John Masefield's watercolour of the HMS Endeavour

Nowadays English author John Masefield is chiefly remembered for two short poems with nautical themes: “Sea Fever” (“I must down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky”) and “Cargoes”  (with its strikingly exotic opening line, “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir”).

Image: John Masefield, portrait. From: Nelly Scott's Masefield Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1139.

In the first half of the 20th century, however, he was popular throughout the Commonwealth not just as a poet but also as a novelist, children’s writer, playwright and memoirist. Appointed poet laureate by George V in April 1930, he remained in that post until his death in May 1967, making him the longest-serving British laureate after Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Auckland Libraries has a fine collection of signed books and letters by Masefield, gifted to us from the estate of Paeroa-based teacher and local historian Nelly Scott Climie.

She first met Masefield in 1931 while in England on a teacher exchange programme. After returning to New Zealand, she kept up a correspondence with him that lasted until his death. A poet herself, she sometimes sent her verses to him to critique.

Early in 1955 she wrote a poem called “Captain Cook’s Dream” to commemorate the 80th jubilee of Paeroa District High School, where she had once been a pupil and where, although officially retired, she did some relief teaching. The poem referred to Cook’s naming of the Thames estuary during his first visit to New Zealand.

“My grateful & tender thoughts to you for your charming kind letter,” Masefield responded, “and for your lively patriotic poem about the Paeroa school & Captain Cook.Years ago, when I lived at Greenwich, I used to go often to the Painted Hall, as it was called, where there were many marine paintings, including a fine portrait of Cook, who was a very fine-looking fellow. I like also to see, sometimes, elsewhere, some of the exquisite charts he made, for he was (in that way) a lovely artist. How thrilled he would be to land at Paeroa & see what you & the others have made of it.”

These thoughts seem to have stirred in Masefield a desire to create some art of his own. On 11 June 1955 he wrote again to “dearest Nell”, telling her: “I have tried to paint you something like-ish to one of Captain Cook’s ships, in case you might care to have it. Such as it is, here she comes, under a fair amount of sail, and with every blessing & grateful & loving thought that I can send with her.”

Image: John Masefield. Watercolour of the HMS Endeavour. From: Nelly Scott's Masefield Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1139.

About the size of a postcard, Masefield’s little watercolour painting of the Endeavour is now part of our archive at NZMS 1139.

Author: Iain Sharp, Sir George Grey Special Collections