Family Group

John Alexander Gilfillan, Artist

This is one of the paintings in our collection. The place and date where it was made are unknown.
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Object Detail

630 x 770mm
oil on canvas
Painter John Gilfillan, with his wife and their six children, moved to Wanganui in late 1842 where he created some of the earliest paintings of Wanganui. The family purchased a farm in the Matarawa Valley and lived and worked there until April 1847. It is then that the family was attacked in what seems to have been retaliation for the unprovoked shooting of a young Māori man in Wanganui a few days before. It was on the evening of 18 April 1847, when six Upper River Māori men attacked the Gilfillan farm. An injured John ran for help on foot, believing he was the intended target, only to return the next day to find his wife and three of their children dead, their home in ruins and another daughter very badly injured. John soon took his surviving children and relocated to Australia where he continued to paint.
Knowing these tragic events, it is hard to look at Gilfillan’s Family Group and not view it with a sense of unease. A little boy has his feet emerged in a small pool of water, pulling his trousers up as he looks directly out at the viewer, the young women each cast pensive looks in various directions as a dog sits at their feet. Where is this family group going? What has happened to them? The figures have an awkwardness, solemnity and sadness that seem to recall the events of 1847 and the muted palette and distant expressions add to the disquieting nature of the painting. There is no indication that this is a depiction of Gilfillan’s family, but an artist’s biography, particularly a tragic one, will always affect the way we understand their work.
- Sarah McClintock, 27 December 2013, article for the Wanganui Chronicle.
Credit Line
Collection of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. Gift of F. Wilson and Family, 1942.
Collection Type
Permanent collection
Acquisition Date



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