Our little Dacha


Hallway mid-demolition.

Almost a year ago I posted that we were about to get back on the tools and start work renovating the hall. That turned out to be a little optimistic.

What I didn’t know then was that within a matter of weeks I’d leave my job at the Museum and Art Gallery in Napier to take up life as a full-time writer, based 400 kilometres away in Auckland. This meant reclaiming our Auckland house – long rented out – and facing up to a great deal of postponed maintenance. Then came the more pleasant task of refurnishing the Auckland house (robinsimpsonhouse.wordpress.com ) in a very different style, which (no surprises here) I did from the local auction house.

Auckland home - a very different style

Auckland home – a very different style

So Peter and I now live between two cities, occupying two different houses in a complicated relay, which see us spending different periods of time in different zones and relying on house sitters and cat minders to ensure we spend some time together in the same house.

Somewhere in this the hallway project got a little lost.

That was until the other day when sitting at my desk in Napier, having deposited Peter at the airport for Auckland, I decided that the struggle I was having with a particular piece of writing could be attributed to the influence of the depressing water stained wallboard in the hall and that the time had come to do something about it.

It took three days to strip the hallway of its softboard linings (using a garden spade) and then to remove the numerous nails small tacks and left over bits of hessian still attached from the old scrim wallpaper underneath.

The result was a rather severe hallway lined only with the sarking boards – rough sawn horizontal boards of native Rimu – to be found in most older New Zealand houses.

Rimu was always considered the second choice in building after Kauri (NZ Pine) and was therefore used for construction only after Kauri ran out – which it had done by 1906 when Finnis house was built. It is a hard timber that gets harder with age. The heart timber goes a dark red-brown while the outer timber can be almost pale. Sarking boards, cut from Rimu logs, contain both heart and outer board timber.

I am always impressed by the appearance of sarking. Its rich brown tones are warm and its surface pleasantly rough. When contrasted with white painted ceilings it looks rather smart. What I find is that you are usually tempted to consider a brown and white colour scheme for the finished space. However the truth is the flatness of paint means you won’t achieve the same feel as exposed timber. Then there is the option of leaving the sarking? The problem is you can almost see the breezes blowing through the hall now. If only there was some middle ground?

We will line and paint the hall as planned but for the moment it has been furnished in the starkest manner suiting its new severity.


On Peter’s return he took some photographs that reminded us both of those delightfully woody Russian or Scandinavian interiors in country houses or fishing lodges.  So just for a moment as I write at my desk in Auckland I’m happy to think of Napier as our little winter Dacha.


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Old friends and old rivals reunited


Matthew Boulton's Soho works Birmingham

Matthew Boulton’s Soho works Birmingham (c1795)

The other day while looking at an Old Sheffield Plate salver, a friend identified the marks, a pair of suns, as those of Mathew Boulton. Boulton was, he said, ‘a highly regarded Sheffield plate maker.’ I was fascinated. Why was Boulton called a Sheffield plate maker rather than a silversmith? Was there some distinction to be made? Didn’t most silversmiths just segue into Sheffield plate-making once the technology changed? Was there really a hierarchy of Sheffield Plate makers about which I knew nothing?



Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) Artist Unknown.

Matthew Boulton was, it turned out, a name I’d come across before but not quite absorbed. Born in 1728, he was the son of a Birmingham manufacturer of small metal products (significantly not a silversmith). Matthew inherited the family business while in his early thirties and expanded the firm, branching into new technologies including fused silver plate – what we now call Old Sheffield Plate.

What catapulted Boulton to international fame was a debt. Boulton was owed money by one John Roebuck who offered  his shares in a new invention. That invention was James Watt’s steam engine. Boulton & Watt went on to provide steam engines for factories and mines across England, powering the Industrial Revolution and becoming immensely rich as a result.

Boulton built a large steam-powered factory, the Soho works, in Birmingham, to make among other things ‘plated wares.’ The factory became one of ‘the show places of Britain in which England had national pride’ and distinguished visitors from abroad flocked to see this wondrous manufactory and to acquire its works.

Matthew Boulton was a member of the Lunar Society, a group of men prominent in the arts and sciences. Members included James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood and Joseph Priestly. The Society met each month near the full moon, often in Boulton’s home and are credited with developing concepts and techniques in science, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and transport important to the spread of the Industrial Revolution.


Matthew Boulton’s marks, dual suns, seen here on a candlestick.

