Thursday, 25 December 2014

Designs on flags

The New Zealand ensign. Although this image is what is currently provided by the responsible ministry, the flag colours are, more correctly, red (Pantone 186C, websafe RGB 204-0-0), blue (Pantone 280C, websafe RGB 0-0-102) and white.
Manatū Taonga/Ministry for Culture and Heritage
In March 2014, in a move presumably designed to divert public attention from more pressing issues of politics such as the state of the economy or the ethical performance of his administration, John Key, the New Zealand prime minister, announced that should his conservative National party win the forthcoming general election, a referendum would be held on changing the country's flag. In a set piece speech Key declared: 'It's my belief, and I think one increasingly shared by many New Zealanders, that the design of the New Zealand flag symbolises a colonial and post-colonial era whose time has passed'. Key's move found some editorial support amongst the media, with the conservative New Zealand Herald opining that it didn't go far enough, but there seems to be little popular support for a change, particularly among the elderly and those adhering to the traditional right. The National party went on to win the election and two legally binding referendums are to be held. The first, which will select a new design, at the end of 2015; and the second, which will pit the endorsed new design against the existing flag, early in 2016.

Changing brands is a conventional corporate strategy. The thinking goes that if a corporate image – as conveyed by a company logo, house style or a name – is somehow or another tainted by scandal, or even if it's just perceived as old fashioned, then a complete makeover is a certain way of ensuring that the smear of dodgy business or the blemish of decrepitude won't endanger profits and that shareholders and managers can carry on reaping the benefits of the business. Banks, for example, regularly seek to detoxify their image by transmogrifying their logos, house styles and names, so it should come as no surprise that as a former bank employee, Mr Key – probably the first prime minister of New Zealand to conceive of his position in primarily corporate terms – should seek to 'update' the country's corporate image. For Key, as the CEO of New Zealand Ltd, changing the flag is merely a branding exercise, a bit of flag waving, which he'll pass by the chairman (the governor general), the board (cabinet) and submit to a general meeting of the shareholders (the electorate) for confirmation.
Flag of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company).
Himasaram, Wikimedia
Despite the fact that the first flag most probably seen in New Zealand waters was that of a corporate entity – the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), history is no friend of corporations because, aside from recording events, it also questions and interrogates those same moments from a perspective that, in some instances, corporate entities might regard as being 'off-message'. Key's casual attitude to history is perhaps best exemplified by his recent, apparently somewhat ingenuous, observation that 'New Zealand was settled peacefully by the British'. Key's pronouncement, one that he has refused to resile from, is patently untrue, even if one ignores the corporate-driven land wars of the 1860s and 70s. As Ann Else has remarked, there's a long-standing local tradition of vested interests indulging in 'a widespread and deliberate political attempt to reshape [...] "the presence of the past" in this country, in order to serve political ends' <A Else, 'History lessons: the public history you get when you're not getting any public history' in Going public: the changing face of New Zealand history, ed. by B Dalley and J Phillips (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001), 123-140, p. 135>.

Flags should not be understood simply as ephemeral brands or tokens of national identity, but rather as visual symbols that people use to communicate with themselves and others. They are portable, material, objects that allow identified groups to recognise, embrace and defy others; they mark out particular individuals; they define and assert allegiances and commitments. They're used for religious, political, military and peaceable purposes. Some flags convey a sort of visual whakapapa, a genealogy if you like, a sort of history, emblazoned with emblems and signs vested with specific significance or meaning. They have become emotional rallying points in the way that they have come to define nations, cultural and religious adherences and patriotic allegiances. Indeed, these pieces of coloured cloth, marked out with signs and symbols, even when faded and tattered, are more than just brands requiring an update, every now and then, in order to conduct business as usual.

A short genealogy of flags in New Zealand

 [Isaac Gilsemans], De Moordenaars Baay vertoont zich aldus, als gy daer in op 15 vadem ten anker legt. (A view of the Murderers' Bay when you are anchored there at fifteen fathoms), [1642].
Alexander Turnbull Library (PUBL-0086-021)
Flags have a relatively short history in New Zealand. Pre-European Māori had no use for flags although manu tukutuku (kites) were used for communication purposes in much the same way that other cultures employed flags. Abel Janszoon Tasman's  ships, the Heemskerck and Zeehaen sighted New Zealand on 13 December 1642 and while Tasman does not appear to have held a flag raising ceremony, as he had earlier in Australia, there is little doubt that the first flag flown in the country was the sixteenth century Netherlands red white and blue tricolour, possibly defaced by the Dutch East India Company's 'VOC' initials, even though Gilsemans' presumably contemporaneous drawing doesn't show the modification. It is not known how Māori reacted to the Dutch flag but it's entirely possible they conceived of it merely as decoration. Margaret Orwell however suggests that Māori 'were at once attracted to [flags], for they had a keen interest in signs and symbols, and quickly learnt how much importance their Pakeha visitors attached to these bright cloths.' 
British red ensign (1707-1801).
Wangi, Wikimedia
The next Pākehā intrusion into New Zealand, James Cook's ship HMB Endeavour, flew a 1707-1801 version of the British red ensign, a flag that, in a modified form (the jack in the canton was augmented in 1801 with a red saltire), remains one of the New Zealand's current official flags as long as it is defaced in accordance with the provisions of the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act, 1981. It also, not coincidentally, forms the basis of the modern flags of Tonga (1879) and Samoa (1949).  Cook circumnavigated the country raising the British union jack in various parts of the country, claiming it for the British crown. It was essentially a meaningless action being ignored both by Māori and, ultimately, the British government. But if any flag had an impact on Māori culture it was most probably Cook's red ensign: the abundance of red – kōkōwai in Te Reo – indicated high status in Polynesian cultures.

