Art and design schools
The establishment of art and design schools – the first in Dunedin in 1870, followed by Christchurch (1882), Wellington (1886), Auckland (1889) and Whanganui (1892) – saw the introduction of the South Kensington system of art and design education. This had been developed in England with the initial aim of bringing art and industry closer together and improving the quality of craftspeople and designers available to industry.
19th-century New Zealand lacked manufacturing on a large scale as it imported most manufactured goods from Britain. This left many enthusiastic and well-trained art students essentially unemployable. Some moved to Britain or Australia to pursue professional design careers, while others stayed and became self-supporting craftspeople.
These ‘art-workers’ generally followed the British arts and crafts movement led by William Morris and John Ruskin, who believed in the importance of handcrafts as a solution to the social problems of Victorian England. The arts and crafts movement provided New Zealand craft with a united philosophical underpinning for the first time and opened up the possibility of professional studio-based craft practice.
In 1900 the Otago Daily Times reported, ‘A very handsome example of relief carving is now to be seen on a sideboard in the shop window of Messrs Hitchcock Bros in Frederick Street. The work of a lady who desires that her name should not be stated publicly, the carving is exceedingly well done, and reflects much credit on the industry, patience, and ability of the worker.’1
Women were highly represented in art schools, and many became involved in crafts after graduation, after marriage or as single women. They produced carved furniture, embroidered cushions, firescreens, barometer cases, hanging cupboards, screens, trays, carved boxes, stencilled friezes, illuminated addresses, clothing and a host of other items for the home and church. However, an almost compulsory modesty meant that the items they produced went unattributed and the individual makers remain largely unidentified.
A rare exception to this is the work of Evelyn Vaile, whose carved wooden furniture was recorded by her brother, photographer Herbert Vaile. Evelyn Vaile was the daughter of a wealthy Auckland land developer and an active furniture carver working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She produced a wide range of carved furniture, some of impressive scale, all highly individualised in their decoration.