So there was Matthew Boulton and his Sheffield plate, at the very centre of the Industrial Revolution in exactly the same way as was Josiah Wedgewood and his pottery. This is in part what makes late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century decorative arts so fascinating. There was an enormous amount of innovation and technological advancement going on most of which was focused on providing new and better items for the home.

The friendship between Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgewood suggested to me the potential for a nicely knowing dinner table pairing of Boulton plate and Wedgewood ceramics. So I set about re inspecting our pieces of Old Sheffield plate looking for marks, well, let’s be frank: looking for Matthew Boulton’s marks.


The marks on Old Sheffield plate have always seemed slightly impenetrable. The system lacks the clarity and simplicity of the hallmarking system for sterling silver (which is pure genius). Hallmarks are essentially a signature whereas Sheffield plate marks were an early form of corporate branding. When previously I’d looked at books dedicated to Sheffield plate I’d been further discouraged by the dates associated with marks, which seemed ancient and unlikely to be encountered.

In 2013 we blogged about finding a copy of Elsie de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste, in a box lot. Along with that had come a copy of Old Sheffield Plate by R A Robertson and The Silver & Sheffield Plate Collector by W A Young. After examining the photographs, these books had been filed away on a shelf. Turning to them now I discovered in Robertson one of those delightfully engaging experts with an encyclopedic knowledge and a humorous approach to his subject.

Most of our pieces of Sheffield turned out to be unmarked. Marking Sheffield was optional and often frowned upon by retailers who feared that marks allowed customers to compare prices across competing shops. The four numbers that appear on some Sheffield are seldom dates. So the 1832 discovered on one of my candlesticks are more likely a stock number.


The centre of an Old Sheffield Plate salver by J. Dixon & Co., see ‘The great silver rush of May 2013.’

The first legitimate mark I encountered was on a small salver, itself the subject of an earlier blog (The great silver rush of May 2013). The marks were of J. Dixon & Co of Birmingham, first registered in 1784 of which I’ve been able to discover very little additional information. This doesn’t mean the salver is from 1784; the dates on Sheffield are those when the mark was first recorded – there is no yearly update as with silver. With Robertson’s advice as to style I suspect that the dish is almost 40 years later, the 1830s, once borders of grapes came into fashion.

The next mark (a bell) turns out to be the work of Roberts, Cadman & Co. Samuel Roberts, also from Birmingham, is one of the other great innovators of Old Sheffield Plate and was undoubtedly a close rival of Mathew Boulton. Robertson makes Samuel Rodgers out to be an interesting character and describes his personality in unflinching terms –

‘Samuel Roberts had the feeling of an artist and the gifts of a craftsman united with commercial aptitude. … His zest for life and his tremendous mental vigour made him interested in nearly everything; and a forcefulness of character combined with a practical sense gave him the power to succeed in what every he set his hand to.’

‘Few men have the character to remain unspoiled by success such as his and he was not one of them. The sun of his sterling qualities had spots. He was a little vain, a little smug and was beset of a Smilesian priggishness that was impatient of others less gifted than himself.’

“He always succeeded in being in advance of all his competitors, none of whom has genius that could compare with this. His competitors apparently awaited his productions, before deciding on what line their own goods were to take shape. The quality of his plated goods and the correctness of their outline were excelled by none and equaled by few. Mathew Boulton being a rival of his amongst the makers of note of the time.”

Samuel Roberts mark, a bell, on a pair of candlesticks by Roberts Cadman and Co.

Samuel Roberts mark, a bell, on a pair of candlesticks by Roberts Cadman and Co.

My Samuel Roberts marks are on a chaffing dish which again I suspect dates for the 1830s. It’s not a period of design that Robertson (or his generation) much like (he’s far more Queen Anne, Robert Adam, or Regency focused). He tends to dismiss Roberts Cadman’s later works and anything else of the William IV period. I however am clinging to this remark – ‘Samuel Roberts must be reckoned one of the great figures of Old Sheffield plate manufacture.’

Roberts was based in Birmingham but didn’t much like what he saw around him. R A Robertson has such a distinctive turn of phrase I can’t resist one more quote that points at least in the direction of our target Matthew Boulton. Roberts writes –

Samuel Roberts, from some lofty pinnacle of moral rectitude, looked down on Birmingham, that horrid hotbed of lazy workmen turning out tenth rate trash.