A number of flag designs emerged during the 1830s, as it became increasingly evident that the islands forming what Europeans described as New Zealand required a flag to identify the increasing number of ships owned by their inhabitants. Kerryn Pollock in her essay on flags in Te Ara suggests that the first was devised in 1831 by Thomas McDonnell, a retired Royal Navy officer and captain of the Sir George Murray barque, in response to a requirement by British colonial authorities that all ships entering Port Jackson display a recognised national flag.
'Domestic intelligence', Sydney Herald (22 August 1831), p. 4
McDonnell's flag – a symmetric red cross on a white field with a blue canton on the upper hoist charged with a white crescent – seems neither to have been recognised by the authorities (Pollock suggests his ship was seized) nor, more significantly, adopted by other ships from Aotearoa. In 1833 The Sydney Gazette noted that the brigantine New Zealander was sailing under a 'black flag bearing three red daggers' having earlier been seized by port authorities as it was regarded as sailing under a false British flag and lacking documentation.
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (07 May 1833), p. 2
In an attempt to resolve this and other issues relating to British interests in New Zealand and acting on the instructions of the Colonial Office in London, Richard Bourke, governor of New South Wales, appointed a British representative, James Busby, whom he despatched to Waitangi in May 1833. Among Busby's tasks was a resolution of the flag issue. The British proposed three possible designs developed by the Admiralty (the agency of state controlling flags) in collaboration with the College of Arms (the branch of the royal household responsible for heraldic matters) in London. They included a striking flag reminiscent of not only the British East India Company and the revolutionary American Grand Union flags but also, more romantically, that of the Kingdom of Hawai'i and of newly independent Greece (adopted in 1822); it comprised four horizontal white bars on a blue field with a union jack  in the canton.

