A small engraving of a dog looking in a mirror hangs just outside David and Marie Theomin’s bedroom at Olveston. The stories relating to the image are intriguing.
The dog pictured is a Pug. In ancient times, pugs were bred to be companions for China’s ruling families, along with Llasa Apso, Shih Tzu and tiny Pekingese which could fit inside the sleeves of a man’s robe. In the sixteenth century, lapdogs were brought from China to Europe through trade with the Dutch East India Company. Pugs were popularised by the House of Orange of the Netherlands and other royalty. Napoleon shared his bed with Josephine and her pug. Queen Victoria developed a passion for these social and gentle companion dogs. The pampered pets were more likely to get fleas from their owners than vice versa. Pugs featured in paintings by Hogarth, Goya and Tissot.
Pugs, sensitive to their owner’s moods, are devoted ‘shadows’. In class-obsessed Victorian times a strict hierarchy existed among servants, with senior servants known as ‘the Pugs’. The home was run by the housekeeper. Before dinner in the servants hall, the upper servants assembled in the housekeeper’s room (Pug’s Parlour), and walked in for dinner, led by the butler (Pug’s Parade). Another suggestion is that servants were nicknamed ‘pugs’ because they had to have an expressionless face, with turned-down mouth like a pug dog.
There are two signatures on the ‘Dog and Mirror’ artwork at Olveston – those of the work’s English engraver George Frederick Hughes (c.1859–93), and Edouard Rischgitz (1828–1909), the Swiss artist of the original painting from which the engraving is derived. Little information is recorded about either, but research tracked down Rischgitz’s name mentioned in an ‘Art Notes’ report in The Age newspaper, Melbourne, Victoria, on 18 July 1885. The reviewer praised the 28 painted tapestry designs exhibited at Messrs. Cullis Hill & Co., noting that ‘the dogs are especially well drawn’.
his fashionable firm was influential in creating an aesthetic which appealed to the urbane middle classes of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ – decorative art, painting, and the beautification ofdomestic interiors. In 1884, Cullis Hill & Co.’s recently erected six-storey establishment was described as ‘the most conspicuous object in Elizabeth Street… a commodious and well appointed warehouse.’ The company contributed to the Melbourne International Exhibitions of 1880 and 1888. Notable Australian artist Tom Roberts chose Cullis Hill to dress the famed 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition held at Buxton’s Art Gallery, Melbourne, in 1889, along with Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton.
Given David Theomin’s close connections with Melbourne life, one could think that Cullis Hill provided a model for his decorating taste at Olveston and business aspirations in Dunedin.
Prepared by Jenny Longstaff, housekeeper (‘pug’), and tour guide at Olveston Historic Home.
1.‘Dog and Mirror’, engraving by G. F. Hughes from a painting by E. Rischgitz.
2.Victorian-era housekeeper (from Guide to Life in a Country House, Pitkin Publishing, UK).
In the “Persian” or Card Room at Olveston the decor is made up of exotic pieces predominantly from Asia and the Middle East. A North American Indian beaded bag hanging in a corner of the room seems an incongruous addition, but then again, calling an indigenous resident of the Americas an “Indian” is also incongruous. Christopher Columbus got it wrong when he thought he’d found an alternate route to the East Indies spice trade in the late 15th century.
The bag itself is made of soft hide (buckskin), with a wrist-strap, flap fasteners and a long fringe at the bottom edge. An overall decoration of stitched rows of seed beads creates a ribbed appearance. Ornamental beadwork is one of the best known art forms practised by American Indians and design elements were distinctive to different tribes. Judging from the geometric design and beading technique, this bag is most likely an example of a 19th-century Plains Indian artefact. (Historically, many nomadic tribes followed the seasonal migration of the bison herds on the Great Plains, west of the Mississippi River. They included the Sioux, Crow, Pawnee, Comanche and others.)
Beads wereone of the earliest European trade goods; glass beads have been in use for almost five centuries in the Americas. The art of making glass beads probably began in Venice; other production centres followed in Bohemia, France, England and Holland. By the middle of the 16th century, Spaniards were trading beads into New Mexico. Before long they were spread far and wide, especially when Native Americans realised the design possibilities of using the small, brightly coloured beads on all sorts of items. They already had a beadwork tradition utilising quills, bone, wood, and shells but the small glass beads enabled more intricate designs.
