Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Forty-two packages for the monster exhibition

William Mulready (1786-1863) designer, John Thompson (1785-1866) engraver,  Postage one penny letter sheet (1840). Relief engraving.
K & C Philatelics
In what was probably the first time the word design – in the sense that it is understand today as a tripartite process of production, mediation and consumption of manufactured commodities – was mentioned in the New Zealand press occurred in a Wellington newspaper, the New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator on 10 October 1840. Under the heading 'English news', the paper republished a short item 'Design of the postage cover' taken from the January 1840 issue of the progressive quarterly, the London and Westminster Review. The article concerned William Mulready's design for the British General Post Office of a pre-paid letter sheet, one of a series of reforms introduced in 1840, which included the invention of the adhesive pre-paid postage stamp, intended to revolutionise communication not only in the British Isles but also around the world, including the newly-established British settlements in New Zealand.

The short extract from the Review article was restricted to a description of the symbolism of Mulready's image, which observed the figures 'were emblematical of British commerce, and communication with all parts of the world'. It's hard to imagine what this twenty-four line text would have meant to colonial readers of the Gazette as, few would have received or even seen a postage stamp let alone a Mulready letter sheet as both had only been introduced some five months earlier; for example, Samuel Revans, the editor of the Gazette, had left London in September 1839. In fact, the discussion was in part redundant as, in the face of furious lobbying by private stationery manufacturers, the letter sheet was withdrawn from sale by the General Post Office, less than eight weeks after its release. It was a decision in keeping with the British state's long-standing deference to private interests. British commerce had trumped efficient communication; consumer utility was abandoned in favour of profit, no matter how inefficiently it was acquired.
Unidentified maker, Swinging cradle (1840). A contemporary image indicates a number of features
noted in news reports of 1840 were removed when the cradle was modified in 1894.
Royal Collection Trust (RCIN 42508)
Unless referring to the layout of the settler towns, discussions about design appeared rarely in the colonial press. When the subject was raised it was inevitably identified under the heading 'Latest English News' and comprised reprints of the strange and exotic. For example, in April 1841, some five months after the event, the New Zealand Gazette published an account of a 'nautilus-shaped cot' manufactured for the monarch's daughter, 'the Child of the Ocean Queen'. While the apparent absence in the press of any discussion about design in a local context doesn't necessarily indicate an actual absence, it does suggest that the matter was considered either unimportant or invested with only a metropolitan relevance. For it to make any sense, the description of the royal cot relied upon the memory and imagination of the reader, although – with the possible exception of a Wellington cabinetmaker, Johann Levien – it's unlikely that any residents of the colony of New Zealand would have been familiar with such a luxurious object. The technology of the time and the location of the colony both circumscribed and limited perceptions of the visual, at least in terms of manufactured commodities.
'Front of the Great Exhibition building exterior of the south' Illustrated London News (1851)
British Library
However this changed in 1842, when a key source for images of things, people and events, the Illustrated London News – the world's first illustrated weekly magazine – began publishing. The emergence of the medium with its regular selection of woodcut images meant that colonists had more proximate access to the visuality of the metropolis, albeit 75 to 120 days (the length of a voyage from London to Auckland) after publication. So, by 1851, colonists not only knew about the Great Exhibition but they also knew what it looked like and what it contained. Knowledge about the exhibition arrived in Auckland on 28 February 1850 via the Isabella, which carried English news from 31 October 1849. The following day, the Southern Cross briefly reported:
An exhibition of the industry of all nations is intended to take place upon a most superb scale in London in the course of the year 1851. The prizes are to be princely ones, upwards of £20,000 being to be awarded (sic); the largest amount, it is stated, will be a prize of £5,000.
John Nicol Crombie (1827-1878), [Looking east from Constitution Hill towards Parnell] (1861). In March 1850 Robertson's Ropewalk,
Mechanics Bay, (rear centre) was the site of the second annual show of the Auckland and New Ulster Agricultural and Horticultural Society.
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries (4-1117)
It is perhaps telling that the Southern Cross saw fit to focus on the scale of the prizes; there was no conception of the magnitude intended for the exhibition or its contents; to colonial eyes the proposed London exhibition seems to have been perceived merely an expansion, albeit a well-remunerated one, of the annual show of the Auckland and New Ulster Agricultural and Horticultural Society, the second of which, with its 'first-rate pigs' and prize pumpkins, was due to be held at Mechanics Bay, later that month. By late March the Southern Cross had access to further information concerning the proposed Great Exhibition and intimated it thought it proper that New Zealand should contribute to the exhibition, a stance it reinforced in May when it opined that
The advantage to be derived by such a contribution must be obvious to  every one, since, however comparatively obscured by the more gorgeous displays of the arts and industrial skill of wealthy and populous Europe, the very fact of the productions of the Colony being admitted into such gay and goodly fellowship must prove to be an instrument far more effective than the most elaborate Standing Advertisement, the most powerful Leading Article, or the most painstaking Book. It will be a standing reference at the command of the friends of the colony to point to, and say, –'Look here! Behold the fruits of the soil –the produce of the sea–and the arts and industrial capacities of New Zealand during the first year of her second decade!"  
By June 1850, the size and scope of the exhibition was becoming increasingly comprehended; newspapers in Auckland, Wellington and Nelson reported (under 'Latest English News') that:
A circular has been sent to the Mayors and official Authorities throughout the country, with the urgent recommendation to appoint local committees to carry out the object of the great Arts Exhibition. The appointment of local commissioners was also insisted upon, so that each branch of the industry of the town may receive representatives. The French government are expected to allow the export of their own articles, and the transit of articles of other countries through territory without official payment.