One of three British proposals for a New Zealand ensign (1835).
 António Martins, Flags of the World
In 1835 Busby submitted the three proposals to a selection of North Island rangatira who following a brief consultation selected the flag promoted by members of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), since 1814 the dominant Pākehā presence in the country <W Yate, An account of New Zealand and the formation and progress of the Church Missionary Society's mission in the northern island (London: Seeley and Burnside, 1835), p. 29>. The rapid process of choosing the flag was recorded by the CMS carpenter and catechist Henry Miles Pilley:
We had a grand day on Thursday, March 13. A man-of-war ship came in, bringing three flags with her, for the chiefs to decide by vote which should be the standard of the nation, as New Zealand was about to be placed on the scale of nations. Mr Bushy (sic), the British resident, provided a splendid dinner for the Europeans, which were from fifty to sixty in number, chiefly consisting of the captains and other officers of the man-of-war, captains of merchant ships, the missionaries and respectable settlers; the natives were also provided with plenty of boiled flour, which they esteem the greatest luxury. When the flag was hoisted, twenty-one guns from the man-of-war were fired, the natives joining in one continual shout of acclamations. The day was an important one.<H Pilley, The New Zealand missionary (Cheltenham: William Wight, 1838), p. 27>.
The selected flag comprised the St George's cross of England with the arms of the soon-to-be-established Anglican diocese of Australia in the canton. The ensign is known today as He Whataputanga or the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand. While the missionaries were undoubtedly delighted by the choice of a flag invested with Anglican symbolism, the rangatira were more probably persuaded by the CMS-promoted flag having a higher proportion of red than the other two options. Moreover it wasn't so brazenly deferential to Britain. The decision on the flag foreshadowed the declaration of the independence of New Zealand made by a loose confederation of the same rangatira some months later.
The standard of New Zealand from William Yate,  An account of New Zealand and the formation and progress of the Church Missionary Society's mission in the northern island (London: Seeley and Burnside, 1835), p. 22. The flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand was perceived by the society's local representatives as a clear expression of Māori embrace of Christian symbolism. 
University of California
Busby's effort in resolving the flag issue was conveyed to the Colonial Office and in August 1835, having passed the final imprimatur of the Admiralty, the agreed ensign was officially gazetted making it possible for New Zealand ships to trade with British possessions, including not only Australia but also India. By flagging its own ships New Zealand made the first move into being a trading country, rather than one that just loaded its raw materials onto foreign vessels for others to process and sell. Adopting a flag asserted a level of economic as well as political independence but the process of 'selection' also confirmed New Zealand's entanglement in the amorphous web of the expanding British empire.
In February 1840, following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Māori and a representative of the British crown, the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand was supplanted by the various flags of the United Kingdom, primarily the British civil ensign, the union jack. Throughout the British empire flags were not only important symbols of power but also had significant functional purposes. The harbours in both Sydney and Auckland, amongst other colonial outposts, were marked by a series of manned flagstaffs which not only identified British hegemony but in the absence of alternative and reliable lines of communication also provided their administrators with a primitive form of radar. News of an arriving vessel up to around 50kms away could be signalled to colonial authorities in a matter of minutes, allowing them to not only determine the intent of the arriving vessel but also to enable their response. Until 1876, when New Zealand was connected by telegraph cable to the rest of the world, flags not only announced the arrival of orders, information and migrants but also, in the form of the union jack, reinforced a sense of British hegemony over the country and its sea lanes. 
After P Walsh The old Colours of the 58th Regiment, at present hanging in the Supreme Court, Auckland. The 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot was sent to New Zealand in 1845 and remained there until 1858. The regimental colours were presented to the people of New Zealand in 1860. Reproduced in Auckland Weekly News (28 December 1900).
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries (AWNS-19001228-6-4)
