At large and at small, Helen Watson White

In Her Hand: Letters of Romantic-Era British Women Writers in New Zealand Collections
Otago Students of Letters
Department of English, University of Otago, $22.00,
ISBN 9780473249818

R A Lawson: Victorian Architect of Dunedin
Norman Ledgerwood (Graham Warman photographs)
Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand, $75.00,
ISBN 9780473244033

Two recent books plumb the country’s archival heritage to bring to light, and to print, things most of us wouldn’t otherwise have known about. Are these things worth knowing? Certainly. In the first case, every detail helps build the bigger picture for the community of academics interested in literature of Jane Austen’s time and after. In the second case, the general public will agree with specialists in Australasian architectural history in the age of Victoria: this first comprehensive Lawson biography has been a long time coming, but is undoubtedly worth the wait.

In Her Hand is a delightful glimpse into the minds of 11 literary women of the Romantic era, their newly discovered letters contextualised by an essay on each by the same number of Otago Honours students of ENGL 404: Writing for Publication. The last entry in the book shows writing for publication as the everyday process it was for women like Maria Jane Jewsbury (1800-1833), author of “four books, as well as countless reviews, essays and poems” in literary annuals. On returning from a three-week stay with the Wordsworths in 1829, Jewsbury dashed off a short essay on “The Morning after a Journey”, describing the arrival home, the having to front up to family and friends when, of a completely pleasurable experience, “the dream part is all gone”:

You are expected to give sketches of character – illustrations of scenery – be in fact a tea table edition of ‘Endless Amusement’. Your acquaintances follow by degrees & with these come questions somewhat equal to the amount of the National Debt – eight hundred million.


We know she wasn’t proud of this journalistic piece, because it is prefaced by a note to Thomas Dale, editor of The Iris, in which she acknowledges he is unlikely to “make use of it” in such a hastily written form and asking him to consider a longer working-up “next year”. We also know he returned it as asked, because she has scribbled over the preface and forwarded the essay to another person, adding a postscript on another matter entirely. A plate of the scribbled-over section reveals how difficult these documents are to decipher in the first place; the students’ powers of transcription must have grown by the hour, along with detective-like research skills. What was a class exercise and a group project has resulted in a close focus on these women’s lives and personalities, their education and very particular circumstances, their handwriting and even their household furniture. An engraving from 1877 of Amelia Opie’s sitting-room at Norwich, for instance, shows a bonneted woman for whom “travel was difficult”, seated, writing, at a round table, yet ready to receive her friends on a circle of hard-backed chairs.

The provenance of the letters is also very particular. Most are from the Alfred and Isabel Reed Collection, “an amazing assortment of letters, autographs, books and medieval manuscripts” gifted to the Dunedin Public Library in 1948. A H Reed, founder of the well-known publishing house, was wont to purchase bundles of miscellaneous letters or autographs from London dealers on trips abroad in the 1920s; connections between them and with other material were made later, and not necessarily by him. An engraving of Anna Barbauld, for example, was found accompanying an article in the Lady’s Monthly Museum which Reed had inserted into a copy of The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1907, vol 5, between pages 558 and 559. This minutely observed study-in-a-book has been as much a discovery of Dunedin’s heritage as it has been of hitherto little-known literature (the latter at second-hand, though, for it concentrates on personal letters rather than the literature itself).

The Lawson biography, too, while celebrating a legacy of remarkable buildings – some 32 formally listed on the New Zealand Historic Places Register – also reveals the extent of archival heritage in the south: not only in civic and national archives, the University of Otago Hocken Collections and Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, but in the Dunedin Public Library McNab Room, the Hewitson Library at Knox College, the John Salmond Heritage Collection and Salmond family papers, and in the “many small local museums” throughout Otago, from Balclutha to Arrowtown. Author and retired architect, Norman Ledgerwood, has told the Otago Daily Times the story of how, as an architectural draughtsman in 1954, he was lucky enough to find some of Lawson’s “most important designs” in the upstairs storeroom of his architect employer, Salmond and Burt.

Most Dunedin people interested in the arts are aware of those “important” Lawson commissions: Otago Boys’ High School, Knox Church, the Municipal Chambers in the Octagon, as well as First Church – the 1862 competition designs for which were the young Ledgerwood’s first find. Not so many are aware of the dozens of other churches, hotels, educational, civic, industrial, commercial and residential buildings, of which 56 are still standing, with or without modification, within and around Dunedin city.

The chronological list of known works in Appendix 1 runs for several packed pages, and includes alterations and additions to houses and other buildings for which Lawson may not have been the original architect. Peter Entwisle’s exhaustive catalogue, on which the list is based, is permanently available on the website of the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust ( which, in 2004, erected a Lawson family memorial because none existed and, in 2013, with considerable funding assistance, published this substantial (256 page) book.

There could not, of course, have been such an impressive catalogue of achievements if Lawson had not been in at the start of a new colony. The Maori presence in Otago when he arrived (from Melbourne) in 1859 is indicated mainly by place names – and, even then, when he designed a bank for one of the earliest Otago settlements, it was called Hawksbury, not Waikouaiti. Lawson’s famous two contiguous pillared banks in Thames Street, Oamaru, recall the artistic style of classical Rome, standing aloof from the life of the land. Country churches are closer to earth, rising (literally) out of the limestone hills around: a Presbyterian kirk at Otepopo (Herbert) in 1866, at Waiareka/Teaneraki (Enfield) in 1877.

The smallest of these rural Otago churches, of which there are many – a nave with bell-tower and porch – recall Abdie Old Church (shown in a painting and photograph) where Lawson was married in his native Scotland; grander works like the Benevolent Institute in Caversham (1863) and the Lunatic Asylum at Seacliff (1879) – both lost to history, the second amidst controversy over slipping foundations – show the influence of Tudor and Scottish Baronial styles respectively.

While Lawson arrived in Dunedin after the very first “First Church” and school were built – a simple wooden beginning with stone addition – he became a leading member of the Free Church community, charting the parish’s development in subsequent buildings, whose capacity grew along with the burgeoning town. He was the designer of the large interim wooden building in Dowling Street which was needed during the long process of building First Church (as we know it) to his award-winning design. With delays and mistakes in construction (the tower built some metres lower than the plan), the process took years (1867-1873), and serious faults became evident later, too. They may, says Ledgerwood, have precipitated Lawson’s retreat in his later years, back to Melbourne where he began.

But First Church is only one of his achievements. The idea that it is the main one is probably indisputable, but consider the quality of the also-rans: St Andrew’s Presbyterian, with its magnificent interior, newly cherished by the Coptic Orthodox Church; Trinity Methodist, which became the Fortune Theatre; the unique Larnach Castle, which Ledgerwood makes clear is fully in the Lawson manner; the Municipal Chambers, which nearly got demolished in the 1960s; and the Italianate building opposite, on the Octagon’s lower corner, which makes its perfect complement. The depth and detail of research required for this text, which explains the development of Lawson’s distinctive style at every turn of his career, is matched by comprehensive full-colour illustration. Added to reproductions of Lawson’s plans, and his watercolours of streetscapes with his designs fully realised, are other historical documents, newspaper cuttings, plaques, portraits and landscape photographs. Graham Warman’s contemporary photographs are also impressive, illuminating subjects small and large, domestic or majestic, interior and exterior, with a combination of art, affection and authority.


Helen Watson White is a Dunedin writer, photographer and theatre critic.


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