A dash of the local


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.

Posted: 5 November 2014 in: Uncategorised · Leave a comment

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The parts of Olveston you do not see

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?

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.

Posted: 3 November 2014 in: Uncategorised · Leave a comment

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Staffordshire flatback figures

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 Collect

Staffordshire flatbacks from the Olveston Collection


Posted: 31 October 2014 in: Collections · Leave a comment

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Bristol fashion


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.

Posted: 28 October 2014 in: Uncategorised · Leave a comment

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Dorothy Theomin; Alpinist

Theomin mountain

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.

Posted: in: Uncategorised · Leave a comment

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Hats on at Olveston

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 »

Posted: 13 October 2014 in: Collections · Leave a comment

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Olveston’s Fiat

Olveston 1921 Fiat 510 tourer

Mention Fiat and most would immediately think of Fiat’s cheerful 500 super-mini and not a gracious touring car from the 1920s.The Theomin’s Fiat 510 Tourer is a 1921 model with a four door open body and substantial canvas folding top and side screens. Read more »

Posted: 1 September 2014 in: Restoration · Tagged: · Leave a comment

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Who were the Jacobeans?

Olveston’s lively profile made up of differently shaped gables is a feature of Jacobean revival architecture | Osbert Lancaster gently parodied the Olveston style as ‘Pont St Dutch’ in Pillar to Post (1938).

Olveston’s lively profile made up of differently shaped gables is a feature of Jacobean revival architecture | Osbert Lancaster gently parodied the Olveston style as ‘Pont St Dutch’ in Pillar to Post (1938).

Architectural taste at the end of the nineteenth century turned towards the first Elizabethan era, some 300 years before. There was a strong element of imperial pride in that particular point in British history. The nation had begun its long period of influence that reached a peak with London as the largest city in the world and the British Empire stretching across the globe to eventually reach New Zealand. Read more »

Posted: 11 August 2014 in: Architecture · Leave a comment

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What if?

The Theomins had many complex decisions to make when they decided to build on their Royal Terrace site. They were aware of what local architects could achieve, having visited the homes built for the small Jewish community in Dunedin. They were familiar with Salmond & Vanes who later designed the Princes St building where the Theomin’s musical instrument business was located. Whatever the reason, the opportunity to engage an overseas architect to design the house was made part of an extensive trip abroad in 1902. Along with many successful colonial businessmen, David Theomin spent a great deal of time out of the country. Dorothy was attending Rodean School in England and the family would meet and travel during the holidays. While visiting Canada, David Theomin obtained sketch plans for his house in Dunedin from Toronto architect Charles J. Gibson (1862–1935). Gibson ran a busy practice and built houses for prominent Toronto industrialists but Theomin rejected the plans and went on London where he visited Ernest George who was offered the commission for Olveston. The intriguing question is what might have Olveston become if Gibson’s plans had been used? Would it now be one of New Zealand’s finest historic buildings? Read more »

Posted: 30 July 2014 in: Architecture · Leave a comment

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