In a subtly different way, flags – ngā haki or ngā kara – became rallying points for Māori as they were progressively stripped of their lands by an expanding inflow of Pākehā settlers. Between 1844 and 1845, Hōne Heke, a Ngāpuhi rangatira, ordered the cutting down of the British flagpole at Kororāreka four times; the final felling saw British troops involved in fighting with and against various northern iwi. Flags were key elements on both sides of the Great New Zealand War as North Island Māori sought to protect their land from the predatory grasp of Pākehā capitalism between 1860 and 1872.
P Reveirs, [Māori rebel flag] No. 5, [c. 1865]. A watercolour rendering  of the flag of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki (c 1832-93), a Māori rebel leader and prophet from Ngati Maru, a hapu (subtribe) of the Rongowhakaata (tribal group). Judith Binney asserts the crescent symbolised a new beginning; the cross stood for the fighting Archangel Gabriel; and 'Wi' was a recurring holy day.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (1992-0035-1631-12A)
Whereas Pākehā flags deployed in the conflict were coded by tradition to conform with military and civil regulations, Māori approached the design of flags in a way that was both innovative and creative, drawing upon an appropriated lexicon of re-interpreted symbols and words to develop a new vexillogical vocabulary. But it was the rigid rules of the British Admiralty that devised the flag that for the twentieth century was used by New Zealanders to mark their land and identify themselves. 
Modern rendering of the flag deployed by Tauranga Māori fighting British troops at Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) in 1864. The flag was deployed strategically in the battle to mislead attacking British troops.
Tauranga City Libraries 
New Zealand's modest blue ensign devolved from the British blue ensign. Until 1864, when the Royal Navy was reorganised, the blue ensign was the flag of its Blue Squadron. Following reform, it was allocated to those ships either in government service or commanded by a reservist officer. In 1865 a regulation was promulgated requiring ships under the control of colonial governments to fly a blue ensign defaced by the badge or coat of arms of the appropriate colony. As the colony had no badge, let alone a coat of arms, the governor, George Gray, ordered that the flag be defaced with the letters NZ in red fimbriated in white. Merchant vessels registered in New Zealand were to fly a red ensign, defaced with the letters NZ in white. Lettering on flags was a relatively recent phenomenon that in the mid-nineteenth century was still associated in British official thinking with the American revolution. The lettered badge defacing the blue ensign was replaced in 1869 by four red five-pointed stars – representing the Southern Cross constellation – on either a white ground, or with the stars fimbriated in white, on a blue ground. While the union jack remained the national flag, the locally inflected blue ensign became used increasingly to identify New Zealand as a distinct political identity. Notwithstanding Admiralty objections, this situation became regularised in 1902 when the monarch approved the New Zealand Ensign Act, 1901 which established the defaced blue ensign as a distinctive flag for New Zealand. While not an inspired example of design, it's now the fifteenth oldest national ensign currently flying in the world.
F J Grant, Māori reception during the tour of the Prince of Wales, Arawa Park, Rotorua (1920).
Alexander Turnbull Library (PA Coll-7081-03)
The blue ensign, the symbol of the settlers, did not find much popularity amongst Māori who, if accepting of Pākehā hegemony, flew a red ensign defaced with their iwi name. Others, over the course of the twentieth century, either continued to fly the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand or developed their own flags, drawing upon a variety of symbols and meanings. The Kīngitanga, for example, used a variety of flags and very early on regularised their use, effectively developing a tradition of reign flags. The current king Tuheitia's flag, which bears Te Paki o Matariki, the coat of arms of the Kīngitanga, was first raised in 2009. Other Māori independence movements, such as Kotahitanga, also deployed flags as 'symbols of mana and to show allegiances'. It was not until 1990 that a single flag representing Māori was proposed. It followed from two decades of activism as Māori sought to reclaim that which they had been denuded of by Pākehā.
Hiraina Marsden, Jan Smith and Linda Munn, Tino Rangatiratanga flag (1990).
James Dignan and António Martins, Flags of the World
Designed by Hiraina Marsden, Jan Smith and Linda Munn, the Tino Rangatiratanga flag – the name translates loosely as 'absolute sovereignty' –  was the winner of a nationwide competition to find a flag that represents all Māori. Although it employs traditional colours and references traditional symbolism, the flag's design – based on a magnification of  traditional kowhaiwhai (rafter decoration) – is very much of its time. As a consequence of coalition negotiations between the National party and the Māori party, the flag was accorded official status  as the national Māori flag in December 2009.

