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
THE SEUFFERT LEGACY - NEW ZEALAND COLONIAL MASTER
CRAFTSMAN: The craft of Anton Seuffert and his sons William,
Albert and Carl
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com
or (09) 520-3618
- Michael Finlay is professional practice fellow at the
department of design studies at Otago University