More show than substance, Jenny Pattrick

The Arts & Crafts Movement in New Zealand 1870-1940
Ann Calhoun
Auckland University Press, $89.95,
ISBN 1869402294

This is a large and handsome art book. Its hardcover, square format, copious illustrations and intelligent design suggest an honoured place on the coffee-table. The text, however, requires much more effort than the coffee-table browser usually manages. In fact, I found the text difficult to read and the organisation of the material rather unsatisfying.

Ann Calhoun has chosen an area and an era of New Zealand art that has received little attention – the Arts & Crafts Movement between 1870 and 1940. The subtitle of this book – “Women make their mark” – appears only after the cover and half-title page have suggested a wider perspective. In fact, the subtitle, when it finally appears, gives a true indication of the direction Ann Calhoun will take. Men are mentioned in this book, but only as influential educators and teachers of the many featured women craft artists. Illustrations of the work of men in the Movement, or mentions of their successes as artists, are extremely rare. This is fine: Ann Calhoun has a right to define her area of interest. No doubt the many women practitioners in this early period have largely been unsung. My quibble, I suppose, may be with the publishers, who have built up a wider expectation by omitting the subtitle from the cover.

Ann Calhoun states in her preface that the book has been structured so that the development of the Movement can be read through the illustrations as much as through the text. Most of the visual material, she claims, has not been published previously. Certainly it is easy and satisfying to turn the pages, look at the pictures and read the captions. The text has been printed with very wide margins, which often contain the smaller illustrations. Larger pictures occupy whole pages and usually carry quite detailed captions. There is almost as much colour as black and white. The many fine photographs are of book and magazine illustrations, fabric designs, pewter and silver artifacts, carved wooden furniture, embroidered pieces designed for use. Old photographs of art classes are especially interesting. Visually, the book presents a pleasing chronological history of the work of women artcrafts practitioners during this period in New Zealand. A wider selection of the work of men craft artists – Nelson Isaac’s silverware, Alex Fraser’s carving, Chapman Taylor’s furniture, to name but a few – might have given this book the extra edge I feel it needs.

The text, like the illustrations, has been organised chronologically. Ann Calhoun divides the book into chapters on Arts & Crafts (1870-1886), Applied Arts (1906-1920), and Artcraft (1920-1940). She intersperses the three sections with chapters about women in each of these movements. I found the distinctions between the three so-called movements slight and certainly the work produced not obviously different. All periods were strongly influenced by the British South Kensington School of Art philosophy, and by Art Nouveau and Liberty-Style design. Nor did I find the chapters on women discernibly different from the chapters that preceded them: material is sometimes repeated; men as educators and inspirers are mentioned in all chapters. It’s as if a thesis with a narrow focus – the work and education of women in the artcrafts – has been rearranged and given chapter titles to suggest a wider focus, while in fact the material might have been clearer in its original form.

That complaint aside, this book is well researched and scholarly. The meticulous detail in the notes, index and selected bibliography far exceeds what might be expected from a coffee-table publication. Sometimes I felt the author had drawn too wide a bow. Often, she mentions so many women in a single page that the text reads like an end-of-year school magazine, careful to be fair and to include everyone, without really illuminating anybody. I found it much more satisfying where she settles in some detail on particular artists – the Alcorn sisters, for instance, or Chrystabel Aitken or Florence Akins. The detail about the seminal roles played by the Wellington and Wanganui Technical Colleges and the Canterbury College School of Art, is also interesting and well documented. It is interesting to note that the material is slanted strongly towards Wellington and Christchurch. Auckland receives much less space, both in text and illustration. Is this because the Movement didn’t catch on in the North? It’s intriguing that Auckland University Press, nevertheless, is the publisher of this showpiece book.

In the end, though the book has plenty of pages, plenty of illustrations, and mentions plenty of artists, I did not feel it has quite enough substance, visually or textually. Perhaps this is because the subject itself is a little slight for the weightiness of the volume; perhaps shortcomings in the text and choice of illustrations contribute. My first tour through The Arts & Crafts in New Zealand was a real pleasure, the eye enjoying a fine layout and the rich colour and line of Liberty-Style and Art Nouveau-inspired pieces: the beautiful copper répoussé bowl by Chrystabel Aitken on the frontispiece; the stunning red of Elizabeth Baird Luxton’s hand-painted vase; Connie Dalrymple’s carved wooden sideboard. Lovely work. However, after deeper study, it didn’t quite live up to its promise.

 

Jenny Pattrick is a Wellington writer and jeweller. She currently chairs the New Zealand Festival of the Arts Writers and Readers Committee.

 

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