Changing the flag

Key's proposed referendum on changing the New Zealand flag is a step toward realising an ambition long held by a number of New Zealanders to replace the current blue ensign with a flag that symbolises how they feel about their country. There have been numerous proposals over the years. Most of these have tended to be vexillogical nightmares: bizarre conflations of colours, overly literal symbolsvisionary chimeras and, somewhat embarrassingly, a new phase of Pākehā appropriation of Māori iconography, albeit at a remove. Announcing his decision to hold a referendum, Key indicated that his flag of preference was a white 'silver fern' leaf on a black field, not coincidentally, an image most commonly associated with the All Blacks, the New Zealand national rugby football union team.
Dave Clark, Silver fern design for the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (1991). One of many proposal for a black flag defaced with silver fern frond. Some versions place the words 'New Zealand' underneath the frond.
The first official use of the fern as a symbol of New Zealand seems to have occurred in 1869 when the British War Office issued a campaign medal to British and colonial servicemen and Kūpapa involved in fighting those Māori resisting settler incursion in Taranaki and Waikato during the New Zealand Land Wars of 1860-1866. The fern pattern did not appear on the medal itself – the reserve was designed with a conventional victory laurel wreath – but on the arms of the ribbon suspender. Under the circumstances it might be considered somewhat ironic that a fern – the first symbol used to identify the country by its colonising power – has been appropriated by those ostensibly seeking to remove the symbols of the country's 'colonial and post-colonial era'.
Unidentified designer for the British War Office, New Zealand medal (1869).
New Zealand Defence Force Te Ope Kātua o Aotearoa
The silver fern first entered the New Zealand state's iconography when it was paired with an oak branch to form a wreath on the obverse of the New Zealand Long and Efficient Service Medal which was first issued in 1887 to veterans with sixteen years service in the New Zealand Militia. The medal was probably designed by its first manufacturer, the Prussian-born Wellington-based goldsmith and jeweller Siegfried Kohn. Kohn had earlier designed the medal awarded at the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition (Wellington, 1885) which also depicted fern fronds, albeit those of the button fern, rather than the silver fern (Pellaea rotundifolia in preference to Cyathea dealbata). 
Siegfried Kohn (1854-19?), New Zealand Industrial Exhibition silver medal (1885).
National Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa, bequest of Mrs Mary H Quin, 1956 (PC000254)
A later military medal, the New Zealand Volunteer Service Medal of 1902 depicted a full wreath of silver fern fronds on its reverse. The military application of these depictions suggest not only that the fern wreath was seen as a local inflection of the laurel wreath given to the victorious in antiquity, but it also ties in with the nascent nationalism evident in the colony from the 1880s.
Siegfried Kohn (1854-19?), New Zealand Long and Efficient Service Medal (1887).
National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, gift of Mr Dollimore, 1956 (NU006152)
By the time of the Second World War the silver fern had acquired significant military associations, being used in the design of military cap badges, ship's badges of the newly formed Royal New Zealand Navy and a range of other naval, military and police applications. Its medallic apotheosis came with the New Zealand War Service Medal, designed by the academic John Cawte Beaglehole and the artist Mervyn Taylor in 1947. Beaglehole recounted that the Labour 'Cabinet says it doesn't like the Army's idea, what Cabinet wants is a fern-leaf like on the All Black's jersey, & Peter [Fraser, the prime minister] asks me to arrange it accordingly.' <Letter from J C Beaglehole to Janet Paul, 10 July 1947, cited in T Beaglehole, A life of J C Beaglehole (Wellington: VUP, 2006), p. 300>.
John Cawte Beaglehole (1901-1971) and Mervyn Taylor (1906-1964),  Reverse of the New Zealand War Service Medal, [1947].
New Zealand Defence Force Te Ope Kātua o Aotearoa
The national rugby football union team, the All Blacks, adopted the silver fern frond on a black ground logo in 1893, six years after its appearance on the Long and Efficient Service Medal. While rugby union football might well be regarded as 'the national game' by its supporters, it is, like the military, an activity that's largely the preserve of young males, with an emphasis on disciplined physicality. Unsurprisingly, the military's symbols leached, probably quite subliminally, into those of sporting teams, and vice versa. 
E Kelley, All Black rugby team that toured the United Kingdom in 1905-6
Making New Zealand: negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection.
Alexander Turnbull Library (MNZ-1035-1/4F)
Both the New Zealand military and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) are fundamentally conservative organisations and the innocuous, if somewhat laudatory, quality of the fern leaf emblem, one untarnished by history and devoid of any significant pre-association, would have appealed to the mindset of those responsible for choosing its differentiating emblems. In recent years, as the game of rugby has lost its amateur status, the All Black livery has been turned by the NZRFU (now known as Rugby New Zealand) into a legally-protected corporate logo. However, although a version of the silver fern was trademarked in 1991, the increasingly corporatised NZRFU's attempts to control the image have foundered in litigation with the assistant commissioner of trademarks ruling in 2008 that the silver fern was 'very broad in scope and had a low level of inherent distinctiveness'.
Crispin Schuberth, New Zealand Labour party logo (2011)
Although its most prominent incorporation into the regalia of state came about through the wishes of a Labour party cabinet and that it has intermittently formed a part of the New Zealand Labour party logo, the silver fern has, since the 1970s, been favoured by National party and corporate interests as a suitable symbol for replacing the current New Zealand flag. In 1998 the National party minister of cultural affairs, Marie Hasler, supported by the then prime minister Jenny Shipley, argued that the current blue ensign should be replaced by the silver fern on a black ground, claiming that 'our most constant and enduring symbol is the Silver Fern. It is the most commonly used and instantly recognisable New Zealand symbol'. This assertion has been promoted by a number of corporate interests, most notably the late Lloyd Morrison, CEO of the investment group Infratil, who established a charitable trust to promote both a change in the New Zealand flag and the adoption of a silver fern flag design. While the silver fern on a black ground flag might seem distinctive from the point of view of those more familiar with rugby, the army and corporate logos it is far from distinctive, as the recent tragic events in Sydney and the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East attest. 
Islamic black standard defaced with the Shahada.
Embracing a somewhat pedestrian corporate logo as 'the symbol of the Realm, Government and people of New Zealand' not only denies the history of the flags that have been flown in this country but also condones a narrow understanding of how flags best represent a nation. Sovereign nations shouldn't be represented by symbols and colours that reflect particular interests, no matter how popular they might seem. 
Unidentified designer for the New Zealand Transport Agency, silver fern roads logo for a  New Zealand government road safety campaign (2014)
Flags are emotional things. In a recent essay on the way the English St George's cross flag has come to be seen as projecting a racist and bigoted perception of the world, often associated with football hooligans and white van-driving, working class males (the two are not exclusive), the Guardian columnist, Stuart Jeffries noted that 'Flag waving is a veil, hiding precisely nationalism's desire for power and the flag waver's desire to exclude and subjugate the other.' It's a sentiment New Zealanders might consider as they contemplate how they're next going to wave their flag not only amongst themselves but also to the world. Rebranding sometimes goes horribly wrong.


Key has changed his view on the design of a possible flag, sort of.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Enjoying William Morris

Anarchy and beauty; William Morris and his legacy, 1860-1960
National Portrait Gallery, London
16 October 2014 – 11 January 2015

