Writing Compendium 1903 William Seuffert

I wrote the auction catalog entries for these two pieces from the legendary Seuffert workshop for a recent auction at Webbs in Auckland.   The relatively unsual compendium sold for a respectable $44,000 and the table for about $20,000 which may sound like a lot until you realise that an identical table in lesser condition sold for $104,000 a few years ago!



Honour Boards – South African ‘Boer’ War 1903

These enormous boards reside in the entrance hall of the Ranfurly Veterans Home and Hospital in Three Kings Auckland and commemorate those men killed in the South African –  or “Boer” – War 1899-1902 which was New Zealands first overseas engagement. The Ranfurly Home was established as a National Memorial with the  Honour Boards taking pride of place in the lobby so they are the  focus of the entire huge wooden building.   The boards and frame were generally in good shape but had suffered the usual problems asscociated with wear and tear over a hundred plus years: splits where the timber had shrunk apart, splashes from liquids, cleaning cloths wiped over the lower moulding having removed the finish etc.  Worst of all was the wide central panel which had developed a big split right through the gold lettering and  the carvings, these had come loose and in a couple of areas pieces had fallen off altogether.   Apart from this central panel all the work was relatively straight forward and simply a matter of  isolating all the problems and carefully doing what was needed – just on a big scale. The boards and frame were hugely heavy and had been on the wall since they were first put up in 1903 as far as I could tell – even wall paper had been put up around them as well as many layers of paint over the decades.

It was a real privilege to work on such an important and meaningful object.  I had been planning to write about these boards for weeks and now, sadly,  it is topical as five New Zealand soldiers have tragically been killed in Afghanistan in the last few weeks.  One of these soldiers was Rory Malone the son of my  friend and colleague  Denis Malone with whom  I have collaborated on many projects over the years.  Denis is the finest traditonal upholsterer I know and extremely good at what he does.  Denis and Rory are descended from the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel George Malone who was killed at Chunuk Bair, Gallipolli .   Amazingly, in researching this,  I have realised that  L-C George Malone also captained a force of Taranaki volunteers – in the Boer War.   There is another connection to this war that I have come up against in the past couple of weeks as I have been writing about for an upcoming auction catalogue about some pieces by the famous cabinet making firm of Seuffert and Son.  The most famous job the William Seuffert (the son of the title)  produced was gifted to Lieutenant-General Baden Powell by the people of Auckland after his famous “Relief of Mafeking” during the  Boer War in 1900. Like the Ranfurly Home, the Honour Boards the famous “Baden-Powell Desk” was completed in 1903 after three years work prior shipping to England.

See below for further photos

BOOKS – my mini book blog  which is actually rather large this time and focuses on the war histories I’ve read this year…

I read a short history of the Boer War while I worked on this piece earlier in the year To fight for the Empire : an illustrated history of New Zealand and the South African war, 1899-1902 by John Crawford with Ellen Ellis. It was a good introduction and I would like to read more.  Also on the war front I also completed The End  by Ian Kershaw which posed the question:  “Why did the Germans keep fighting for so long against such hopeless odds?”  It was a bit  long but covered the question from all angles and was very nuanced.  I read an online interview with the author aftwerwards in which he conceded something he never did in the book that,  along with all the other factors,  that the Germans never gave up becauseof the fact that they were, well…German and very obedient!  You can’t read about WW2 without getting fascianted by Georgi Zhukov so I read a biography  of  him Marshal Zhukov : the man who beat Hitler by Albert Axell. The book basically sets out to defend Zhukov against attacks by people like Antony Beevor who criticise him for sacrificing  Russian soldiers  to his ambition – Axells response is that it saved lives in the long run which may be true in some cases but not in others e.g. the botched taking of Seelow Heights prior to the attack on Berlin. Axell also lays into Beevor for the emphasis on the rapes by Russian troops as they occupied Germany and sought revenge.   All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings is  a terriffic general history packed with little fascinating details such as  the  French Vichy  pilots itching to shoot down Allied forces in Syria or the man in Lenigrad who woke up to find his wife sawing off his leg – she thought he had died and she needed to eat.  There is some good stuff about the famine in India caused by Churchills  – arguable  but wrong in retrospect – refusal of help to ameliorate it.  I  have just finished Antony Beevors new book  The Second World War.  It is good as an overall narrative of the conflict and the origins of the war are  brilliantly laid out in the introduction.  Like  Hastings (he and Beevor are good mates) he covers the Chinese theatre and Pacific  theatres which tend to have gotten less attention than the Western theatres in the past.  He dwells on the rape in Germany by the Russians as he did in Berlin: The Downfall the book that Axell is responding to above, and constantly reminds everyone that, although the Russian did essentially win WW2, they did it driving American lend lease vehicles!  I would be interested to read a Russian historians response.  Bernard Freyberg comes off very  badly  both Crete and Cassino  and is described as being tactically stuck in WW1. I got interested in Cassino last year after after reading Alan Whickers account of his war time broadcasting in Italy which was an entertaining read.  he also lays into Freyberg and the destruction of the monastery.  Maybe Im just being patriotic but it seems to me that if the Italians hadn’t made such a complete hash of their surrender the Germans might not have occupied their country at all, they seem like the worst allies anybody ever had Germans and Allies alike.  I would like to read up on this.  I got interested in this as my grandfather served in Italy  – like Whicker – in broadcasting so got about a bit and had an unusal perspective on things I suspect. This year I read The Story of the Maori Battalion – Wira Gardiner, a great read.  I finally read a book on Churchill: Warlord A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945 by Carlo D’Este a good overview of his life.  Churchill had an incredible life: born in Blenheim Palace, took part in the last cavlry charge at Andaman, served in India, journalist in Cuba, escaped from captivity in South Africa – there is that war again –  brought his bath to the Wetern Front in WW1…. the list goes on.   I slipped in a book about the War of the Atlantic which I can’t recall the name of , it  had some great descriptions of British Naval ofiicers leaping onto scuttled sinking  U-Boats to try to snatch Enigma codes.