But as Robertson assures us although Birmingham was turning out a prodigious quality of the cheap and nasty there were exceptions – the most notable being Matthew Boulton – ‘equal to Roberts in his own fields and superior in everything else.’ Ouch– take that Samuel Roberts.


Roberts Cadman & Co, Chaffing Dish (c1830)


Circling around the Old Sheffield plate here, checking for marks, never did bring me to Mathew Boulton’s pair of suns. Like most groups or collections of things here, it’s not a specifically curated collection. I’ve just assembled a few pieces of Old Sheffield because I like its qualities and its usability. But R A Robertson and his charming book Old Sheffield Plate has made me think a little differently.

Robertson is so enthusiastic about the craft aspects and the inherent innovations of this comparatively short lived process, that it seems an art-form to which one could  pay a little more attention. Pairing old friends Wedgewood and Boulton on the dinner table remains a new goal. In the meantime knowing a little more about Samuel Roberts and his personality, I can’t wait for the arrival of a Boulton work and to see what transpires when two Old Sheffield Plate making rivals are similarly reunited on the table




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Sacrilegious fun

IMG_8462 (1)

One day I saw a chair that intrigued me at Maiden & Fosters’ weekly auction. It was a good quality copy of a Chippendale-style chair. By the state of its varnish – yellowy and shiny – I would have dated the chair to the 1940s to the 1950s, though this is difficult to corroborate. I looked at closely – its seat was made of leatherette, but the carving was crisp. The chair stood on its own like a giraffe among all the other chairs about to be auctioned that week.

I had always wanted to paint a chair like this either green or Chinese red, treating it as a ‘decorator item’. Obviously I would not do this with an original 18th century chair, nor would I do it with a good 19th century copy. This one answered my needs. I doubted whether anyone would want it, but since I could not attend the auction I left a relatively high bid of $100.

These days it is possible to luck on an 18th century chair for not much more in an antique auction but I decided I wanted this chair, even though Douglas was slightly incredulous.

When I returned to Napier I got the news I had ‘won the bid’. It had gone for the relatively high price of $93, alas. But I felt really excited to be doing something I’ve wanted to do all my life.

Douglas was away, so I was free to enjoy myself with what, after all, was neither a valuable antique nor even a particularly notable chair in itself.

I needed to strip the chair of varnish before I could do anything else. I went to Mitre 10 and cruised their varnish-removal shelves, fixing on an American solution called        Dad’s Easy Spray Varnish and Paint Remover. It was many years – many decades in fact – since I had stripped furniture. In the 1970s my brother Russell and I had a long period of stripping colonial kauri furniture of the painted surfaces that today we would think were quite lovely. In those days, wood was king. I remembered well that stinging sensation of stripper on bare skin, the way you started off quite carefully but inevitably, in your enthusiasm, you got it on you somewhere. I remembered the smell and the mess.

I was dubious about stripping the chair because of its intricate carving. I bought all the associated gear – mask for fumes, gloves, several types of scraper including a plastic one at the last minute. I also bought grade 2 steel wool for the final removal and turps. mask etc

I decided to work in the back shed. The weather was still fine – in fact it was hot – but by working by the open door I would be ok for fumes. I set to work. I painted on the stripper in copious quantities, beginning with the intricate back of the chair (not a good idea.) The solution had to be left 10-15 minutes then removed. Removal was messy but the varnish seemed relatively easy to shift. I moved on to another part of the chair. (Later I decided to concentrate on one side of the chair at a time, including those parts furtherest away from me. By rotating the chair I would cover all parts of it. Of course I made a mistake by starting with the most visible part of the chair. If it had gone wrong in some way I would have stymied the whole operation.)

Within two days I had stripped away the unattractive yellowy varnish. The cheap plastic scraper I bought was the best implement even though it collapsed in the end. The most exciting part was removing the final remnants of the varnish with steel wool and copious amounts of turps. This revealed the native wood – the mahogany underneath.

stripped chairFor a moment I debated with myself if I should try and ‘pickle’ the wood a la Syrie Maugham in the 1920s. Besides not knowing how to do this, I decided mahogany was too red a wood to pickle. So I allowed the chair to dry overnight.

This is when I began to have qualms, as the chair in an unstripped state actually looked quite attractive. Its cheap varnish had vanished and the mahogany just on its own had a certain…well, dignity.

