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Saturday volcano art: Charles Blomfield, ‘Rotomahana after the eruption’ (1887) 14 March 2009

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Charles Blomfield 'Rotomahana after the eruption' (1887)

In the early hours of 10 June 1886 Mount Tarawera volcano in New Zealand erupted in a major explosive event that devastated the surrounding landscape, buried local villages and killed over a hundred people. Before the Tarawera eruption the hydrothermal area around nearby Lake Rotomahana was one of the most celebrated scenic sites in New Zealand, with beautiful pools, springs, geysers, and the renowned pink and white terraces. These were two sets of stepped siliceous sinter deposits formed by the water of geysers cascading down hill slopes towards the lake. They were among New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions, and were known as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. They were utterly destroyed in the eruption.

The pink and white terraces were favourite subjects for photographers and artists, and among those who fell under their spell was Charles Blomfield (1848-1926), a self-taught painter born in London who came to New Zealand with his mother and family in 1863. He first painted the terraces in 1875, and returned in 1884, camping on site and producing many views of the terraces and the surrounding landscape. The eruption of Tarawera and the destruction of the terraces was a great blow to Blomfield. He returned to the scene in October 1886, four months after the eruption, and painted several views of the devastated landscape, one of which is reproduced above.

‘Rotomahana after the eruption’ shows the wasteland created by the Tarawera eruption at the former location of the terraces. Blomfield’s pictures of this location as it was before the eruption are rich in colour, glowing with the vibrant greens of the vegetation, the deep placid blue of the lake, and the glittering pink and white terraces climbing from the edge of the water into the hills. In this painting all that is gone, replaced by a dreary grey-brown mantle of volcanic mud and ash. Fumaroles vent plumes of steam, fragments of destroyed vegetation litter the scene, and in place of the lush hills stand desolate heaps of shattered, steaming rock. The scene resembles a vision of the underworld – for Blomfield, a heaven has been transformed into a hell.

Despite the devastation there is a sublime grandeur in the image, a potent evocation of nature’s transforming power. The troubled skies that brood over the scene of devastation express the changeability of nature’s moods: what the volcano created, the volcano has now destroyed. The overall atmosphere is a sombre one, of loss and desolation.

Blomfield went on to paint many more images of Lake Rotomahana and the terraces that recalled the scene as it had been before the eruption. These later paintings carry their own message of loss in the intensity of vision with which they recreate and memorialize a scene of beauty that had been destroyed for ever.

The Tarawera eruption of 1886 is itself of considerable volcanological interest, as a plinian basaltic eruption and a plinian fissure eruption, both rare phenomena. The eruption itself was of moderate size (about 0.8 cubic kilometres of magma was erupted over a period of 5 hours), but was violently explosive, depositing scoria up to 150km from the volcano, and ash up to 230km distant. The quantity of basaltic magma erupted from the 17km fissure vent and crater system opened up by the eruption was limited, but it interacted violently with the existing hydrothermal system to produce an explosive expansion of superheated water. The phreatic explosions tore up the surrounding topography and turned much of the local rock into ‘the Rotomahana mud’, which fell across approximately 10,000 square kilometres of the surrounding countryside. Pyroclastic density currents further devastated the area around the volcano. The landscape shown in Blomfield’s painting was the result.

‘Rotomahana after the eruption’ is in the Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand.

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Anheizen: The story of Tarawera, the landscape renovator

James Cowan, ‘The glory of the terraces – the Tarawera-Rotomahana region, past and present’, New Zealand Railways Magazine, vol. 6, no. 6 (December 1931), pp. 25-29

B.F. Houghton, C.J.N. Wilson, P. Del Carlo, M. Coltelli, J.E. Sable and R. Carey, ‘The influence of conduit processes on changes in style of basaltic Plinian eruptions: Tarawera 1886 and Etna 122 BC’, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, vol. 137, issues 1-3 (30 September 2004), pp. 1-24 [doi:10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2004.05.009]

R. F. Keam, Tarawera (Auckland, 1988)

Erik W. Klemetti, ‘Repairing after eruption: the Waimangu Valley and Mt. Tarawera’, Eruptions blog, 19 January 2009

J. E. Sable, B. F. Houghton, C. J. N. Wilson, R. J. Carey, ‘Complex proximal sedimentation from Plinian plumes: the example of Tarawera, 1886’, Bulletin of Volcanology, vol. 69, no. 1 (July 2006), pp. 89-103 [doi:10.1007/s00445-006-0057-6]

Tarawera, in The Encyclopedia of New Zealand

George P.L. Walker, Stephen Self and Lionel Wilson, ‘Tarawera 1886, New Zealand – a basaltic plinian fissure eruption’, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, vol. 21, issues 1-2 (June 1984), pp. 61-78 [doi:10.1016/0377-0273(84)90016-7]

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