Thomas Robertson - marine artist and mariner

Capt. Thomas Robertson
 1819 - 1873

"The artist is also a seaman" 

Otago Heads

An engraving of a picture of the Otago Heads, painted by Captain Thomas Robertson, of the Marine Board, and especially engraved for the Otago Witness Saturday 20th February 1864 page1

Captain Thomas C. Robertson, born 19 Aug.1819  Bo'ness, West Lothian, Scotland, and after receiving his master's ticket emigrated to Australia in 1853.  His interest in painting was for many years only that of a competent amateur. From 1860 he was the master of the clipper-ship 'Lightning' on the Sydney - New Zealand run. During his time in harbour, he started to produce ship portraits of his own ship. One-time captain of the merchantman SS Pirate. 1863 held an art union in connection with a show of his paintings, advertised in Otago Daily Times 15 September 1863. Exhibited: NZ Ex Dunedin 1865 large oil paintings of renowned clippers and other ships in Hobson's Bay, at Otago Heads and at Port Chalmers, and was awarded a bronze medal. Represented: Canterbury Museum, OESA [Otago Early Settlers' Association, Dunedin] and Hocken [Dunedin] Reference: Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists by Una Platts. He was secretary to the Marine Board and Inspector of steamers at Port Chalmers, Otago, New Zealand 1865-66. He was for a long time Marine Surveyor at Port Chalmers. Purchased six sections in Bernicia and Magnetic Streets.  He spent most of his life at sea and painted on board ship in harbour, awaiting cargo and passengers. In 1867 he offered 14 of his paintings in an art union.  Tom's photograph is at the Port Chalmers Museum and in Ian Church's book "Port Chalmers and Its People" page 38.  His son David Ogilvie Robertson (1848 - 1919) was also a competent artist with a well known work. In 1871 moved to Japan. He died at Yokohama, Japan on 8 July 1873. His paintings are an impressive visual record of New Zealand maritime scenes.

Otago Daily Times 20 September 1867 Page 5
Captain Thomas Robertson, of Port Chalmers, has completed the painting of three very fine marine pictures, which are now at the rooms of Mr De Maus, photographer, Fleet street, for the purpose of being photographed. The largest of the pictures, and the one which is most valuable is a historical and artistic point of view is a painting of "The Landing of Sir George Grey at Port Chalmers, from H.M.S. Brisk." The other vessels represented in the picture are the Caribou, Warrior Queen, and Velocidade. Of the other pictures, one is a painting of "Vessels off Otago Heads," the principal object being the ship Caribou. The third is a painting of "Vessels in Foveaux Straits," one of the principal objects being the ship City of Dunedin. Captain Robertson is at present engaged in the painting of some other pictures, including some views of wreck scenes; and, with those which are now being photographed, they will form a very valuable and interesting addition to the yet small number of paintings of the same character which have been produced by the amateur artists of New Zealand.

"Highly respected for talents in shipping circles"

Facilities holding Capt. Robertson's paintings:

Victorian State Library Multimedia Picture Catalogue has three beautiful colour images of his paintings online.

Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand) in Wellington:

Hocken Library, Dunedin, New Zealand:

Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand:

Other Robertson's ship portraits and seascapes: Port of Melbourne in the background.

Partial listing of vessels he commanded:
Lady Bird :
steamer, January 1854 to July 1855 Melbourne to Launceston crossings
Lightning :
1861-62 Australia-New Zealand run. She made a special trip from Melbourne to Port Chalmers with 900 diggers on board Sept. 1861, and they gave Captain Robertson so much trouble that he put into the Bluff and landed a number of them there. ref: Colonial Clippers by Lubbock
Eli Whitney : barque, sailed from Melbourne 8 January, 1862, for Otago, carrying passengers to the gold-diggings
S.S. Pirate : 285 tons, Trader between Melbourne and Port Chalmers 1859, owned by James MacAndrew.
S.S. Tairoa 1866-69. Master for vessel's first trip. (40 shares)
S.S. Ruby: A small steamer. Held shares.

The Dictionary of Australian Artists edited by Joan Kerr, Oxford University Press 1992
Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists by Una Platts
The Encyclopaedia of Australian Art by Alan and Susan McCulloch

Oamaru Times September 29 1864  
The Superintendent has appointed the following gentlemen to form the first Pilot Board of Otago; Wm. Thompson Esq., Harbour master; Thomas Robertson, Esq., Secretary to Marine Board; Captain Alexander McKinnon, W.H. Reynolds, Esq., and Thomas Taylor, Esq.

Otago Witness Oct. 8 1864. page 13. Capt. Thomas Robertson has been elected member of the Port Chalmers town Board, in room of Mr A.J. Ritchie, resigned.

The Star September 3 1873 page 2
Wellington, Sept. 3

The Alhambra has sailed for the Bluff.
Capt. Robertson, late of the Port Chalmers Naval Brigade, strongly advocates a training ship here for the larrikins and Bedouins of the colony.  He also suggests and has initiated a system of photography to save the immense expense of marine surveying vessels.  Under this system he asserts that all points can be taken at once from point to point, and bay to bay. Channels are shown with particular clearness.  At low water, banks are plainly depicted, and even at high water the birds-eye view shows plainly the shallows and deeps.

If you have information regarding Tom Robertson's paintings please let me know so we may have a more complete listing.  Other New Zealand facilities may have some of his works. ODT 4 Sept. 1873 (obituary)

This page may be freely linked to but not duplicated in any fashion, wholly or in part, except for private study. 

New Zealand Bound

Captain Thomas Robertson, who is pretty widely known in the colonies as an amateur artist, who has achieved considerable success in the painting of maritime scenes, and in delineating the infinite variety of appearances presented by shipping under steam and sail, in harbor and at sea. Otago Witness April 23 1864 pg 10.