I looked at this wood a lot, ran my hands over its smooth velvety surface and wondered what would happen if I waxed it with a good old wax. Would it start looking like a ‘proper antique’?

But this was not my endgame. I wanted to shamelessly produce a ‘decorator item’. I had always liked alarmingly false looking furniture in both Chinese green and Chinese red.

I got some oil based primer and set to work giving the chair a proper undercoat. As I did this I felt the shade of my grandfather become very agitated. My maternal grandfather was a wood merchant. He had carefully chosen all the wood for the hallway and doors of the house he had built when he was married. My mother had told me how unhappy he was when my grandmother – inevitably, as fashions changed – decided to paint all over the wood with a cream or white paint. Painting mahogany did seem sacrilegious. Mahogany in my childhood – especially highly finished mahogany – was meant to be the sine qua non of quality. Nevertheless I pressed on. Two days later I had a rather appealing white chair.

white chairIt occurred to me I should, or at least could, stop here. It looked after all like so much French/Scandinavian furniture today, sort of ‘antique’ and sort of ‘contemporary’. I juggled with the green option for a while then decided if I was going to press on I would go with red.

This is where a new set of problems appeared. What red? Douglas had gone to enormous trouble to get a lovely deep saturated red for the library walls. But locating a good red, with blues in it rather than yellow, became problematic. There was a further problem. Obtaining an oil based red in a small quantity (less than a litre) in an isolated place like Hawke’s Bay was difficult.

In the end I had to swap to a water-based red which the assistant told me was quite suitable for an oil-based foundation (but not vice versa.) I began the heretical business of painting the chair bright red.

This was fun. I changed the red for the second coat, hoping to obtain a ‘bluer’ red. (I still think the current colour is too red-yellow.)  IMG_8856But the chair does have a rather dazzling presence (to the degree it makes all our old colours look a bit drab.) The next step is some contemporary fabric for the seat. Altogether it will have cost me probably $250 for this essentially valueless item.

Perhaps I should have saved up another $100 and actually bought….a real 18th century chair?

But then I would not have had such good…sacrilegious fun.


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Sussex armchair envy

052_lA friend of mine recently acquired two superb Morris & Co., Sussex armchairs (c1860)

Not that I envy him. It’s just one of those events that plays on your mind in quiet moments of décor envy. I had recommended he consider them as they were out of my price range. He then acquired them unopposed at auction. I should add they were on the other side of the world and he shipped them over – but this doesn’t lessen my ongoing insane jealously.

Every time I see them at his house – where they look great – I realize what really good pieces of design they are. They have a deep ebonized finish, nicely worn in the right places and are as solid as a rock. They hold their own in the space and have real personality. They complement other pieces he has by Liberty and Heals. I suppose my willingness to pass on them initially came from the lack of a meaningful close encounter with a real example? Should I have kept mouth shut and acquired them myself?

Doing the right thing sometimes pays off. The other day I encountered four Sussex chairs at the last of the Auckland auction houses to deal in decorative arts. These were not alas my friend’s fabulous armchairs but the dining chair (both are by the architect Philip Webb). These are in essence a much more modest proposition. However I was not going to make the mistake of overlooking them and left a bid.

IMG_5479The four proved a good example of how sets of items come together over time. What at first seemed four seemingly identical chairs, turned out to be three chairs and an odd one probably by another maker. Within that grouping there were variations of every sort. Two are ebonized, two are stained brown, two have new, slightly clumsy, seats and one is near as can be original. One is essentially a ruin.

There is plenty of online advice regarding the restoration of a Sussex chair and in time I’ll blog around that ruin. Re-gluing the frame will be easy enough but it seems I’m going to have to consider alternatives to importing river rush which I can’t see New Zealand customs being happy about. For today I’ve done nothing more than remove some fairly rotten seating that had long ago disintegrated in order to discourage a very interested cat from becoming similarly interested in deconstructing the three surviving seats.

The bare frame now sits beside me at my desk in a corner of my office. Glancing at it periodically I can see why early Twentieth century writers on design saw the Sussex chair as a key starting point in modernist design. Its proportions are utterly elegant and its method of making both simple and sensible. Not yet industrialised, the frame has nice variants and a solid and straightforward honesty. It might not be an armchair but its the next best thing and I look forward to putting it back together.






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Mistaken Identity

Maclise 1

Lot 106 Daniel Maclice (Attributed), The Abduction [sic] of the Sabine Women.

