Scratch the surface of any artistic endeavour and there is a story to tell. This brief one, from the Victorian era, touches on geography, social history, politics, folk heroes and royalty, and more – obviously a bigger story than will comfortably fit this summary. Therein lies the captivation of the collectible.
It is interesting that humble, working-class items can become objects of desire for wealthy collectors. Such is the case with Staffordshire flatbacks, of which there are several in the Theomin family’s library at Olveston: Little Red Riding Hood stands beside a Prince of Wales figure; there is a sleeping drummer boy, a girl with a wheat sheaf, musicians, a sportsman with a gun … a snapshot of the diverse subject matter that typifies flatback figures.
What is a flatback? The figures, also commonly called “chimney pieces”, are cheap earthenware ornaments made initially for modest country cottages by relatively unskilled labor. Detailed only on the front and slim enough to fit on a narrow shelf (primarily fire-place mantels), they were made from the 1840s to the early 20th century up to World War 1 and can be classified as naive folk art.
Over one hundred manufacturers produced them, working throughout the Staffordshire Potteries – the industrial area in the English midlands encompassing the six main potting towns that now make up Stoke-on-Trent in the county of Staffordshire. The area, rich in clay and coal, became a centre for manufacturing pottery over 200 years ago. In early days potters would simply dig clay up from roads, leading to the term ‘pot holes’. In its heyday there were about 4,000 smoky, coal fired distinctive bottle-shaped kilns.
Business increased considerably with the opening of better roads and canals and railway distribution in the region, but times were grim. The Pottery Riots took place in the midst of the 1842 General Strike, opposing wage cuts, and though many strikers were sent to prison, some even transported to Australia, the fraught industrial relations were a prelude to establishing trade unions.
The working population of Britain was hungry for heroes. In the Staffordshire flatbacks, close likenesses became possible from the 1840s when good quality illustrations such as The Illustrated London News, sheet music, playbills, and ‘Penny Plain, Tuppence Coloured’ prints could be used as sources. Topics reflected the news of the day, whether concerning the Royal Family, the Crimean War, politicians, murderers, sportsmen, circus performers, soldiers, sailors, generals, religious figures, explorers etc. – all now immortalised in clay.
Jenny Longstaff, Olveston Housekeeper and tour guide; also artist member and president of the Otago Art Society.
Staffordshire flatbacks from the Olveston Collection
The Dresden Piano Company, later Bristol, on Princes St, Dunedin. The building was again renamed Capitol after its sale in the mid-1950s. Its facade was simplified at the same time.
The source of the Theomin family’s wealth was the importation and sale of sheet music and musical instruments, particularly pianos. The Dresden Pianoforte Manufacturing & Agency Company was established by David Theomin and Frederick Michaelis in 1883. As David Benjamin, he had joined forces with Michaelis to manage the Glendermid Tannery in Dunedin’s Sawyers Bay but this messy industrial business soon gave way to the more artistic and profitable pursuits of a music agency. During the 1880s, David Benjamin had changed his name to that used by his father’s family in Prussia while the city of Dresden, known for its musical instrument makers, leant its name to the new business. By 1913 it was one of the largest operations of its type in New Zealand and its head office was a newly built multi-story tower on the top of Bell Hill on Princes St. The worsening outlook in Europe leading to the First World War made German names a focus for hostility and while not changing his preferred surname, the business was restyled the Bristol Piano Company during the conflict. Theomin took out newspaper advertisements informing the public that the business was all British while he himself had been born in the city of Bristol.
The Bristol Piano Company building was designed by Dunedin architects Salmond & Vanes and was one of the most modern and progressive commercial buildings in New Zealand when it opened in 1913. Rising five levels, it had a two story deep basement where deliveries and repairs were carried out. The facade was sheathed in yellow and black faience tiles while deep projecting oriel bay windows lit the ornate interiors which were also fitted with electric light. 1912 was the peak year for the importation of pianos into New Zealand but gradually this profitable market slipped away to other more ephemeral forms of entertainment such as recorded music and film. The piano was a long lasting instrument and many examples sold by the Bristol Piano Company are still playable today. The boom years, however, gave the Theomin family a secure and prosperous life style reflected both in Olveston and the Capitol Building which still stands in Princes St although modified from its original Edwardian appearance.
From La Perouse Hicks, Dampier & Cook Dorothy Theomin (no. F.4) New Zealand Alpine Club Negative Album Hocken Collections
Dorothy Theomin who gifted Olveston and its collections to Dunedin in 1966 led a rich and adventurous life. Like many well provided for young women of her age she was an enthusiastic international traveller. She was educated in England at the progressive Roedeane School and accompanied her parents on their extensive tours of Europe, Canada and North America. She also saw a great deal of New Zealand and from a height that few others experienced.
Her independence and physical fitness saw her join the New Zealand Alpine Club and she climbed extensively in the Southern Alps between 1914 and 1933. Her climbing outfit consisted of a woollen skirt, puttees and heavy leather boots with hob nailed soles. Puttees were originally a Himalayan tribal garment, a form of lower leg wrap that protected the limb from freezing winds. She often climbed accompanied by male guides but was capable of challenging ascents which she recorded with her camera.
Dorothy Theomin’s alpine photography was unique in New Zealand when few women took up this hazardous pursuit. Many of her photographs are held in the Hocken Collections where they were used in an exhibition showcasing this surprising side of her life. Its curator, Marjory Blackman, a long time Olveston volunteer is also the author of ‘Dorothy Theomin of Olveston – Mountaineer, photographer, traveller & benefactor’ (2007) that details her alpine adventures. It is well worth reading if you want to get the know the character and background of this extraordinary woman.
Anyone looking at photographs of social events of a century ago would have to be impressed by the range of hats worn by those assembled in front of the camera. Few of us would think of the ingenuity required to style their headwear or the labour required in its making. Manufacture seems like a cold word to describe these beautiful and somewhat frivolous items but there was indeed a hat making industry in Dunedin, as well as individual milliners who designed, made and sold bespoke hats. Read more »