, and this photocopy is now in fMS-Papers-11946-007.

Thanks again for being in touch. I am still working on processing the collection, but it should be ready soon for research.

Ngā mihi,

nā Ariana