Plains Indians were highly mobile – they had to pack up and carry all their possessions by horse from camp to camp, and as their clothing did not have pockets, all items had to be placed in pouches, bags and containers. These were utilitarian in design but decorated with care and purpose, transcending the physical object to a higher consciousness and a direct connection to nature and the ancestors.
There was a proliferation of beadwork during the mid-19th century, with time on their hands due to forced relocation onto reservations, and the curiosity factor of tourism creating a market.
Unless we have personal knowledge of the complex cultural and social relationships that enhance understanding of indigenous art, most of us remain outsiders. We can be moved by its aesthetic appeal and the background story when thinking of the hands that created it. Collection items bridge the past and the present, letting us see how things used to be and providing a link to how customs and attitudes change. Looking at this small beaded bag, I am reminded of how I felt when I first read “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” – the tragedy of the tribes’ lost freedom.
Prepared by Jenny Longstaff, Olveston Housekeeper and Guide.
Two small gilt boxes are part of the collection in Olveston’s drawing room. They are made of ormolu, a term used since the 18th century for the technique whereby a finely-ground, high-carat gold-mercury amalgam is applied to a bronze object. The harmful mercury fumes meant that gilders had short lives, “their brains perished with quicksilver”.
The lids of the gilt boxes depict two women.
One is wearing a turban-style head covering, a widespread fashion in late 18th-century Britain, said to be inspired by increased trade with India and a growing interest in the Ottoman Empire. The other box lid shows a woman with a small flower bouquet worn on her bodice. Arrangements such as these were known as nosegays or tussie-mussies and were a popular fashion accessory. Typically given as a gift, they could be used to send a message to the recipient via the symbolism of the flowers and herbs making up the posy.
The social history behind these boxes is intriguing. They contained essential fashion items of earlier times – beauty patches. By the early 1700s, smallpox was prevalent and patches were initially used to camouflage scars. Other skin damage was caused by lead-based face powder, applied for the desired ultra-pale complexion of the day. The patches (known as mouches, or flies, in France), were made from silk or velvet, held in place with gum adhesive. Shapes such as hearts, stars, circles, crescent moons and diamonds were popular. The decorative shapes became more flamboyant, some even shaped like a horse drawn carriage, and were worn for aesthetic appeal rather than to conceal blemishes.
Strategic placement of the patches led to a language of symbolism: a patch above the lip meant coquetry; on a forehead, grandeur; and at the corner of an eye, passion. During Queen Anne’s reign (1702–14), ladies wore their patches to signify either Tory or Whig political support.
Beauty marks, whether artificial or natural, have come in and out of fashion. Marilyn Monroe, Cindy Crawford and Madonna sport celebrity beauty spots, but these days women are likely to consult a cosmetic surgeon about the removal of moles. Sexy or sinister? Blemish or beauty?
Prepared by Jenny Longstaff
Tour guide and housekeeper at Olveston Historic Home
The Olveston collection contains thousands of objects, each with its own identifying number. These numbers form the Olveston inventory: a complete and detailed list of everything in the house.
The inventory was undertaken in 1966, when the Olveston gift was accepted prior to opening the doors to the public. A full and detailed list was necessary so ‘everything’ was given a number for identification purposes. Room by room, object by object, each object was assigned a unique number. Working sequentially around the house until the job was complete.
Many objects have been extensively researched. The painting collection for example, which has been subject to much scholarly interest has resulted in ‘pages and pages’ of information available for staff and visitors, as have the Japanese Collection items, following a visit by museum experts from Japan in the 1990s.
Other items, gifted by Dorothy Theomin in the 1960s, as less understood, #5562 is one of these.
Described in the inventory as:
‘Neckpiece: circle of earth coloured hide rolled & stitched over cord. Matching flat pendant section cut into vertical fringe-like strips. Resonant metal cups at ends of fringes. Five large claws were attached round circle but now detached.’
To date, this is all that is known about this particularly object.
As mentioned previously, objects received numbers as the inventory was being undertaken, each object assigned a number before moving on to the next object. #1 was next to #2, which in turn was next to #3 and so forth.
Which brings me to #6237 – a collection of 14 teeth – originally contained in an empty box originally containing Billiard ball chalk (#6236).
