Fit for a Queen: Cook Islands art in the Royal Collection

Saturday 15 May 2021 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Art, Features


Fit for a Queen: Cook Islands art in the Royal Collection
A shell shaped wooden surround, mounted with a giant carved pearl shell. Presented to Queen Elizabeth II by Makea Nui Teremoana Ariki of the Cook Islands on the occasion of her Coronation in 1953. (© Royal Collection, Windsor Castle). 21051465

With the recent passing of Prince Philip, we wondered what official gifts had been presented to Queen Elizabeth II, her consort, and other royals during their Cook Islands visits. This is what we found. By Jean Tekura Mason and Rod Dixon.

The British Royal Collection is said to be the largest private art collection in the world and comprises more than 300,000 objects including paintings by the great masters Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt.

The collection is housed across 13 British royal residences including Windsor Castle, where several Cook Islands pieces are currently on display.

These Cook Islands art works have been obtained as gifts during Royal visits to the Cook Islands or New Zealand, or on special occasions such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953.

Makea Nui Teremoana Ariki, CBE and her husband Dr Tau Cowan MBE, represented the Cook Islands at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, while Flight Sergeant Marama Nicholas represented Cook Islands’ war veterans.

Makea Nui Ariki brought to London two large, intricately carved pearl shells, one with a tamanu wood surround, as the Cook Islands’ official gift to the Coronation.

One shell depicts the prow of a double canoe “in which Polynesians first voyaged southward to New Zealand”.

The second, a shell measuring 8.5 x 27 x 24cm, portrays Captain Cook encircled, in a clockwise direction, by a Mangaian ceremonial toki, an outrigger canoe under sail, a traditional ’are, two coconut palms, a profile of the island of Rarotonga, a flying fish, a tern and a shark.

The shells were shaped and polished by Ron Powell and the carving attributed to Pikai and Matakite Rangi Malo. The tamanu surrounds were shaped by Aaron Marsters. The two impressive and finely worked shells are currently on display in the Grand Vestibule of Windsor Castle.

Another Cook Islands item in the Royal Collection is a Mangaian ceremonial adze (39.0 x 17.0 x 8.5 cms) dating back to 1901.

This item is described in the catalogue as a “square black stone blade lashed with plaited cord to a wood handle carved in castellated style with geometric designs, pierced with four holes towards the base and standing on 12 small feet….Lent to the British Museum by the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary) in 1902; presumably presented to them during their world tour, 1901.”

The adze was indeed presented to Prince George and his consort, the future King George V and Queen Mary, in 1901 by Metuakore John Trego Numangatini Ariki, one of the dual Ariki of Mangaia.

(Right) Makea Nui Ariki and Dr Cowan at the Coronation in 1953. 21051464

In late May 1901, Numangatini Ariki accompanied Maretu Pa Ariki and the Resident Commissioner Lieutenant Col. Gudgeon to Auckland to meet the royal party and to attend the formal proclamation of the incorporation of the Cook Islands within the borders of New Zealand (Auckland Star, 31 May 1901).

On 11 June, 1901, the two Cook Islands Ariki joined the New Zealand Governor, Cabinet Ministers and other VIPs on a dais in Queen Street to welcome the Prince and Princess to Auckland.

At a later reception, a journalist from the Otago Witness (12 June 1901) observed:

“They are both gentlemen in the truest sense of the word, but they have never seen a town before, and, though they are both middle-aged men and Kings in their own country, they will, for the first time in their lives, travel in a railway train [to Rotorua] on Thursday next.”

In Rotorua, the two Ariki were presented with commemorative gold medals by Prince George. Numangatini Ariki may have taken this opportunity to present his gift, the Mangaian toki.

A further Cook Islands item in the Royal Collection is a Tangaroa lamp, presented to Queen Elizabeth by Premier Albert Henry during her visit to New Zealand in March 1970. The carver’s name is not recorded. The Royal Collection catalogue describes it as a “carved, wooden statuette of a male figure decorated with a shell”.

The shell is decorated with a carved landscape depicting two traditional ’are, hills, clouds and coconut trees. The hardwood base has shell insets shaped in the form of the 15 Cook Islands. The figure is wired for electricity with a bulb set in the figure's stomach.

Cowrie Shell basket, 1974 © Royal Collection. 21051469

The remaining Cook Islands items in the Royal Collection are mostly souvenir items produced for the growing tourist trade, accelerated by the opening of Rarotonga International Airport by the Queen in 1974.

At the time, Island Craft was also producing high quality museum reproductions that were, arguably, better suited as royal gifts.

Under Palace protocols, official gifts cannot be sold or exchanged, and automatically become part of the Royal Collection. This means, for example, that the Bahamas is represented in the Royal Collection by a painting of Nassau’s famous swimming pigs (Guardian, 23 April, 2020).

There is clearly some value of forethought in choosing official gifts. An example is the recent selection of an intricately carved and delicately lashed toki, carved by Allan Tuara, and presented to the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern by Prime Minister Brown on his first State visit to New Zealand in March 2021.

In addition to traditional carving, the Cook Islands has a strong contemporary arts scene, including painters, sculptors, fabric artists and photographers from whose output official gifts could be selected.

In 2012, Elena Tavioni’s clothing of locally designed and printed fabric was worn by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and in March this year, it was reported that one of Mahiriki Tangaroa’s most recent paintings had been purchased by the Governor General of New Zealand, Dame Patsy Reddy, for her collection.

The Governor General of New Zealand, Dame Patsy Reddy and her husband David Gascoigne with Ben Bergman at the 2021 Auckland Art Fair, in front of two of Mahiriki Tangaroa’s recent art works (photo; Government House, Wellington) – (right) the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge wearing Tav Pacific (photo; Mail Online). 21051470

With the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation in 2023, there may be a case for a gift by the Queen’s Representative of a selection of contemporary Cook Islands fine-art, significantly updating and enhancing Cook Islands representation in the Royal Collection, alongside Island Craft’s two lustrous Coronation pearl shells.