Rolling with the wallpaper

In late November of 2013 upon arriving back at the museum after finishing another busy year at Victoria University, I was given my project for the summer. My mammoth task was to go through a large box full of pre-selected wallpaper, catalogue it and enter it into our ever expanding collection.

The box of wallpaper was gifted to us by Betty Weeber. In the correspondence which accompanied the wallpaper; Betty Weeber wrote of the collection, “They are a record of old wallpapers that my late husband Raymond and his father used in their wallpaper hanging and Master Painters business”. Originally our gracious gift was of numerous boxes of wallpaper, but after a rigorous selection process by the powers that be, these boxes were whittled down to just one box containing over seventy examples. 

My job was now set out in front of me, I knew what I had to do, it wasn’t going to be pretty (believe me when I say this, some of the patterns on the samples were pretty ugly).  I now had to painstakingly document and catalogue each individual wallpaper sample, measuring the lengths and the widths, taking detailed notes of maker’s marks and manufacturer’s logos, describing in detail what the patterns were, what colours were involved in the pattern, gently vacuuming the accumulated dust and dirt from some samples, taking detailed notes of rips, tears and damage and then entering all this information onto our collection database system.

Wallpaper Border Sample, c.1920s, gifted by Betty Weeber, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2013/63/25

Some samples were large, some samples were small, some were long (and I mean extremely long, like over nine metres long), and some were short.  Some were old and in bad condition, while others were, well, old but were still in extremely good condition, which is pretty impressive considering the majority of them date back to the time when Napier was being shaken to its foundations in the early thirties and some samples were even older. Some examples were hidden, rolled up inside other rolls of wallpaper, which added a surprising aspect to this particular task because, like a parcel in the game pass the parcel, you never quite knew what you were going to find once you started to unroll a roll.

What I found while cataloguing these wallpaper samples is they could be lumped into three different groups, the wallpaper frieze’s (for those reading this thinking “what’s a frieze?” Flash fact: a wallpaper frieze is the strip of wallpaper that goes around the top part of the wall where it meets the ceiling); wallpaper borders, which went around the bottom and the wallpaper drops, which are the samples used to cover the majority of the walls. The examples of the frieze’s were more often than not the examples in the worst condition as the perforations holding them together had come apart or were torn in places due to the continued unrolling and rolling of them over the years.

I also found that these samples and rolls came from all over the world, like Sunworthy and Canadian Wallpaper from, you guessed it, Canada; Crown Wallpaper and Shand Kydd Ltd from England; Griffen Wallpaper Manufacturers from America and even some examples from New Zealand’s very own Ashley Wallpapers.

After these steps the papers had to be photographed, which was done by our collection photographer. I then had to attach the photographs to their collection records and wrap them up and pack them into their packing units where they will stay until they are one day needed for research or exhibition.

2013.63.34bWallpaper Drop Samples, c.1920s, gifted by Betty Weeber, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2013/63/34b

To be honest at the beginning of this project I didn’t think I would enjoy it, just because it was wallpaper that I would be working with, but the more that I worked my way through this box of wallpaper samples, the more I started to look forward to the next sample. Not because I was one sample closer to the end, but because I wanted see what the next sample would be like, and there were some examples that stood out. One example from the 1930s had a continuing pattern of dense blue tree branches and leaves, through the gaps in the branches and leaves was a bright orange background and scattered randomly throughout the branches and leaves were small yellow star-like flowers. Why this particular example stood out for me was probably because it was visibly the brightest example amongst the lot.

To say the least this project was awesome and I enjoyed it a lot. I consider myself quite lucky to be able to come back to the Bay and to the museum every summer to work on different projects. Hopefully I can come back again at the end of this year to another interesting project.

Tom Mohi
Collection Assistant
January 2014

Raising a glass with Avis Higgs

Saturday 21 September 2013 is a significant date in the history of the museum, marking our renaissance as MTG Hawke’s Bay and the opening of our redeveloped building and exciting new exhibition spaces. This special day is also one that we share with Avis Higgs, one of Australasia’s most renowned textile designers and one that is dear to us here at MTG. Born on 21 September 1918, the Saturday of our opening day was also Avis Higgs’ 95th birthday.

We were thrilled that Avis was able to join us at our preview event on the Friday night and share in the re-opening of the museum where we house a large number of her designs, fabric samples, garments and paintings. These wonderful items have found a home here at the museum since the touring exhibition Avis Higgs: joie de vivre, curated by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins in 2000.

Image 1_DLJ and AvisDouglas Lloyd Jenkins and Avis Higgs at the opening of MTG Hawke’s Bay. Image kindly supplied by Linda Tyler, Director of the Centre for Art Studies, University of Auckland.

