New Zealanders at Home. A cultural history of domestic interiors 1814-1914
Anna K C Petersen
University of Otago Press, $45.00,
Every now and then, I agree to have my kitchen photographed. And every time what a fuss it is. Even the toaster has to be polished. But all that cleaning is just the beginning. Once the photographer arrives, the real work starts. Now we have to make the kitchen look the way it should, rather than the way it does. We have to decide whether to look towards the old coal range to give credence to my interest in traditional food, or towards the professional gas stove to indicate that I used to cook in a restaurant. And while it is fine to have electrical appliances on display, it isn’t done to show any of the cords. These have to be unplugged and tucked out of sight, along with the jars of Marmite and peanut butter, which are replaced on the kitchen table by a bottle of olive oil and a handsome aubergine.
I thought about all this palaver when I looked through the 86 pictures that Anna Petersen has collected to illustrate New Zealand domestic interiors over the hundred years from 1814 to 1914. I’m sure that just as much styling took place then, such as placing a violin on a parlour table, with three bowls of flowers in a row behind it to mask the dark opening of the empty fireplace. Other styling may be less obvious. In a c1914 photograph of the kitchen of a working-class house, there is a boy sitting at the table listening to the gramophone. The caption says this suggests that the family preferred to congregate in this room. That may be so, but it is also possible that the gramophone, as well as other prized possessions, were brought into the room especially for the photograph.
An unfortunate example of the perils of trying to learn about people’s lives from studying the insides of their houses is the caption to an 1898 photograph of the drawing room at Lake Station. This photograph is familiar to me because the property belonged to my partner’s great-grandfather, John Kerr, who had drowned in the nearby lake not long before the photograph was taken. The problem is that the caption attributes the photograph to the wrong Lake Station, locating it on Banks Peninsula instead of at Nelson Lakes, and this mistake has led Petersen to some misreading. For example, she comments that “the decorator has done her best to dress up what looks to be a very plain fireplace underneath.” In fact, the decoration is a shrine to the recently deceased owner, of whom there is a photograph shrouded in dark drapery hanging between the funerary trappings worn by the horses that pulled his coffin. She also surmises that because there are nine chairs, a meeting is about to start. What she didn’t know is that there were eight children in the family. This may be the only incorrectly captioned photograph in the whole book, but it serves as an illustration of how careful one must be when making inferences from photographs.
What we do learn about is the decorating styles that were popular, particularly among the moneyed classes, at the time each photograph was taken. In this area, Anna Petersen excels, both in her choice of drawings, paintings and photographs, many of which are published for the first time, and in her four essays, each of which is devoted to a 25-year period. At the beginning, we see images of sparsely furnished habitations of Maori and settlers, which to our modern eyes have a simple and appealing elegance. Then the rot sets in, as more and more artefacts are crowded into dimly lit houses, until, if we are to take these images literally, there is barely room to move. By the final 25-year period, the rooms are emptying out again and it is easy to imagine settling down in one of the gracious Morris chairs.
In her preface, Petersen closes with the hope that this book will encourage readers to preserve photos of their own homes, presumably in order to build up an archive for future study. I think it’s a vain hope. If you’ve ever taken candid snapshots of your living room, you’ll think it looks a mess, and if do you tidy it up to look like something in a magazine, it won’t tell students of the future any more about you than the photos of my kitchen say about me.
Lois Daish writes a food column for the New Zealand Listener.