This beautiful image is a watercolour by the extraordinary Caroline Abraham, who was married to Bishop Charles Abraham. It was painted in 1867, just a year after the church was completed. The image shows the water lapping at the bottom of the cliff on which St Paul’s is perched. Nowadays the church is divided from the sea by a hard edge of office buildings, motorway, wharves and reclamation. The image also shows the first Bishops Court, which was home to Caroline and her family.
Caroline was born in 1809 in Leicestershire. She had spent her early years frustrated by the constraints of having to look after an ailing mother. But when Caroline was almost 40, her mother died and her life changed significantly – as her biographer has written ‘Her considerable artistic talent flourished, and she was able to turn her strong sense of duty and social commitment to better account, especially in the nursing and care of the poor’. Two years after her mother’s death, Caroline had married Charles Abraham, and was on her way to New Zealand.
In her 20 years in New Zealand she showed her considerable skills in watercolour, and in recording life in the new colony. In 1858 Charles was made the first Bishop of Wellington, and one of his first decisions was to build a combined diocesan cathedral and parish church – the building that was to become St Paul’s. Thus this painting shows the culmination of her husband’s work to have the church built; indeed, it feels as if this painting may have been her way to honour her husband’s achievement.
Despite the massive changes to the surroundings to the church, and even though the church has been enlarged a number of times, I feel that the Abrahams would recognise ‘their’ church immediately, because all the changes to the church have been made so sensitively. Caroline and Charles have left their mark on St Paul’s. It it thought that the stunning windows in the nave were given by the couple (it is often said that Caroline gave the crucifixion window and the Bishop gave the aposlte windows). The candlesticks that still sit on the altar were sent from England by the Bishop (and the widow of Bishop Selwyn), as a remembrance of his connection to the church, in 1886. Caroline and Charles were fortunate to have a son when Caroline was 47 or 48. Also called Charles, he was later to become a Bishop himself. The family returned to the UK in 1870.
Caroline Abraham, Photographed by Elliott & Fry, between 1865 and 1877, Ref: PA1-q-197-20-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23097809
Main image: Caroline Abraham, ‘Bishop’s house and St Paul’s Church, Wellington from the Beach Road’, 1867, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, Ref 3-111-32.
Information for this story comes from Anne Kirker. ‘Abraham, Caroline Harriet’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1a1/abraham-caroline-harriet