Avis Higgs was born in Wellington of joint Australian and New Zealand parentage and grew up in a family that shared a passion for art. Her own creativity was developed when Avis enrolled at the Art School of Wellington Technical College in February 1936.

As a young design graduate, Avis secured a full-time position at National Distributors Ltd. in Taranaki Street, Wellington where she undertook lettering and occasional poster design. It was also here that Avis learnt the principles of screen-printing, a technique which would later become important in her design work.

In 1941 Avis was appointed head designer for Silk & Textile Printers Ltd (STP) in Sydney. This company had been looking to hire an Australasian designer that could produce original designs at a time when inspiration from Europe was largely off-limits. During this period Avis Higgs was creating wonderfully innovative textile design inspired by her Sydney environment, including plant and marine life and trips to Bondi beach.

In 1948 Avis headed back home to Wellington and was soon plotting her next adventure in London. To save money Avis took up a position designing cinema advertisements and at night she designed textiles in order to build up her portfolio. Once again, Avis turned to her surroundings for inspiration creating designs based on native plants, flowers, and taonga held at the National Museum.

Avis Higgs arrived in England in July 1951. Despite a downturn in the textile industry at this time, her designs were well received by those who saw them. Unfortunately, Avis Higgs’ career in England was cut short due to a car accident and she returned to New Zealand in 1952.

Throughout the following decades Avis Higgs was an active member of the arts community, widely exhibited and received numerous awards. In 2006 Avis Higgs was awarded the Governor-General’s Art Award for her contribution to New Zealand art and a retrospective of her work was held at the Academy of Fine Arts.

MTG Hawke’s Bay recognises Avis Higgs’ contribution to design history and have represented her work in the exhibition Decorate: Design stories from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection. This exhibition will feature a printed rayon dress by Avis Higgs and a bag from Laurie Foon’s 2005/6 ‘Black Swan’ summer collection which incorporates Avis Higgs’ ‘Duckpond’ print designed in 1949.

Image 2_dress detail

Dress (detail), c1945, Avis Higgs, (b.1918), gifted by Mrs Avis Higgs, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2004/23/61

Image 3_bag

Handbag, 2005-6, Laurie Foon and Carleen Schollum for Starfish (estab. 1993, closed 2013), textile design by Avis Higgs (b.1918), purchase, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2005/47

Lizzie Wratislav
Curator Design Collections
November 2013

vinka’s bridal wonderland

I have just returned from a flying visit to Te Papa, where I was speaking about one of my favourite designers from our fashionable past – the fabulous Vinka Lucas.  My talk was part of the programme for Te Papa’s exhibition Unveiled – 200 years of Wedding Fashion from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and it lifted the lid on the bridal wonderland that Vinka, and her former husband David Lucas, developed in the 1960s.

The focus of my talk was the innovation and big-thinking that made Vinka’s Maree de Maru boutique such a key destination for New Zealand brides. In contrast with the contemporary bridal industry, in which women largely expect to be provided with finished garments, Vinka established her business at a time when her core clientele wanted to sew their own gowns. To meet this market without compromising her vision as a designer, Vinka developed a comprehensive range of services that ranged from fully finished couture gowns through to customised mail-order patterns, fabrics and trims.  With David Lucas working hard to cook up new marketing schemes and opportunities to promote Vinka’s designs, Maree de Maru soon become a high profile bridal business. 

One of the things I spoke about at Te Papa was the pattern service that Vinka offered via Maree de Maru and a network of fabric stores the couple developed known as the United Bridal Salons. Using this service, brides across New Zealand could select a gown from a comprehensive catalogue of Vinka’s designs, purchase a customised paper pattern and specified material from a member of the United Bridal Salons network, and then get to work making their dream gown.  

Vinka's designs were available to brides across New Zealand via publications such as 'Maree de Maru Marriages' and 'New Zealand Bride'.

Fabrics obviously became a key part of this process, and Vinka and David made considerable efforts to ensure that their business had a secure supply of exclusive fabrics.  However, when Vinka required extra special fabric for a key showpiece gown, she often went beyond the existing supply chain and commissioned customised fabrics. It was these unique gowns that were on display in the Maree de Maru salon, and appeared in private showings and bridal parades, inspiring brides across New Zealand.

Vinka's romantic gown and headpiece first appeared on the pages of 'New Zealand Bride' - a magazine run by David Lucas

The Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust textile collection is lucky enough to include one of these rare examples of a custom-printed Maree de Maru wedding dress, donated to the collection by Vinka herself in 2009. 

Vinka's gown is now in the collection of Hawke's Bay Museum's Trust / Ruawharo Ta-u-rangi (2009/36). The beadwork was retrospectively added by the designer many years later.

