On 17 March 1841 when he was one year old, George Baker arrived in Wellington on the Lady Nugent with his parents, George and Susan from Exeter and his two-year old sister, Harriette. When they arrived, they were given a fortnight’s provisions and free rent in the barracks until the next batch of immigrants arrived. George, the father, was a carpenter and joiner and was first employed assembling immigrant cottages brought out from England in sections. He is particularly known, however, for the fact that his property in Karori gave its name to the Baker’s Hill Mining Company, when it became the scene of the Wellington ‘gold rush’.
George, the son, became a carpenter like his father and worked with him as soon as he was old enough. When he was a young man he accompanied his father to Ballarat in Australia and the two probably worked there for a time. They came back to Karori and young George worked as a journeyman carpenter (a qualified carpenter, working for wages) for a few years before going into business on his own account. He married Emma Stockbridge early in 1864 and the couple had twelve children.The young George owned and built a number of houses in Mt Victoria between 1893 and 1897. Today we would probably call him a ‘developer’. About 1895, he built the house at 70 Brougham Street which is still there, and his family lived in it. A few years later, they briefly lived in Austin Terrace (probably in the house shown below) before moving to Petone where George worked as a night-watchman. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand in 1897 described him as a “hale and hearty gentleman” and expressed the hope “that he will live for many years to enjoy the competence he has earned by assiduous devotion to business”. He died, however, in 1903 at the age of only 63. William, the eldest of the seven girls and five boys in the family, was born in 1864. He established a reputation as an itinerant painter, travelling with his young wife in a horse-drawn caravan throughout New Zealand in search of landscape scenes to paint, sketch and photograph, often selling his paintings in hotels, at local fairs and show-grounds and bartering a painting in exchange for accommodation.
William had no formal art training, but at the age of 19, in 1883, he started exhibiting his oil paintings with the Fine Arts Association in Wellington. He painted the great lakes, rivers and mountains of the South Island, and in the North Island his work included representations of numerous Maori pa and villages, usually set beside a picturesque river or lake. He continued painting until he died aged 64 in 1929.
In 2007 a major exhibition of the paintings of William George Baker was held at the Pataka Gallery in Porirua. The curator described Baker as possibly “this country’s first and one of its most successful itinerant artists”. His work is represented in the collections of numerous art galleries and museums in New Zealand including Auckland Art Gallery, Alexander Turnbull Library, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Christchurch Art Gallery, Canterbury Museum, Waikato Museum of Art & History and the Rotorua Museum of Art and History and at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.
William lived briefly in Mt Victoria with his family. In 1893 they lived in Moir Street.
See an article about the Pataka exhibition at www.internationalartcentre.co.nz/news/?story=SV479