Carefully turning the pages of Sarah Mathew's album we see an apparently random mix of poems, drawings, pressed flowers, photographs and prints. Some are dated. The dates range from the early 1830s to the mid-1880s. To all appearances this is a typical Victorian lady’s scrapbook, or, in the language of the time, album.
Further investigation of the contents of the album and knowledge of its creator's life reveals more about the album and makes sense out of its seeming randomness. In Sir George Grey Special Collections at Auckland Central Library, there are letters, diaries, journals and sketchbooks which belonged to Sarah and her husband Felton. These can help place items in the album in the chronology of Sarah's life.
The album itself is sturdily made, though at some time it has been rebacked (i.e. the spine and covers had become loose and were strengthened). The covers are cloth stamped with ornate geometric patterns of circles, triangles, curves and tendrils. The album measures 24 x 19 cm and contains 200 pages coloured yellow, blue, white and green. Some additional pages have been tipped in.
Inside the back cover is a small label "Ackermann & Co, Repository of Arts, 96 Strand". Ackermann & Co was a prominent London publisher, printseller and supplier of quality artist's materials which traded under this name and at this address from 1830 onwards. The book has a decorative title page printed in peach and ornamented with garlands of flowers, bird and arabesques. The central area has been left blank and written in ink on it is the name SARAH.
Sarah Mathew was baptized on 19 November 1805 in London. She had two sisters and two brothers, one of whom was a friend of the poet John Keats. From 1822 Sarah worked as a governess, first with the family of Lt. Col. Cameron. The silhouette labeled 'Mrs Cameron' may be of his wife. In 1831 Sarah sailed for New South Wales to marry her cousin Felton who was working in Sydney as assistant surveyor of roads and bridges. Was Sarah given this album as a parting gift before leaving England?
Sarah and Felton married in Sydney in January 1832. The same year the earliest dated picture in the album appears. It is a caricature in ink of Felton on his horse 'Lucifer'. This and other lithographed portraits were later published in an album of portraits of New South Wales officials produced by W H Fernyhough in 1836. The horse 'Lucifer' travelled to New Zealand and was remembered by Sarah, writing in her autobiography in the 1870s as, 'my beautiful horse Lucifer, which was quite a pet'. A list of horses belonging to Mrs Hobson about 1843 mentions a Timor pony mare with foal by Felton Mathew's 'Lucifer'.
Sarah and Felton lived at Windsor near Sydney till 1840. Sarah's fondness for pets shows in the feather of 'Poor Jack my tame emu killed by a dog 1835' carefully attached to the page. Feathers from exotic birds are tucked between pages or behind prints and a spaniel is painted with care.
Felton is probably the artist of the drawing of Auburn Cottage, Windsor as it is similar in style to others in the album which he has signed.
Another drawing , of Penselwood Cottage, is less skilful and unsigned.
There are no drawings signed by Sarah in the album and only two which look unlike Felton's drawing style.
This album belies the stereotype that all Victorian women drew prolifically. Sarah's interests lay with the written word.
In late 1839 Felton reluctantly accepted the position of acting surveyor general in New Zealand and sailed there in January 1840. Sarah joined him at the Bay of Islands in March before they moved on to Auckland with Governor Hobson. She was one of the official party on 18 September when preliminary agreement was signed with Ngati Whatua leaders for the purchase of the site of Auckland. Sarah's lively diary of this period was edited by J. Rutherford and published as 'The founding of New Zealand : the journals of Felton Mathew, first surveyor of New Zealand and his wife 1840-1847'. Felton climbed Rangitoto for surveying purposes in November 1841. Other members of the party were Sarah, John du Moulin, Captain England and David Rough. Rough, at that time Auckland's Harbour-master, was one of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances with whom Sarah kept in contact throughout her life. In 1883 he sent her a poem which she copied into her album.
After living in tents, then in a raupo whare, a house was built for Sarah and Felton near St Paul's Church. Looking back on her life in Auckland Sarah wrote, "It cost upwards of ₤2000, though of very moderate dimensions and simple construction, much after the fashion of an Indian Bungalow, all on the ground floor, with windows to the ground opening on a wide verandah, and a terrace, beyond which a sloping lawn with flower beds and then a belt of shrubbery partly native trees, but sown with acorns, chestnuts, walnuts and planted with vines and fig trees, which we brought from Sydney"
Felton's appointment had not been officially confirmed so he and Sarah sailed for England to clarify his position with the Colonial Office.
The same drawings appear in both Sarah and Felton's sketchbooks during this period :
a Portuguese man-o-war jellyfish and a catamaran off Pernambuco.
Once in London they spent much of their time in London trying to resolve the question of Felton's employment, but also took their first train trip to stay with relatives of Sir Frederick Whitaker at Bampton. Whitaker was an Auckland lawyer who had stayed with them for two months after his marriage while his house was being built. They also travelled to Matlock in Derbyshire, renowned for the healing properties of its thermal springs 'I think my dear husband did appreciate the beauty of England and the rich landscapes which delighted our eyes'.
Sarah and Felton returned to New Zealand but further difficulties with Governor Grey led them to sell their house and possessions and return to England in September in 1847. Felton had been in poor health since late 1841 and was ill when they left New Zealand. He died at Lima in Peru on 26 November 1847. Sarah added "An attempt to describe from memory the cemetery at Bella Vista in South America where my precious husband was buried in November 27th 1847" to her album.
Apart from a visit to New Zealand between 1858 and 1861 Sarah remained in England for the rest of her life. The Gulf weed from the Atlantic may date from the return voyage. Sarah's life after her return to England is less well documented.
Two watercolours by Miss Colenso were added to the album in 1873. Miss Colenso has not been identified but she may have been related to the New Zealand or South African missionary family. Sarah may have travelled to the Engadine and Davos in Switzerland in 1883, as a number of pressed flowers appear in the album. The same year Miss Young sent her heather from Braemar. Sarah died at Tonbridge, Kent on 14 December 1890.
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