Augustus Koch is one of the obscure figures of 19th-century art and cartography. Apart from a brief entry in Una Platts’ Nineteenth century New Zealand artists, little has been written about him. I had heard of Koch as the artist who accompanied Ferdinand Hochstetter on his epic explorations of the central North Island in 1859, but few of his illustrations seemed to have survived.
In a new book, Augustus Koch – mapmaker, Rolf Brednich has put Koch back in the historical record with a thoroughly researched biography, illustrated by a selection of his cartoons, drawings and maps. I did a quick check in Te Ara, and discovered that three of Koch’s images are reproduced – all from John White’s Ancient history of the Maori, drawn late in the artist’s life.
The basic outlines of Koch’s life come from two autobiographical manuscripts, written for his family, that are now held in the Alexander Turnbull Library. Born into a middle-class German family, he studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Berlin. His student years coincided with widespread political upheavals, and during the riots in 1848 he defended the barricades against the Prussian army. His cartoons, published in revolutionary newssheets, brought him to the notice of the authorities. He was advised to leave Berlin, and spent the next eight years as a sailor on merchant ships, travelling the world. Meeting his future wife on an emigrant ship travelling to New Zealand, he set himself up in Auckland in 1858 as a freelance artist and draughtsman. Soon afterwards he was engaged by Hochstetter to make a pictorial record of his expedition through the central North Island.
It was believed that most of Koch’s illustrations of the journey had disappeared, but by a wonderful coincidence they were recently discovered by researcher Sascha Nolden in an archive collection in Switzerland. Nolden has contributed the chapter on the Hochstetter expedition, illustrated by some of Koch’s drawings, unseen in New Zealand for over 150 years.
Later in 1859 Koch was offered the post of chief draughtsman for the newly established Hawke’s Bay Provincial Council, based in Napier, where he stayed for a decade. When Vogel’s ‘Think Big’ policies were getting under way in the early 1870s, Koch joined the Public Works Department in Wellington as a senior draughtsman, and stayed in that position until he was made redundant in 1887 as part of cutbacks during the long depression. In his memoirs Koch says very little about these years as a cartographer – the bulk of his working life – and few of his maps have been previously identified. Rolf Brednich has assiduously searched map collections and archives throughout New Zealand, and managed to identify an impressive number of maps bearing Koch’s name. There are probably more that are unsigned. The second half of the book consists of colour reproductions of a selection of Koch’s maps, showing the variety of work he undertook. It includes maps of roads, railways, construction projects and new town subdivisions from Thames to Naseby. Koch’s skill in design and lithography was clearly recognised by his superiors because he was responsible for a number of coloured maps intended for public display, including maps of Stewart Island, county boundaries, proposed railways, shipwrecks, lighthouses, and a geological map of New Zealand (below) displayed at the 1873 Vienna exhibition.
After losing his job in 1887, Koch must have had a difficult time, as he still had a growing family to support. He undertook whatever work he could pick up, including illustrations for books, most notably White’s Ancient history of the Maori, Mackay’s Manual of grasses and the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. He was involved in the artistic life of Wellington, and was secretary of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts for many years.
Because of the need to reproduce maps, this is a large-format publication, slightly bigger than A3, which needs to be examined on a table. This is a book to treasure – it has put Augustus Koch back on the map as a significant 19th-century artist and cartographer. But I can make a confident prediction that this is not the final word on Koch, because more of his illustrations are likely to be identified now that we recognise his importance.