The working properties of native woods offered migrant cabinet makers a rich colour palette to pursue the traditional European technique of marquetry and parquetry. Some fine surviving colonial-made furniture demonstrates that the best craftsmen added beauty and value by embellishing the latest, mainly English, designs with newly discovered timbers.
By William Cotterell
First Accounts of New Zealand Timbers
The centuries-old craft of inlaying veneers and the intercutting rich and rare timber species arrived in New Zealand with the first Europeans. William Yate, missionary at Kerikeri, Te Waimate and Puriri between 1827 and 1834 had already published a list in 1835 of twenty-one Northland species with recommendations for boatbuilding, houses and furniture.
His selection seemed largely to rely on the experience of mission station carpenters and Māori about locally known, and nowadays, obscure trees. “Tarairi – the tree is altogether one of the most splendid ornamental woods… [and] Akeake - if sent to England, I doubt not it would be a most valuable wood for making cabinets and workboxes…” Within three years another Bay of Islands resident, trader, artist and writer Joel Polack had detailed no less than 45 species, again proposing their use for furniture. Both writers had made comparisons with European species familiar to cabinetmakers to encourage their use in modern ornamental furniture.
The First Cabinetmakers
The traditional craft of veneering highly figured, and often unstable, timbers with colourful and distorted grain characteristics onto reliable substrates is found on the earliest settler-made colonial furniture. A newspaper report on Wellington cabinetmaker Johann Levien noted “… the sitting rooms of one gentleman in the colony have been completely furnished [in] native woods; nothing can be more beautiful or attractive.” Levien used his preferred choice of totara knot extensively even after his return to England in late 1843 to decorate some of the royal houses of Europe, gaining him Royal Appointments for his use of New Zealand timbers in 1846 and 1848. Levien entered a massive totara Renaissance revival sideboard and two profusely inlaid marquetry tables of nine New Zealand species in the 1851 Great Exhibition. With the juror’s commendations, they were world class.
The Export of Native Timber Cabinet Work
The export of colonial-made woodware was surprisingly common, particularly caddies, workboxes and tables, small domestic furnishings and novelty souvenir ware. New Zealand-made objects are now found in Australia and England, having travelled there in the Victorian era. A neo-Grecian style sideboard (c1865) in totara by James and Samuel Johnson, Nelson and a tea caddy (c.1843-7) by Wellington cabinetmaker Henry Mason have both been repatriated from Sydney. Mason’s 1851 (Auckland) advertisement had copied parts of George Smith's Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer's Guide (1826), intentionally appearing to replicate high-English design in native timbers.
"Elegant Articles of Cabinet Work in the New Zealand Woods Manufactured by Henry Mason near St Johns' College. Loo, Card, Occasional, Dejuné, and Ladies Work Tables, and c., with tops inlaid with Mosaic Work, Crest, or Designs to any pattern, and on Carved Stands; Fire Screens, Flower tables, Cabinets Work boxes, Tea Caddies, Dressing Cases, and c., of well–seasoned materials suitable for exportation."
After 1859 the arrival of New Zealand’s most celebrated wood artisan, Bohemian migrant Anton Seuffert, elevated colonial furniture to international status. Seuffert’s intuitive combination of native timbers, unique New Zealand iconography and the finest Louis XV cabinetwork, had by 1862, travelled to the London Exhibition following which his magnificent cabinet had been gifted to Queen Victoria. Over the next fifteen years he had produced a series of at least ten (known) writing desks or escritoires inlaid with native flora, fauna and Māori scenes for such dignitaries as Sir George Grey, Bishop Augustus Selwyn and Sir Joseph Hooker.
Seuffert’s prodigious marquetry output (also) earned him a Royal Appointment in 1869 but between commissions much of his work was far less lucrative with most being sold as more mundane gift and souvenir ware. Seuffert’s signature marquetry is more often found on glove boxes, fern album covers, wine tables and picture frames, displaying highly figured native timbers intercut in traditional West European Gothic or Louis Revival motifs, along with his unique colonial inspired imagery. After Seuffert’s death in 1887, this work continued into the 1930s by his son William (d. 1943).
The Economics of Veneering
By the 1880s, more commercially and with far less sophistication, brothers William (Auckland) and Robert (Christchurch) Norrie were lavishly veneering day-to-day domestic furniture with highly regarded native species in direct competition with British oak, mahogany and walnut imports. Large sheets of puriri, rewarewa, totara knot, mottled kauri and kohekohe machine sliced at .08-1mm thickness were cheap to produce but were highly decorative, rivalling anything timber throughout the Empire. Indeed William’s business card said as much: 'Beautiful presents for home, very rich inlaid table tops, cabinets, fancy boxes, chess tables etc. All carefully made from the very finest class of New Zealand handsome forest timber.' 
The term ‘veneer’ in the Dickensian sense also suggested sham, cheapness and fakery, largely through the well-deserved reputation engendered by the very worst English-made wares. However, the colonial experience produced some of our most important furniture. It allowed settlers of modest means to afford cabinet work made from the finest and most beautiful, and globally appreciated, native timbers even if they were only veneer deep.
Header image: Unknown maker,
Neo-Grecian Sideboard veneered in totara and puriri, c1845. Image © William Cottrell