Review: Ravenscar House: A Biography

Reviewed by Peter Simpson

Many new buildings have arisen from the rubble of post-earthquake Christchurch but none, perhaps, is as remarkable as Ravenscar House in the heart of the city’s heritage precinct. Sally Blundell’s well-written Ravenscar House: A biography tells the story of this unique development.

A unique feature of the recently opened Ravenscar House (on Rolleston Avenue in central Christchurch, close to Canterbury Museum and the Arts Centre) is that it is a ‘house museum’ in which no-one has ever actually lived.

Usually, house-museums preserve existing dwellings which notable persons or families once occupied. New Zealand examples include the Colin McCahon House in Titirangi, Auckland, the Katherine Mansfield House in Thorndon, Wellington and the Janet Frame House in Oamaru. A wealthy and philanthropic business couple with a background in accountancy, Susan and Jim Wakefield donated the house, strikingly designed by Andrew Patterson Associates (best known for the Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth), and its contents of noteworthy furniture, paintings, sculptures, other art objects and antiquities to the city of Christchurch where it is open to the public, under the management of Canterbury Museum.

The extraordinary story of the building and garden and the treasures it houses, together with the people behind it and how all this came about, is the subject of Sally Blundell’s well-written ‘biography,’ handsomely illustrated, designed and published by Canterbury University Press.

It is well known that the Wakefields originally built an opulent and tasteful Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home (designed by Kerry Mason for architects Warren and Mahoney) on a spectacular site at Scarborough Bluff on the coast near Sumner, 20kms from the Christchurch CBD and filled it with their copious acquisitions. This building was sadly destroyed in the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and (especially) 2011; the epicentre of the latter more destructive quake was nearby.

The couple had already decided to donate their home and collections to the city. However, I learned from Blundell’s book that even prior to the earthquakes, they had realised that the location of their Scarborough home made it unsuitable for a house museum because of distance and access issues and that they would need to build a completely new house in a central location to house their collections. The earthquakes merely complicated a process already underway.

The new Ravenscar House has subtle reminders of the earlier building but is in no sense a replica. Perhaps the strongest connection to the Scarborough building is a strong emphasis in the collection on works with Sumner and Banks Peninsula associations, such as Margaret Stoddart’s watercolour Sumner Beach (1893), Leo Bensemann’s untitled watercolour of Taylor’s Mistake (c. 1933) and Colin McCahon’s luminous oil Taylor’s Mistake (1948). Most of the paintings in the collection are New Zealand works ranging from colonial paintings by Goldie, Lindauer and van der Velden, through mid-century artists such as Evelyn Page, Rita Angus, Bill Sutton, William Reed, Toss Woollaston and Louise Henderson to contemporaries such as Tony Fomison, Gretchen Albrecht, Max Gimblett and John Pule.

All those named are either illustrated full-page in the book or seen in installation shots. The collection is especially strong in works by Frances Hodgkins (10 works from 1906 to 1939) and Colin McCahon (five works from 1939 to 1968). Sculptures (e.g. Paul Dibble), glass works (e.g. Ann Robinson), ceramics (e.g. Wendy Fairclough) and Classical antiquities also feature strongly in the collection.

Blundell’s well-researched text offers illustrated biographical sketches of the Wakefields, traces the complex and often tortuous history of the project from its inception to its completion, and eloquently describes the buildings, gardens and collections. Her final sentence sums it up well: Enfolded within panels made from earthquake rubble, lofty light-filled rooms showcase a unique collection of art, artefacts and furniture that bears the imprint of another house – built in another space, at another time – and the aspirations and inspiration of the original owners and benefactors.

Christchurch has a new jewel in its cultural crown.

 Reviewed by Peter Simpson