On the face of things, William Morris (1834-1896) doesn’t seem to have much of a profile in New Zealand. As a promoter of the arts and crafts movement, which, together with John Ruskin, he founded, he’s a reference, a distant source of an idea. His work as a poet, printer and a political activist, is pretty much ignored probably for the same vicarious reasons. His productions of textiles and furniture, as retailed through Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co (later Morris & Co), were with the odd exception (the book collector Alexander Turnbull being the notably odd exception) too expensive for the thrifty burghers of the colony and, with its socialist resonances, too devoid of imperial glory for the grandees of the dominion. While his romantic mediaeval-revival poetry and sagas found some passing New Zealand adherents in the early years of the twentieth century, they were known through cheap posthumous editions, not through the beautifully crafted editions from his Kelmscott Press; only Turnbull was financially enabled to collect those. Strangely enough, it was Morris' theorising about art that had impact in the colony, largely by its promulgation through an inadvertent process of colonialism: art education.
John Dearle for Morris & Co. Stained and painted glass window, 1910-1935.
Te Papa Tongarewa, purchased with the assistance of the Charles Disney Art Trust Fund, 2010 (GH020700)
A man who has prompted multiple biographies, Morris and his productions appear in most major collections of art and design although there aren't many of those in New Zealand. The tokenist holdings of Morris-related material in the Auckland Museum include a printed curtain, posthumously produced by Morris & Co and a 'Rossetti' chair, marketed by Morris & Co (both acquired in the 1980s). Te Papa's holdings include a stained glass window produced by Morris & Co and a sketch design by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for another Morris & Co window. Morris' designs have been the subject of numerous exhibitions around the world. In 2008 the Christchurch Art Gallery was the venue for Morris & Co: the world of William Morris assembled by the Art Gallery of South Australia, the one Antipodean institute with a significant holding of his work. The focus of these exhibitions has been on Morris’s work as a designer of textiles, furniture and private-press books and on his firm's retailing of carefully co-ordinated, expensively-produced, commodities for the well-upholstered interiors of the privileged classes.

The National Portrait Gallery in London is the – perhaps surprising – venue for the exhibition Anarchy and beauty; William Morris and his legacy, 1860-1960, curated by the independent historian Fiona MacCarthy, author of one of the more definitive recent biographies of Morris, William Morris: a life for our time (London : Faber, 1995).  Unlike its predecessor exhibitions Anarchy and beauty investigates the political dimension of Morris' design activities and the impact they had not only on his contemporaries but also on the subsequent generations of theorists, agitators, designers, planners, makers and retailers. Even with its British focus, the exhibition promotes an impressive genealogy, even if some of the more connective elements of the table are missing.

Where, for example, is that great implementer of Morris' ideology, Hubert Llewellyn Smith? Smith underwent a Damascene conversion to Morris' vision after attending a lecture 'Art and democracy' given by Morris, under the aegis of Ruskin, in the hall of University College, Oxford, in November 1883. He was so inspired that he became a Toynbee Hall pedagogue, a protégé of the Webbs, the effective founder of the Central School of Arts and Crafts (by way of his 1893 report on technical education for the London County Council), the founding secretary of the Labour Department of the Board of Trade and the patron of William Beveridge, the originator – in 1908 – of the Exhibitions Branch of the Board of Trade and hence a whole line of state-sponsored design promotional organisations up to today's neutered Design Council.
Walter Crane. Bookplate design for Alexander Turnbull, 1891.
Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand (A-136-001) 
So in this glorious rag bag of those influenced by Morris' ideology we get the designer Walter Crane (represented in the exhibition among other things by his design of the membership card of the Hammersmith Socialist Society) and the socialist poet, philosopher, anthologist and early LGBT activist Edward Carpenter (represented by his Indian-made sandals) ; the anarchist geographer and philosopher Prince Pyotr Kropotkin; the Suffragette painter Sylvia Pankhurst and the stained glass artist Mary Lowndes; the painter and potter William de Morgan and the silver designer, architect and pedagogue C R Ashbee (a magnificent silver peacock brooch he designed for his long-suffering wife); the priapic calligrapher and designer Eric Gill and Ebenezer Howard, the architect and planner who developed the idea of the garden city. Leaping well into the twentieth century we encounter the furniture and textile designers Robin and Lucien Day, the industrial designer Misha Black and, lastly and certainly not in his view leastly, the retailer Terence Conran. But, as the Guardian's Rachel Cooke observes, despite all this plenitude of names and associated objects, it's fundamentally all about 'Morris, the fat spider, who sits at the heart of the web constructed by the exhibition's curator, Fiona MacCarthy'. It's Morris' insistence on the availability to all of objects that are both utilitarian and beautiful and that the acquisition of manual skills is not only essential to a well-rounded life but also a life-enhancing political act. In Morris case, beauty was to be found in the relics of Mediaeval Europe, later adherents to his thinking found it elsewhere.
David Kindersley after a design by Eric Gill, 'Adam and Eve' garden roller, Portland stone and iron.
Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery)
It's in Ann Calhoun's impressively researched book The arts and crafts movement in New Zealand 1870-1940: women make their mark (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000) that we are able to understand both the impact that Morris had in New Zealand and, in part, why this legacy has been so ignored by local historians of art and design.