As if all this wasn’t enough I have have nearly finished a fascinating book Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics by Frederic Spotts  which lays out just how obsessed with art, music and opera Hitler really was and how this informed his actions and behaviour.  His artistic sensibilities the author suggests explain in large part how he was able to put Germany under his spell – and to create something  out of nothing.  Hitler  regarded himself as an artist and would often bemoan the fact that he had to fight the war and couldn’t wait to retire to his paints!    He expended huge sums on the arts (even from his persanal fortune – everyone owned Mein Kampf and he got a royalty on his image on stamps), paid artists and musicians generously and even exempted them from the military. He had a not just a love, but an obsession,  with the arts and regarded his fellow Nazi leaders as uncultured swine .  The author explicitly rejects the view that Hitler we should treat Hitler as simply a madman and that do do so simply burnishes his mystique  – we should not be afraid of him.  If you ever have wondered why Hitler was able to become who he was and be so successful for so long this explains it better than any other book I have read.  One more thing:  after Stalingrad Hitler could not bring himself to listen to Wagner.

Okay enough about books there are a bunch more I haven’t mentioned but on with the restoration

The central panel when new circa 1903 then before and after restoration in 2012 (click to enlarge).

Down – what a mission!

The central panel with the carvings removed and the split repaired.

Repairing the carvings.

Scraps of newspaper on the backs of the carving used to secure them while they were being carved.

Replacing the missing leaf.

The lobby and boards presumably shortly after opening.

A pretty crummy phone-camera photo of the restored boards back in place.

Kumete – Anaha Te Rahui

The kumete on the left showing the signature by Ngati Tarawhai chief Anaha Te Rahui whose portrait by Charles Goldie is on the right.

This kumete was carved by the great Anaha Te Rahui, chief of Ngati Tarawhai iwi  in Rotorua area some time in the late 19thC . Anaha died in 1913 aged over 90 so his life covered a great swathe of significant NZ history.  Roger Neich points out in Carved  Histories that he began carving war canoes, then meeting houses as a part of the renowned Ngati Tarawhai school of carvers and ended producing tourist art. As well as this he was a war leader and a  land assessor as well as claimant on behalf of his tribe and testified a great deal over many years so much is known about his life.  In fact so much of his time was spent waiting about for the land court that Anaha used the time fruitfully to carve art works and generate some income.  Charles Goldie painted his portrait not once, but twice. And there are many photographs of him which is a treat: I seldom know who made the items I work on so to have portraits, photographs and such an extensive biography is fantastic.

There are at least three almost identical kumete to this one.  One in the Auckland Museum is known as “The Two Wrestlers” and is said to represent two chiefs fighting over tikitere (Hells Gate geothermal area in Rotorua). The other is in a Sydney museum. Another larger and more famous one is in the Field Museum Chicago. The box is unusual in that it is signed by the artist.  Unlike the waka huia, which are carved on the bottom and made to be suspended in the air (containing huia feathers and other treasures)  in a chiefs house, a kumete is a kind of storage container.   The timber is, of course,  the carvers favourite: totara.  I always think of totara as the goldilocks timber as far as carving is concerned,  it’s  like a cross between kauri (too soft) and rimu (too brittle) – totara is just right.

