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
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.
Arts and Crafts architects often used distinctive local materials to place their designs in a regional setting. There is an entry on Olveston in Hillary Grainger’s excellent book The Architecture of Sir Ernest George where she suggests that the Moeraki gravel pebbledash used on the outside walls was the architect’s idea. It is more likely that the actual selection of the wall finish was left to the local supervising architects Mason & Wales but the choice of material is still interesting.
Olveston’s walls are a combination of Oamaru stone and a cement render coat over the brickwork that takes its colour and texture from a careful application of small round pebbles ranging in colour from pale yellow through red and brown. From a distance the different colours blend into a strong tan. These stones were extracted from deep beds of the material at Moeraki on the North Otago coast , home of the spectacular spherical boulders that have been exposed by erosion. It is a geologically fascinating area and the subject of much study and curiosity over the years. Little, however, has been written on the gravels of Moeraki even though many know and recognise the material.
Most of us would think that sands and gravel are the result of the sea wearing the coast away but most of the material is in fact transported by rivers from sources many hundreds of kilometres distant. The roundness of the pebbles results from their tumbling journey from the Southern Alps. They built up in thick layers by old river beds and often contain different bands of colour and shape, depending on what rock was being cut away by river action upstream. The first newspaper reference to Moeraki gravel was in 1880 when purchasers were invited to inspect a load on the ship Mary Ellen. From that point on, the regular colour and pleasing shape of the gravel made it a popular material for garden paths and other decorative purposes. Many local houses were rendered using gravel from Moeraki, the best known being the two professorial houses at the University of Otago that got their coating in the 1930s.
This undated photograph shows Miss E. Barr (centre back), a, cook for nine years in the 1930s. Housemaid Miss M Byrne is on her left. Seated on the left was Miss Ethel Massey (nee Wilson) who was also employed as a housemaid between 1930 and 1939. Does anyone recognise the other staff?
As the most distant part of the British empire, New Zealand inherited some testing social situations as well as creating new ones of its own through the unique situation of the colony. Attracting people prepared to work as domestic servants proved to be a consistent challenge through the nineteenth century. Newspapers were full of advertisements for servants, some of which were repeated in the same position in the column for years. The problem was less acute in the cities where staff could at least enjoy a social life that compensated for the long hours and hard work. Few employers could accommodate married couples so live in arrangements generally only lasted while staff were unattached. At least one marriage between staff took place with David Theomin’s butler Louis Wahrlich marrying housemaid Hannah Parsons in 1909. While their employment at the house ended, Theomin provided work for Louis in his Dunedin businesses and the couple were employed as caretakers at the Synagogue in Moray Place.
The Theomins were aware of what they needed to do to retain their staff and providing a high standard of accommodation was part of the brief to their architect Ernest George. Olveston is a four-storey structure and the maids’ quarters were cleverly fitted under the roof, explaining how 35 rooms could be contained on a fairly modest footprint. Olveston’s chauffeur lived in a separate house adjacent to the property while the gardener had his own cottage on the grounds. Olveston was planned along the lines of a Renaissance merchant’s palazzo, updated for the social requirements of the day. In the late Victorian town house what had been called the ‘piano mobile’ or noble floor was split into two levels with the reception rooms on the ground floor and the family’s private accommodation on a level above. The servants’ stair can be seen in the right of the ground floor plan and extended the full height of the house. The uppermost floor contained four separate maid’s bedrooms although some had to double up in a room as up to eight house staff were employed at one time. The largest bedroom had a sitting room attached that enjoyed the sun and view across to the town belt while another bedroom was situated romantically at the top of the tower.
Victorian notions of privacy had made large house plans increasingly complex. Each generation, gender and occupation had their own suites of rooms so that encounters between owners, visitors and staff were tightly controlled. The servants stairs at Olveston linked the maid’s spaces with kitchens, corridors and workrooms so that their comings and goings were discretely veiled. The original maid’s quarters at Olveston were later converted into flats for staff who live in and assist with security at the house so these are the parts you do not see.
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.