The fabric of this gown was printed by a Bronwen Mooney – a screenprinter who completed several key commissions for Vinka.  Various sources I have come across have led me to understand that Mooney worked in Hawke’s Bay for a period of time, and I wonder also if she might be a textile printer that also collaborated with Taumarunui designer Michael Mattar.  I would very much like to find out more about Mooney as a textile designer, as her work would have such a good fit with the strong New Zealand textile design and fashion collection held here at HBMAG.

Vinka's design was brought to life by custom screen printing by Brownen Mooney

This talk was a lovely excuse to delve back into the wonderful world of Vinka Lucas, and find out a little more about a designer who has made such a big contribution to New Zealand fashion history.

Lucy Hammonds, March 2012

Images appear with the permission of Vinka Design

african adventures in the art collection

One of our most interesting ‘while we are closed’ activities is James’ framing project. Every time I’m in the collection store there is an intriguing assortment of work from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust (HBMT) fine art collection out of their crates.  Douglas pointed out this work to me last week as I’m doing some research into the work of New Zealand artists in North Africa in the early 20th Century.

The plate on the frame reads: “North African Coast” by B. C. Dobie. Presented to H Guthrie Smith Esq

I rather liked this scene of a bright orange tent, pitched under the shifting shadows of a cork tree, looking out on olive trees and the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean.

The artist is New Zealander, Beatrix Charlotte Dobie (1887 – 1944).

Beatrix must have been a rather intrepid and determined woman to travel in this part of the world in the 1920s and 30s. I found myself curious about her; and the connection inferred by this painting with Hawke’s Bay farmer, naturalist and author Herbert Guthrie-Smith.

Beatrix Dobbie was born in Whangarei in 1887, daughter of Herbert Dobbie, a well-known stationmaster, botanist and writer. In 1911 she travelled to London with her friend Esther Barker (later Hope) to study painting at the Slade School of Art, under Henry Tonks. It was at this time she changed her last name to Dobie.

Muriel Wyman and Beatrix Dobbie, Mangere, c 1910. Photograph reproduced courtesy of Mangere Historical Society, Manukau Research Library, MGE: I, 2, no. 31

With the outbreak of the First World War she and Esther volunteered for the Red Cross and were stationed in Malta, and later at the New Zealand transfer camp in Codford, England. After the war she returned to New Zealand and exhibited regularly at the Canterbury Society of Arts.

The connection to Guthrie-Smith is here discovered, as it turns out that she illustrated his wonderful book Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station, first published in 1921.

Guthrie-Smith writes in his preface: “My thanks are due to Miss Beatrix Dobie for her physiographical sketches, and for her careful and accurate restorations of the old-time pas of the station. I consider myself most fortunate in having secured her services.”

The painting must have been presented to Guthrie-Smith by her in remembrance of this collaboration, Guthrie-Smith in turn gifting it to the HBMT before his death in 1940.

In 1926 Beatrix went abroad again, this time on a painting tour of Africa, and while in Tunisia she met and married Rene Vernon, an engineer with the French Army. They lived in Sfax and later Beja, and Dobie continued to paint, sending pictures to exhibitions abroad, including the Empire Exhibition of 1937. Despite civil unrest in Tunisia, and later the outbreak of the Second World War, they remained in Beja, keeping an open house to Allied servicemen. As fighting raged within miles of her home she slept with a dog beside her and pistol under her pillow for protection.

The occasion of Beatrix’s infrequent return visits to New Zealand were often reported in the press, on one visit in 1935 she commented in the Evening Post on life and art in Tunisia: “Life in a French colony is full of interest but it encourages the housewife in a woman more than an artist. [I] found [I] could not get into “casserole cookery” mood one minute and into painting the next.”

On the subject of art Beatrix said “Tunis was certainly a land of sunlight and a perfect place for painting. French art had experienced the cult for hypermodernism, but it was now coming back to a true form, enriched by the experience of its adventuring. People were realising that pictures without drawing, colour or form were not “liveable” with.”

While not in the first tier of New Zealand’s expatriate artists, Beatrix certainly achieved some success as an artist in her lifetime, and deserved the epitaph a ‘varied career of unusual interest’ bestowed upon her by the Evening Post when reporting her death in Tunisia in 1944.

The HBMT holds another work by Beatrix – an undated, untitled landscape, possibly of a Hawke’s Bay scene. We also have a work painted in 1911 of Hawke’s Bay farmer and industrialist William Nelson which has been on loan to us from the Napier Borough Council since 1940. In 2002 Whangarei Art Museum held an exhibition on Beatrix and her father called Portraits of Place, with loans from HBMT (including North African Coast).

Dobie. B. W.M. Nelson Esq, Waikoko, Tomoana c1911 on loan from Napier Borough Council40/21

If anyone knows the whereabouts of other works by Beatrix Dobie painted in Malta and North Africa, or knows more about her connections with Hawke’s Bay please get in touch.