The other day while viewing an art sale, for someone else, I had noticed (and immediately fallen for), a rather splendid Victorian painting, The Rape of the Sabine Women, attributed to the Irish painter Daniel Maclise.

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) is best known for the murals in the Palace of Westminster depicting The Death of Nelson and The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo (1864). He was a favourite painter of Prince Albert and a close friend of Charles Dickens. A Daniel Maclise, of any sort, is a rare thing on the New Zealand art market.

The Rape of the Sabine Women was a watercolour (laid down onto linen) of remarkably good colour and excellent execution and it was presented in an impressive gilt frame. The estimate on the work was well above what I could afford, but I held out hopes that with divine intervention it might fall my way.

I took a few digital snaps and headed home to report back to the friends for whom I’d attended the auction viewing. I continued to think about the work. Perhaps I could afford it? It was after all, splendid and although the subject matter wasn’t quite ‘us’ it would make good company for a little oil sketch by Maclise that hangs in our library. Except that is, that some things about this work worried me. If I was going to spend serious money I determined I’d better do some serious research.

Firstly I didn’t really feel this was a Maclise. Maclise’s approach to figures is quite distinctive and so I checked in Peter Murray’s book ‘Daniel Maclise: Romancing the Past.’ The book refreshed my eye and the figures at the centre of the image did not fit the bill. It also made no mention of their being a Sabine Women attributed to the artist. I felt sure this wasn’t a Maclise (later I found out that experts from Auckland Art Gallery, and Christies who viewed the work came to the same conclusion) but I liked the work even more the more closely I looked at it.


“Maclise’s figures, are quite distinctive.” Daniel Maclise, The Wrestling Scene in ‘As You Like It’ (Image courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd., 2012.)

Then there was the subject itself. The picture contains only one woman. So it could hardly be The Rape of the Sabine Women, plural. Artists are seldom that sloppy, even given ‘artistic license.’ Also that subject was in itself not popular with the Victorians who were after all a little more prudish than the generations prior – well at least when it came to scenes to be hung on the dining room wall. So if it didn’t depict The Rape of the Sabine Women what exactly was going on?

I went back to the image.

A knight dressed in red is rescuing a woman captured by brigands who was until then seemingly about to be set alight. It seemed we were in popular early 19th century territory – medieval knights rescuing maidens in distress. Perhaps it was from Sir Walter Scott? So into Google I went with an image search for ‘knight rescuing maiden.’

It took a while, trawling through abysmally sentimental images of the Disney meets Game of Thrones kind, but eventually there is was, the painting in question or at least what was left of it.

Sir Calepine Rescuing Serena (1831) William Hilton the Younger (1786-1839). Collection of the Tate Gallery, London.

The work was by William Hilton the Younger (1786–1839) and called Sir Calepine Rescuing Serena (1830) and depicts a scene from Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene.’ The painting is in the Tate gallery, however you won’t see it hanging there anytime soon as the painting is almost entirely destroyed by the asphaltum the artist used. This means that, like so may of this other works, this painting suffers from an irreversible creeping blackness.

So if this was a watercolour in preparation for a now lost work by William Hilton that was even better than it being a Maclise. Was this the sort of a work that might have turned up in New Zealand? The auctioneer, when chatting to me, had revealed that the work was from a deceased estate that had ‘some good art.’ This might be worth buying – even without relying on divine intervention.

The Tate website had another Hilton image. In 1989, probably realizing that their large Sir Calepine was doomed, they had purchased a small preparatory watercolour for the work. This illustrated Hilton working with small spontaneous studies. Did he then work these up into meticulously watercolours? It seemed a bit doubtful to me. Watercolours of the finished kind tended to sit in quite a different artistic camp. Clearly more research was required.

Study for 'Sir Calepine Rescuing Serena' circa 1830 by William Hilton the Younger 1786-1839

Study for ‘Sir Calepine Rescuing Serena,’ William Hilton the Younger 1786-1839. Tate Gallery London

I returned to my digital images, one of which was of the frame maker’s label attached to the back of the frame. This work was largely undisturbed it had no real signs of having been repeatedly taken out of its frame. However the label had been gnawed away leaving only vestigial information.