Design and its relation with manufacturing was an issue that had been a concern of the British state long before Morris began delving into its roots. From the late 1830s, the British government began establishing Schools of Design around the country aimed primarily at improving the quality of design and thus of industrial production. By the 1850s responsibility for overseeing the curricula for these schools was controlled via the Department of Science and Art's South Kensington Museum. As Calhoun notes, Morris became an adviser to the South Kensington Museum in 1876 and was appointed an examiner, a position he retained until his death. In the absence of any local initiative, this British art training system was imported directly into New Zealand through the establishment of local art schools – with minimal government involvement – who employed not only graduates of the South Kensington National Art Training School but also its teaching methodologies and examinations. Given the non-existence of any significant manufacturing industry in the colony and thus an associated class of 'skilled artisans' the majority of those attending these schools tended to be women and the focus of their education tended to be domestic and/or appropriate for the teaching of primary school children; drawing was an required to be taught in New Zealand schools under the terms of the 1877 Education Act.
'British art section - arts and crafts', from Isidore Spielmann, The British government exhibit at the New Zealand International Exhibition 1906-1907 (London: HMSO, 1908), p. 243. The frieze circumventing the rooms was designed by Walter Crane
Arts and crafts productions did however receive considerable popular exposure and even some acclaim in 1906-07, at the New Zealand International Exhibition held in Christchurch, but these were British made, selected by Walter Crane in his capacity as president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Crane's role didn't require him to visit visit New Zealand – he was represented at the exhibition by Alfred Appleby Longden – but he also designed the frieze used on the walls of the exhibit, although he'd executed it for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, held in St Louis in the United States. The inclusion of these arts and crafts pieces in the exhibition seems to have been the result of significant lobbying by Hubert Llewellyn Smith in his then capacity as acting permanent secretary of the British Board of Trade. They were an highly popular component of the exhibition: many pieces sold, 321 articles by 72 exhibitors. However, as Calhoun observes, the exhibit was 'very English' and a colonial hankering for reasonably-priced relics from 'home' may have accounted for the popularity of the pieces, few of which have been identified subsequently.

Effectively, by being stripped of its political dimension, gendered as a feminine concern and its promulgation confined to the genteel middle classes, Morris' noisy, rumbustious, socialist, all people and all classes, hands-on arts and crafts movement failed to flourish in colonial New Zealand. As Calhoun's text demonstrates, there were some enormously talented designers and makers, but the marginality of art and the absence of any viable market for their productions effectively put an end to any dream of living by their work.
Charles James Fox after a design by May Morris. Memorial case of gold-plated wood containing a locket of William Morris' hair, 1896-97
Victoria & Albert Museum
As Anarchy and beauty clearly demonstrates such was not to be Morris' British legacy. His socialism may have been overtaken by larger political events, but its core values remain a part of British political discourse. His furniture, textile and wallpaper productions may have been dismissed for much of the twentieth century as old-fashioned (Morris & Co finally closed in 1940) but the objects he designed and made, as indeed are those of his followers and adherents are highly sought after and many of the textiles and wallpapers remain in production. MacCarthy's intelligently structured, slyly witty (not the usual experience one imparts from a serious exhibition), brilliantly contextualised and beautifully selected exhibition shows the vitality of Morris' thinking and, indeed, its relevance to today. Appropriately, it's also well-designed and is accompanied by an equally rewarding catalogue. A must see, if you can get there.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The joy of Danish design

Notwithstanding the fact that Danish design appears to be a current favourite of at least one New Zealand auction house (it forms a significant component of Art + Object's Nordic design sale on 22 October 2014), in the unlikely event that New Zealanders give much thought to the history of the subject, it’s most probable they’ll opine it emerged, fully formed, with the architect Arne Jacobsen’s well-known Myren stol (Ant chair) in 1951. There may be some slight awareness of earlier design endeavours including, possibly, a conflation of Scandinavian design (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) with Finnish design and a vague recollection of the work of the influential modernist Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). In terms of accuracy, this is probably on a par with believing that New Zealand comprises the pristine, clean, green paradise of the Saatchi and Saatchi ‘100% Pure’ advertising campaign for Tourism New Zealand, rather than the deeply compromised colonial landscape of pest plants and animals, factory farming, industrial forestry and motorways that it has become. It's always difficult to correct ill-informed myths.

Outsider views of the development of Danish design have tended to reflect its marketing as a thoroughly modern, contemporary, phenomenon. This stance is not entirely uncommon; most people tend not to think of the historical antecedents of the objects they commonly surround themselves with. In Denmark things are a little different thanks, in part to a long-standing educational programme about design that dates from the establishment of the Royal Danish Academy, Det Kongelige Danske Skildre-, Billedhugger- og Bygnings-Academie i Kiøbenhavn (now known generally as Kunstakademiet), in 1754. This programme of design pedagogy gained significant momentum following the striking success of Den Nordiske Industri-, Landbrugs- og Kunstudstilling, the Nordic industrial, agricultural and art exhibition, which was held in Copenhagen in 1888. In the aftermath of the exhibition and inspired by the activities of the Paris-based Union des Arts Décoratifs, a collaboration between Danish industrialists, artists and historians sponsored the establishment in 1890 of a museum of Danish design, Det Danske Kunstindustrimuseum (known, more colloquially, as Kunstindustrimuseet). Since 2011, the museum has been known by the gimmicky neologism Designmuseum Danmark.

