A man of many talents, Thomas Ryan (1864-1927) was simultaneously one of New Zealand’s most admired sportsmen and most accomplished artists. On the rugby field he was renowned for his ability to drop-kick goals with either foot. In galleries and salons he was known as a painter of charming watercolour scenes. He toured New South Wales in 1884 as a member of New Zealand’s first representative rugby team and was one of the top points scorers. A few months later, he won a silver medal in the landscape section of the New Zealand Art Students’ Association exhibition.
In late 1891 and early 1892 Ryan accompanied the departing Governor-General, Lord Onslow, on a tour of New Zealand. He contributed a series of illustrated articles about the journey to the New Zealand Graphic. Three of his 1892 sketchbooks were later donated to the Library.
The hot springs at Waiwera (about forty-eight kilometres north of Auckland City) were enjoyed by Māori bathers centuries ago. The Scottish-born entrepreneur Robert Graham purchased a large section of Waiwera Beach in 1845, but it was not until the mid-1870s, after he had retired from politics and his gold-mining ventures in Thames, that he developed the area as a tourist destination. He built a large hotel at Waiwera and established a regular steamer service from Auckland. The coastal trip, which took about two and a quarter hours, became a popular excursion for city-dwellers.
The building containing the thermal swimming pools can be seen, near the cliffs, at the far right of Ryan’s watercolour sketch. The artist seems more interested, however, in the brightly festooned steamer and other pleasure craft. Boats often feature prominently in Ryan’s compositions. A keen sailor, he competed in yacht races. He also became adept in the navigation of steam-driven vessels, obtaining his master mariner’s certificate in 1900.
Shortly after completing the tour of New Zealand with Lord Onslow, Ryan moved to Paris for a year to study art at the Académie Julian. Other luminaries who attended this distinguished institution in the last decades of the nineteenth century included Pierre Bonnard, Jean Dubuffet, Edouard Vuillard and Ryan’s friend and fellow Aucklander Charles Goldie. On his return to New Zealand in 1893, however, Ryan made his living more from tourism than from art (though he continued to exhibit). He helped to set up the first public launch service on Lakes Taupo, Rotorua and Rotoiti. From 1900 to 1920 he was captain of the launch Tongariro on Lake Taupo.