There was the name ‘Alfred Boot Princ … Eastcheap, E.C, & Dockhead, S E.’ and between that and the remains of a title the words ‘Manufactory on the Premises.’ Having grown up in a colonial part of the world in which almost every second street is called Princess Street it seemed obvious that Alfred Boot lived and worked in Princess Street. However Google told me that Alfred Booth was no frame maker but instead a printer. On second viewing the label read Alfred Boot Printer, Eastcheap, E.C, & Dockhead, S E. This explained ‘manufactory on the premises.’ This was not a watercolour but a print.

IMG_4645The print had been laid done onto linen which was a common practice for early chromolithographers and then applied to a stretcher – so it was an easy mistake to think it was a watercolour. A printer’s label attached directly to the rear of a print in assailable evidence you’re not looking at an original work and certainly not a watercolour.

I was now in a strange position of having undertaken extensive and, I thought conclusive, research that I suspected the auctioneer might want to know – but would he? I took some solace in my ability to deliver the first half of the information to him – the proper name and title. Nervous though I was, the news was taken very well and an announcement was made when the lot came up listing the real title and artist and its likely designation as a print. There was of little or no interest in the room and the work remained unsold.

It’s kind of a sad end to the story because they work still retained the same splendid appearance it did when I first saw it. The work was beautifully presented and would have been expensive in its day. Early Nineteenth century Chromolithography is a marvellous thing – but I suppose none of us are quite there yet. But even now I can’t help but think that this was Victorian image making of the best sort and that Sir Calepine and Serena would make splendid décor item in any home.





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A bowl, a plate, a conversation


Emperor Guangxu the tenth emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty


Viewing the local antique sale my attention was captured by a Chinese bowl decorated with two red dragons and with a distinctive disk of gold in the centre. What initially caught my eye was the auction house’s accidental arrangement of this piece on a smart nineteenth century mahogany extending dining table of good quality. Together the two seemed a classy couple compared with some of the fairly ordinary flotsam and jetsam that populate antique sales in this neck of the woods.

I decided to attend the auction.


Slightly annoyed at not getting a couple of things I thought I wanted early in the sale, I decided not to be outbid on the bowl and vanquished both an absentee bidder and a opponent in the room – at some cost. I waited around to see the table go under the hammer – but sadly it went elsewhere and the pretty pair, bowl and table, were separated.

I fled, lest I frittered money on unnecessary items.

When I got the bowl home I gave it a gentle wash and looked it over carefully. Despite a little loss to the gilding around the rim it seemed in great condition. But was it old? I’d bought it because it looked splendid not because I know anything about Chinese ceramics. This has been the general approach to the purchase of both Chinese and Japanese pieces here – it is a subject on which I am not expert but I do find myself attracted to the output of both nations.


I was pleased then, to locate a matching bowl for sale on an online antique site, where it was described as a “Chinese Qing dynasty period bowl having iron red dragons.” The description then went on to note the piece had “the red six character calligraphy Guangxu (1875-1908) reign marks.” The auction house provided an estimate that made me less worried about my purchase price.

Reign marks are a fairly new territory for me. So I was pleased to also match those on my bowl to Guangxu who ruled China between 1875 and 1908. Guangxu came to the throne aged four in 1875 as the tenth emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty. He was adopted by the ruthless one-time concubine Empress Dowager Cixi, who “aided” his rule. This arrangement didn’t turn out well and in 1895 Cixi, placed Guangxu under house arrest until she worked out a way to discreetly poison him.

reign marks

So my red Chinese bowl is from this volatile period of Chinese rule in the late Nineteenth century.

I’d shown a friend a photo of the bowl the night previously after he had enquired as to whether I was pursuing anything at the sale the next day. He remarked that it ‘went’ with two plates I already owned. This is a pretty astute observation when you realize how many plates there really are here.

The plates in question are by the English maker Minton and date from the middle of the 1880s. So potentially the English plates and the Chinese bowl are contemporaries. The British makers may have been looking a little more to Japan for their decorative inspiration but in terms of colour they’re spot on. It was clear that there needed to be a conversation between our Chinese bowl and our Japanese inspired English plates.

I selected the prime position on the library mantelpiece on which a marble lion has remained undisturbed from the very first posting on this blog. However when it comes down to it, the library is a great room for really looking at objects, so it seemed a fitting location. Accompanied with two Japanese blue and white vases and a pair of Imari style candlesticks (both yet to be properly identified), the Chinese bowl deservedly takes centre stage.