Originally located near the Tivoli pleasure gardens, the museum moved in 1926 into the restrained rococo premises of the former kongelige Frederiks hospital (Nicolai Eigtved/Laurids de Thurah, 1752-57) on Bredgade (the hospital is best known to history as the place where Søren Kierkegaard died in 1855), near Eigtved’s equally delightful and better-known Amalienborg palace (1750). The conversion of an eighteenth century hospital into a twentieth century museum of design was undertaken by the furniture designer Kaare Klint (1888-1954) and the architect Ivar Bentsen(1876-1943). The integrity of their redesign of the hospital space remained intact until recently suggesting not only the simplicity of their re-arrangement of the space and its flexibility but also the enduring quality of their design.
A remnant display of late nineteenth century Danish design in the galleries developed by Kaare Klint and Ivar Bentsen in Kunstindustrimuseet. The glass cases along the right wall were also designed by Klint
The museum’s collection reflects both the extraordinary creativity of Danish designers and makers over the past two and a half centuries as well as the scholarship and research interests of not only its curatorial staff but also that of major donors to the collection over the past 125 years such as Hugo Halberstadt whose collection of Japanese arms and armour – given to the museum in 1941 – was, in the estimation of Nobuo Ogasawara of the National Museum of Japan, ‘one of the finest collections of its kind anywhere in the world’. The museum’s collection of Asian and European ceramics, while relatively small when compared with those of, say the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is encyclopedic and of a notably high quality. Moreover, the museum has one of the most comprehensive (and delightful) libraries of decorative arts and design to be found anywhere in the world.
Twentieth century furniture displays dating from the early 2000s located within the intact Klint and Bentsen galleries
However, along with its change of name, the museum seems to have decided that Danish design is best represented by exhibitions of modern Danish furniture and its current displays reflect this partial belief. Alongside a long-installed gallery of twentieth century Danish furniture, the museum is currently showing three temporary furniture exhibitions: Øvelse gør mester: Kaare Klints møbelskole (Practice makes perfect: Kaare Klint’s furniture school), which focuses on Klint's pedagogical activities; Møbler til folket! Børge Mogensen 100 år (Furniture for the people! Børge Mogensen’s centenary); and Wegner: bare een god stol/just one good chair, a comprehensive exhibition devoted to the work of Hans Wegner (1914-2007) curated by Christian Holmsted Olesen.
The Wegner exhibition, which runs until December 2014 and comprises some 132 objects, is the most scholarly and the best displayed of the three temporary exhibitions. The exhibition is complemented by a meticulously researched and illustrated catalogue that, conveniently, is available in an English language version. The Klint exhibition (on display until February 2015) is undermined by an obscure take on the subject, intrusive exhibition design and a touching belief in the effectiveness of electronic gadgetry. The Møgensen exhibition is comprehensively overwhelmed by the others.
Unidentified photographer, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, president of the United States of America, seated in Hans Wegner's 1949 designed 'Den runde stol (The round chair)' in 1960. The chair was manufactured in oak by Johannes Hansen Møbelsnedkeri.
Designmuseum Danmark
From a marketing perspective Wegner was the archetypal post-war Danish designer. Aside from his sheer productivity, the popularity of his designs in the United States, particularly during the 1950s and 60s, prompted a massive expansion in the export of Danish furniture around the world. The notable exception to this trend was in New Zealand and Australia where protectionist tariffs and import licensing regimes made its acquisition financially unfeasible for most consumers. Would-be Antipodean consumers of modernist furniture in the 1950s and 60s had to put up with what, more often than not, were shabbily-produced, pirated travesties of the Danish originals. Contemporary Antipodean consumers of modernist Danish furniture might be well-advised to visit the exhibition before indulging their tastes. If that proves impossible, then the acquisition of Olesen's impressive book would be an adequate, if less tangible, substitute. 

It's unfortunate that in pursuit of it's recently announced strategy 'of pursuing alternative exhibition and communication approaches' and re-jigging itself as a 'central exhibition venue', Designmuseum Danmark has decided to move its public focus from a collection that provided it with a unique identity and fostered a remarkable, scholarly, research culture. The museum's pursuit of the chimera of public relevance is hardly unique  – witness the sad spectacle of the V&A's social media-driven 'rapid response collecting strategy' – but it's depressing to see it being embraced with such unreflective abandon.