What did I do to it?  Very little: some minor repairs and reinstated the paua shell eyes which although fallen out over time.  This kumete is illustrated in Roger Neichs Carved Histories and was featured in the recent Prime TV series History under the Hammer  where it fetched $43,000 hammer price at Art and Object.  As it was on TV I feel it is okay to put on the blog so it is in the public domain so to speak whereas much of my work , especially on waka huia, tekoteko and such like is usually private.  I get a real satisfaction on working on Maori objects as it is the flip side of all the fine colonial objects I often work on. It also plays to my strengths regarding subtleties of surface, colour and texture. Usually the work relates to undoing previous clumsy attempts at restoration.

I hope I am not going to get myself into trouble here for use of these pictures.  Obviously they are used for a non commercial purpose and I have attributed the pictures as best I can. Perhaps some of my savvier friends will set me straight.

Books, my continuing mini book blog…

Appropriately I have just read Wira Gardiners  Te Mura o Te Ahi: The Story of the Maori Battalion  which was a great read.  I had the much larger Nga tama Toa: The Price of Citizenship by Monty Soutar about C Company of the Maori Battalion as a companion which was good to refer to for lots of photos and detailed sidebars.  On the audio side in the last couple of weeks I’ve listened to An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen a liberal  – but not dogmatic – economist who defends the role of economics inglobal food production.  He has a gentle style, is extremely well travelled and loves ethnic food.  He says many things like this: that the best place to get good French food at a reasonable price is…Tokyo. Best place in world for fish and chips: NZ because we have a lot of coastline and, and it is popular and competitive culinary tradition here.  After that I needed some lightening up so finally listened to Bossypants by Tina Fey, she of the famous Sarah Palin impersonation during the 2008 US elections. This is her light autobigraphy.  She was one of the chief writers for the brilliant Saturday Night Live for years so she can really string a sentence together and it’s very funny.  For the past week however I have been churning my way through Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (which at 60 hours lengths gazumps the previous 40 hours length champion I listened to Mao by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday).  It is a new translation so it is quite fresh in its style (and has been criticised for some of it’s sometimes modern phraseology) but I like it and it also has an excellent and renowned reader  – which is just as well as if you are listening to a book for 60 hours the reader has to be top rank.  So I am half-way through now, only 25 cds to go…I don’t think I will make it by Saturday when I attend the production of Les Miserables my daughter is in so I will have the ending spoiled for me.  I will be fascinated to see how they can compress such a massive book (1900 pages in the original French) into a 2 and a quarter hour show. I also now have the book from the library so I can perhaps speed things up it will all Les Mis all the time!

Anaha Te Rahui – Charles Goldie Picture credit – Auckland Art Gallery?

Anaha Te Rahui Kumete Australian Museum. Photo Australian Museum, Sydney.

Anaha Te Rahui with his male heirs. Photo Alexander Turnbull Library.

Napoleon III Jardiniere c.1870

One of the best “before and after” transformations I have done for while.   This was a family piece so after decades of benign neglect (and after some serious initial neglect!) it came to me for some extreme restoration.  The veneer on the top and second level had had plants or vases placed upon it which had leaked into the veneer loosening it and causing it to subsequently flake off.  The inlay timber are a combination of rosewood, tulipwood, walnut, amboyna (for which I substituted burr totara, a really good match), birds-eye maple and of course ebony.  The substrate timber was poplar and mahogany and the legs were ebonized beech.  I always find it ironic that ebony is usually ebonized as it isn’t black enough! The bronze ormulu mounts were in exceptionally good condition with most of the original gold remaining on them, a soak in washing soda plus a good scrub prior to selective polishing and the  sealing with shellac was all they needed. The brass chain was also missing but I tracked down some ideal chain from a craft shop.

Quite a resurrection – the owners were astonished and delighted. They also suggested I change my name to “Amaze”. Hmmm perhaps I will… I’ve had “rockstar restorer” recently as well but you simply can’t beat “Living Treasure”  as I was once anointed by NZ House and Garden.

What is a jardiniere anyway?  It was used for displaying a potted plant.  The top of the lid lifts off and the plant placed in a tin liner underneath.

Audio:  As well as radio I listen to a great deal of audio books and podcasts while I work so I will be keeping a note of these as well.  Often if I see a photo of a piece I worked on I will recall the book I was listening to.  The title of this blog Resurrection Man comes from all the Dickens I have listened to in the last couple of years – specifically A Tale of Two Cities  in this case.  I am not digging up bodies but I do feel I breathe new life into things that will continue on in the world for hundreds of years.

For much of this job I listened to a book called Death of Artist by Kate Wilhelm a murder set in a small coastal Oregon town.  It was okay, a little slow and the reader had a  slightly annoying voice. I’d not come across Wilhelm before but was impressed to see that this is her most recent of dozens of books and she is now 83!  A nice coincidence was that it started in a woodworking workshop and featured descriptions of furniture and even tulipwood  which, of course I used in the restoration of this piece.