The 1860s saw a growing resentment of modernisation largely fostered by the repetition, uniformity and depersonalisation of mechanically factory-produced furniture. Critics searched for honest design and craftsmanship where artistic individuality and the imperfection of handwork was celebrated. This resurrection of historic decorative skills emerged as the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was retrospective yet innovative with revivals of traditional European crafts and the assimilation of exotic motifs from distant cultures. This peculiarly Victorian romantic notion can be found in some of New Zealand's most novel colonial-made furniture.
By William Cottrell
The nineteenth-century like no other period had ceaselessly reinvented past with ancient revival fashions being forever after criticised as a period of great unoriginality. Design theorist and architect Owen Jones' seminal work The Grammar of Ornament had, by 1856, identified twenty concurrent Victorian styles gathered from Northern Europe, the Middle and Far East, North Africa and even the “tribes” of America and New Zealand. Unsurprisingly there was much confusion amongst consumers and manufacturers in the ‘Battle of the Styles’. The furniture industry’s soulless and often-debased mechanised repetition of Louis Rococo naturalistic scrolls and repetitive medieval neo-Gothic tracery that characterised the era was, however, to inspire the century’s most unique response.
Arts and Crafts
To many critics the Great Exhibition of 1851 had been a display of excessive, even vulgar, ornamentation from which the Aesthetics Movement set out to separate utility from such gratuitous and often faux decoration. “Art for art’s sake” became the motto of enlightened reformers William Morris, Edward Bourne-Jones, John Ruskin and a small group of London-based artists who pushed for a greater appreciation of traditional values. They peeled back time to define the essence and purpose of art, architecture and object so that by the mid-1870s function along with construction became integral to ornament and style. Arts and Crafts then considered materials, craftsmanship and integrity, without deception, as central to domestic ware and social structure and in so doing looked to revive traditional crafts and designs.
New Zealand fashions
By the early 1880s New Zealand importers, manufacturers and consumers had well embraced Aesthetics and its nascent Arts and Crafts Movement. Comparison between Dunedin cabinetmakers Andrew Craig and John Gillies’ Illustrated Catalogue (1875) and Henry North and Arthur Scoullar’s Illustrated Catalogue (1883) had already shown a noticeable fashion shift from the florid embellishment of high-Victorian design to more linear restraint, plainer workmanship and appreciation of function. By the turn of the century Arts and Crafts was the leading fashion force. Art societies and colleges, such as the Otago School of Art, were established throughout the country, encouraging women to enrol and become enlightened with a new ‘awareness of style’.
Surface decorative techniques
Traditional techniques of European Medieval, Middle and Far Eastern applied surface decoration were emphasised as timelessly honest; less mechanised ornamentation imbued any craft with more purity. The imperfection of artisan handiwork, as in nature, was to be celebrated enabling the amateur or hobbyist to attempt woodwork, fret-sawing, chip-carving, pyrography or pokerwork and marquetry at home. Few tools and materials were needed but the work did require much time and perseverance with numerous self-help publications proffering advice and the latest London designs to copy . Benn Bros. Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher arrived in New Zealand on monthly subscription offering patterns to carve, fretwork to saw on the kitchen table and images to scorch with hot pokers (pyrography) and paint. The Eclipse Book of Chip-Carving Designs (c.1910) appears to be the source of the New Zealand-printed Silex Chip Carving Designs, a series of traditional Swiss/German incised patterns found on dark stained colonial-made side-tables, boxes, trays, picture frames and wall-mounted cabinets. These patterns were also universal to Australia, America and Britain.
Such intense and laborious decoration seems to have been uncommercial and was undertaken by hobbyists, most often women. While subscription magazines and periodicals from the early 1870s offered numerous patterns none appeared to have been reproduced in colonial cabinet maker catalogues despite the proliferation of illegal design copying. Retailing manufacturers from Broad, Small & Co. (1912), Invercargill to T. & H. Cook & Co. (1907), Auckland promoted extensive stocks of plain commercially focussed ‘Art Furniture’ in oak or dark-stained native timbers in imitation of Medieval hewn timber but none featured the detail apparently available to home enthusiast wood artists.
Influence and interpretation
Shallow, relief carving satisfied the Art and Craft hand-work ethic. It revived familiar traditional decoration, largely of Gothic and Celtic origin, but also accommodated other cultures particularly ‘Orientalism’, or fascination of Far Eastern exoticism. Its foremost expression in colonial furniture is found in randomly applied kauri and rimu faux-bamboo turnings to chairs and tables. however at least one commercial carver, Rumanian-born John Negras’ Black Bros. [Studio] Catalogue (1909) in Auckland’s Karangahape Road, illustrated dragons, dolphins and serpents on door panels or mirror supports for sale. ‘Quaint’ and ‘massive’ sideboards and cabinets from all New Zealand regions are occasionally found ornamented with creatures from the mysterious East and from Western mythology. Most often they were meaninglessly blended with grapevines, sunflowers, wheat sheaves, acanthus leaves that were then bordered with neoclassical egg and dart or guilloche mouldings. Beaten copper panels were inset into mirrored sideboard backs while doors were further adorned with hammered hinges and ‘antique’ electroplated handles for mere ‘aesthetic’ effect; decorative and romantic, but historically uninformative.
Māori motifs on colonial furniture
Despite the opening chapter in Jones’ Grammar illustrating examples of Māori carving, New Zealand artisans seldom capitalised on our own indigenous culture. Preferring to import wood surface designs from Europe and Asia, there are surprisingly few (surviving) examples of the ideally suited and deeply rich local Māori design interpreted into European-made furniture. Even when Māori motifs were incorporated, the reformist mantra “Art for art’s sake” was unfortunately most often applied too literally. Decontextualized designs by well-intentioned artisans often led to carvings being insensitively applied without regard to cultural significance and meaning.
Rimu Chip Carved Chiffonier, Taranaki, c1910, based on the New Zealand-printed Silex Chip Carving Designs.