The ebonized aesthetic movement over mantle makes a great replacement backdrop for the regency style table at the auction house and the orange-red chinese plate seems at home.


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An Easterly Trajectory

east 2

Sir Alfred East, Stow-on-the-Wold (1906)

We spotted this work in a sale. For me at least, the initial viewing was a bit of blur, as I’d left my glasses behind. I could determine outlines of large pieces of furniture and the distinctive shape of a large soup tureen, but the fine details on the surface of an image were beyond me. However as this work was large enough to ‘feel good’ even under those circumstances, I asked Peter to read the signature. This was sufficiently large and clear to reveal the name  ‘Alfred East.’

That name rang a distant bell. Wasn’t that was the name on the little painting that hangs in the library? I was sure that was by Alfred East.

Peter had spotted this earlier work in a Webb’s sale a while back. ‘The Silence of Morning’ (1897) is a lovely depiction of a man in a rowing boat on a tree-lined river. Part of the attraction is that it had an undisturbed backing – featuring the label of J W Gibb, the late nineteenth century art dealer of 109 Cashel Street Christchurch, son of the Scottish maritime painter John Gibb (1831-1909).  The East was however very small and therefore broke the self-imposed ‘no small paintings’ rule. Why this one was allowed ‘in’ was that it passed an altogether different test.

Sir Alfred East is one of the artists represented in the Andrew McIntosh Patrick collection. I have mentioned before that this man can do no wrong when it comes to issues of taste.

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Sir Alfred East, The Silence of Morning (1897)


He and I intersected a while back through the pages of World of Interiors and then through a copy of his Fine Arts Society sale catalogue acquired online.  I’ve been collecting earlier works (Gilpin, Absolon, Taverner etc), but Andrew McIntosh Patrick does a very good line in late nineteenth century/early twentieth century English and Scottish works. That combined with an excellent little book on artists associated with Oscar Wilde (The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde & the Art of His Time) provide valuable references for this particular aspect of the collection.

Andrew McIntosh Patrick had a lovely little Alfred East called ‘New Moon and Rain Showers’ that dated from a trip made to Japan made in 1889. East spent 6 months in Japan and the subsequent exhibition of works in London caused a sensation in its day and propelled the artist into the spotlight. After that Alfred East’s career was a common enough tale of the alternative artist who becomes an establishment figure, eventually elected President of the Society of British Artists and in receipt of a knighthood from Edward VII.

Establishment British artists aren’t much admired or sought after in New Zealand any longer. It is a type of reverse colonial cringe. Something can’t be good or interesting because it is/was British. It a very limiting point of view but being ‘English’ puts a lot of art outside the interests of New Zealanders, English artists with knighthoods even more so. So generally Sir Alfred East, Sir Frank Brangwyn, Sir George Clausen etc., all once much sought after early twentieth century names have tumbled into that ever-expanding pool of overlooked and neglected artists.

east 1I visited the sale viewing later that day with my glasses and determined that the moldiness was on the glass rather than the work and later sat through 400 lots for the pleasure of acquiring it. The auctioneer described the work as ‘interesting and European’ (anything but British) and knocked it down to me for $25 with no other interest on the floor.

Alfred East was born in Ketteridge, Northampton in 1844 but studied at the Glasgow School of Art (wise decision) and later the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He became part of what was considered a new modern British school of landscape artists. That reputation for modernity was much stimulated by the Fine Arts Society exhibition of works completed in Japan. After that he settled into warm lyrical landscapes of pleasing colour and rhythm of line. He was once described as ‘ the most significant figure in English landscape painting in the decades before the First World War’ and positioned ‘in the direct line of Constable and Turner.’ How times change.

The etching titled Stow-on-the-Wold (1906) has all of the characteristics of the artist’s work and once illustrated a Studio magazine feature called ‘The Etchings of Alfred East,’ written by Frank Newbolt which he opened like this,

“When the Director of a Continental Gallery bought a copy of an etching by Mr. Alfred East called Stow-on-the-Wold, he recognised a new force in the limited field of that art; a new planet swam into his ken, and, like other watchers of the skies in this country, he was impressed by it.”

People no longer quite write about art like that, nor does it seem that the watchers of the sky in this country are keeping much of an eye out for Alfred East etchings. However Stow-on-the-Wold is a pleasing work that is sure to find a safe place on the wall here until the taste changes and it once more venturers out into the limelight.


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