#6237 – 14 teeth
It has been suggested that the teeth were at some point attached to the cord of #5562. There is stitching visible on the cord, which would have attached ‘something’ to it (14 ‘somethings’ to be exact). The teeth, may have been these items.
Any suggestions regarding what #5562 might be would be most welcome.
A pair of Japanese ramma panels are a feature of the Theomin family’s oriental collection in Olveston. They are placed above two doorways in the Great Hall, a location simulating their original architectural use as pierced ventilation transoms (although Olveston’s examples have been modified with the addition of silk backings).
The traditional wood carving art on ramma panels – sometimes brightly coloured, sometimes plain – ranges from simple slatted or geometric trellis designs to more figurative ones featuring plants and animals or landscapes. Different plants, insects, animals, fish etc. each carry their own meaning as symbolism plays a large part in Japanese culture.
The Olveston panels have gilt-painted, carved depictions of peony flowers and the mythical Ho-o bird – the Japanese phoenix. When the Chinese introduced Japan to the tree peony in the Nara period (710–794) it became a popular motif, as they too considered it to be ‘the king of the flowers’, representing good fortune, high honour, and the season of spring. In China, and then in Japan, the phoenix was adopted as a symbol of the imperial household, particularly representing power sent from the heavens to the Empress. Since ancient times the massive bird has been regarded as a good luck omen, a messenger of goodwill, while also representing the Confucian virtues of loyalty, honesty, decorum and justice. As is common in East Asia, the phoenix is a sunbird – the sun is often represented in their art as a bird.
It isn’t known how, where or when the Theomins acquired their ramma panels, but they may have visited Chicago in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exhibition and seen the four beautiful panels in the Phoenix Hall of the Japanese pavilion and thought, “How gorgeous, we’d like a couple of those for Dunedin.” The ones they have are a lot simpler than the complex artistry of the pavilion’s carved wooden panels, which were modelled on details from an 11th century temple outside Kyoto. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was another Fair-goer greatly impressed by the pavilion’s decorative elements.
The Phoenix Hall was gifted to Chicago; however, a couple of suspicious fires necessitated demolition. A sad tale of neglect followed – the ramma panels were stored and forgotten, but eventually rediscovered in 1973, reunited, repaired and redisplayed in 2011 at the Art Institute of Chicago to an appreciative public.
Collections and conservation are crucial in safeguarding artistic and architectural heritage.
D. E. Theomin’s book plate, designed by Mabel Hill
A book plate is a label, affixed to the inside cover, indicating ownership. This one was designed for David Theomin by artist Mabel Hill and was produced as an etching, printed in black ink, to use on the books in his personal library. The original etched zinc plate and several prints are also still at Olveston.
The Latin words Ex Libris translate as “from the books” or “from the library of”.
The pictorial elements reference Mr Theomin’s Bristol origins, where he was born in 1852. The city was defended in medieval times by Bristol Castle, a Norman fortification. Due to its strategic location to the west of the country, which enabled access to both Mediterranean and Atlantic trade routes, Bristol had gained great commercial prosperity through shipping; it had been an important English seaport for over a thousand years.
The term “Let things be done ship shape and Bristol fashion”, which appearsat the top of the book plate, refers to precautions which had to be undertaken when stowing cargo at the port of Bristol. Situated on the estuary of the River Avon, it has a very high tidal range of up to 13 metres, which meant that moored ships would be aground at low tide and fall to one side because of their keels. Everything needed to be stowed away tidily, or tied down. (The problem was resolved with completion of the Floating Harbour in 1809.)
Mabel Hill (1872–1956), the book plate’s designer, began her artistic career in Wellington, where James Nairn was influential. After marrying printer John McIndoe in 1898 she moved to Dunedin, raised four children and continued painting. She exhibited widely and was a working member of the Otago Art Society from 1898–1921, breaking new ground by exhibiting under her birth name while sitting on the society council under her married name. Widowed in 1916, in the early 1920s she taught with A.H. O’Keeffe at the Barn Studio in Carroll Street. From 1926 on she travelled extensively, taking every opportunity to continue painting, such as with Sydney Lough Thompson in Brittany. Eventually she settled permanently in England, near her son Archibald, by then a world-famous plastic surgeon.