Elegant book worthy of Seuffert's standing

Cabinet presented to David Limond Murdoch, Inspector of the Bank of New South Wales in New Zealand. 1865.
Cabinet presented to David Limond Murdoch, Inspector of the Bank of New South Wales in New Zealand. 1865.
Brian Peet's book delivers real knowledge of Seuffert and helps us to
understand the strange world of 19th-century exhibition and
presentation furniture.

THE SEUFFERT LEGACY - NEW ZEALAND COLONIAL MASTER CRAFTSMAN: The craft of Anton Seuffert and his sons William, Albert and Carl
Brian Peet
Icarus, hbk, $95

Review by Michael Finlay

The great void in the history of New Zealand decorative arts is being rapidly filled by recently published volumes dealing with design, furniture, interiors and craft.

Detailed work on individual makers is closing the gaps between Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins' At Home (2004) and William Cottrell's major Furniture of the New Zealand Colonial Era (2004), two comprehensive surveys that act as solid bookends for furniture design history in this country.

When I began my curatorial career in the Decorative Arts collection of the Auckland Museum there was one well-thumbed book on local furniture on the office shelf, S.

Northcote Bade's Colonial Furniture in New Zealand (1971).

This was an entertainingly partisan account of an aspect of New Zealand culture that was only just coming into view.

Victorian New Zealand furniture was piled up in the storage rooms of auction houses and waiting in barns and sheds for the picking.

Our major museums were still showing off their English oak and Sheraton sideboards with local pieces relegated to colonial room displays.

An exception to this hangdog attitude to our own vibrant culture of furniture making was Anton Seuffert (1815-1887).

His name and reputation had lasted even if the high Victorian fashion in which he worked was viewed without much pleasure by the connoisseur.

This ingrained attitude was changing by the 1970s as New Zealand colonial furniture began to be better understood.

Brian Peet's book finally delivers some real knowledge of Seuffert to stand alongside the long-standing myths of his career and helps us to understand the strange world of 19th-century exhibition and presentation furniture.

Seuffert was a Bohemian, not in temperament, but by place of birth.

He was trained in Vienna and worked in London before emigrating to New Zealand in 1859 at the age of 44.

He was already at the peak of his career and announced himself in Auckland with a writing desk to be presented to Queen Victoria by the New Zealand Government.

Seuffert adapted Maori culture, native plants, birds and local scenes to the ferociously complex marquetry that he applied to his furniture.

His workshop expanded to employ his sons, and a steady flow of inlaid tables, writing boxes, and collectors' cabinets satisfied the emergent market for distinctively New Zealand furniture.

These were European in form but belonged uniquely to Seuffert's adopted country through their pictorial schemes and display of local timbers, patterns and images that appeared exotic to European eyes. Seuffert was not alone in this enterprise.

An even earlier effort to generate interest in New Zealand "fancy woods" was led by another German cabinetmaker, Johan Levien, who set up in Wellington as early as 1840 before returning to England.

Added to this international market was a growing clientele of financiers, merchants and politicians as well as local authorities seeking to make a substantial gift to departing mayors and visiting worthies.

The Seufferts were also jobbing cabinetmakers, providing furnishings for middle-class Auckland villas.

Peet brings the more decorative side of this work together into a dazzling survey of the Seuffert family oeuvre, which encompassed 80 years of production from 1859 to 1943.

The author looks at the life of furniture as well as its makers, recounting the chequered history of unwanted pieces narrowly rescued from destruction and others totally lost in house fires.

The hectic state of colonial Auckland is glimpsed with the collapse of Seuffert's workshop in 1865, brought down by another tenant overloading the building with flour.

This catastrophe prevented Seuffert exhibiting at the Dunedin Exhibition through which he would have been made known to New Zealand's most prosperous city. Pieces shorn of their extravagant carved decoration remind us of the continuous urge to "modernise", a curse that afflicted architecture as well as its fittings.

Peet carefully pares back the layers of stories that attach to such beautiful objects and is refreshingly sceptical about auctioneers' descriptions such as the cabinet presented to "Lord" Wakefield, the jailed and slightly scoundrelly figure behind the New Zealand colonial exercise.

Despite Seuffert's reputation and long working life, little has survived apart from the work itself.

There are no known photographs of the elder Seuffert and no business records.

Interpretation of authorship is troubled in the same way as confusion persists over the Dunedin carver Louis Godfrey who also employed his sons and maintained a prolific output.

Brian Peet acknowledges that this superb work on Seuffert is only a beginning and that a great world of similar research and investigation awaits future authors as well as collectors of New Zealand furniture.

Elegantly designed, well bound and illustrated with high-quality images, The Seuffert Legacy is a commendable self-published book that will be enjoyably read by those with a passion for New Zealand craft and design.

Available from peetfamily@orcon.net.nz or (09) 520-3618

- Michael Finlay is professional practice fellow at the department of design studies at Otago University