By July the minuscule New Zealand press was in a positive frenzy about the exhibition, with the New Zealander publishing columns of lists of objects eligible for display; in August the Nelson Examiner reprinted extensive discussions concerning the aims and purpose of the exhibition and its governance.  The New Zealander weighed in, observing that:
The extent to which this subject has engaged the public mind at home [...] would warrant our devoting considerable space to it [...] The movement, however, is in itself so important – so fraught with prospects of universal benefit, in which, if it not be our own fault, we in New Zealand may fully participate  – that we deem it a duty to keep it before the view, and so far as we can, to press it upon the practical consideration of our fellow colonists.
But it wasn't just the press; as Charlotte Godley, wife of the leader of the Canterbury settlement, commented in a May 1851 letter to her mother:
I suppose London is now nearly mad with the Great Exhibition just opened [...] I think we are rather well out of it; it makes me feel quite tired only to think about going to see such a monster exhibition. But, perhaps, after all, the grapes are sour. <C Godley, Letter from early New Zealand, 1850-1853 (Christchurch: Whitcomb & Tombs, 1951), p. 202>
But despite popular agitation little could be done by local authorities to ensure that the exhibition commissioners were cognisant of colonial desires. Nonetheless, the exhibition commissioners hadn't forgotten the colonies – their existence was, ultimately, a compelling rationale for the event – but, as Jeffery Auerbach observes, 'One of the most monumental tasks  facing the commissioners was to organise the British colonies, dominions and dependencies and make them part of the exhibition, and fittingly, the imperial displays at the Great Exhibition were located at the very centre of the Crystal Palace.' <J Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851; a nation on display (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 100>. Finally, on 6 September 1850, colonial authorities issued a Government Gazette  primarily comprising information received from the exhibition commissioners and stating that those items that were to be selected to represent the colony must be received at the Customs Warehouse in Shortland Street, Auckland by 1 October, 'and then transmitted to London at the expense of the Colony.'
John Alexander Gilfillan (1793-1864) artist, Edmund Walker (1826-1892) lithographer,  Interior of a native village or 'pa' in New Zealand, 
situated near the town of Petre, at Wanganui.
Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand (C-029-001)
Notwithstanding the short period allowed for collection, settlers had already taken to heart the admonitions of the Southern Cross that an exhibition committee be formed 'to receive and determine upon specimens, and to purchase articles  of native workmanship'. It's unclear as to the identity of the members of the committee but it appears from the Official catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations that some thirty-six exhibits were displayed from the forty-two packages despatched from Auckland. The greater part of those goods comprised specimens of flax, wool, leather, timber, Kauri gum, fish, a grub and minerals, along with examples of locally-manufactured soap, scale models of White Island and of Ruapekapeka Pā, the latter made by Henry Balneavis of the 58th Regiment, as well as a selection of woven goods produced by both Māori and pākehā. A later edition of the Official catalogue seems to indicate that this small contribution was supplemented by a selection of New Zealand-related material assembled in London by Frederick Moore, a sometime settler involved unofficially with the organisation of the New Zealand display at the exhibition. Moore owned John Gilfillan's – now lost – painting Interior of a native village or 'pa' in New Zealand, situated near the town of Petre, at Wanganui and probably arranged for it to be lithographed. The lithographed image seems to have been used to provide a context for a display of Māori artefacts. The provenance of the waka shown in the Nash lithograph Colonial produce is unclear but it may well have been included in a further attempt to enliven the display.
Joseph Nash (1808-1878), 'Colonial produce' (1852), from Dickinson's comprehensive pictures of the Great Exhibition (London: Dickinson Bros., 1854).
The location of the New Zealand display in the colonial court is suggested by a suspended waka at the left rear.
Victoria & Albert Museum
The entry of greatest interest in the revised list of the New Zealand section, at least from a design perspective, also emanated from London. Item 40 in the Official catalogue comprised a group of furniture made using decorative New Zealand timber veneers entered by the exclusive Mayfair furniture retailers Messrs R Lucas & Co.
It is unclear who was responsible for the production of this luxurious furniture – ' sliding secret panels, fluted with green silk', but it is probable it was the cabinetmaker Johann Martin Levien (1811-1871), described in the New Zealand Gazette as 'a highly respectable German, and an excellent cabinet-maker', worked in Wellington from 1840 before moving to London in 1843 where he not only established what appears to have been a bespoke furniture business based in Davies Street – about 500 metres from the premises of the Messrs Lucas – but also 'a warehouse for the manufacture and sale of New Zealand wood.' Levien developed a considerable reputation in Europe for his use of New Zealand timbers and he showed at the Great Exhibition under his own name, but located in the United Kingdom section; he was accorded an Honourable Mention. But he was more than a cabinetmaker, albeit one with a royal warrant granted in 1846. As an importer into Britain of exotic New Zealand timbers, it was in his interest to expose them to the widest possible audience: displaying furniture made from New Zealand timbers under the imprimatur of their colony of origin enabled him to do just that.
News of the opening of the exhibition by the monarch on 1 May seeped slowly into the colony; on 26 August, the Southern Cross resorted to printing guest lists and the opening programme from April editions of English newspapers. Finally, on 29 August the Thames, which had left London on 5 May, berthed at Auckland. On 2 September the Southern Cross  devoted almost an entire page to an account of the opening of the exhibition taken from the 3 May edition of Bell's Life in London. While on the following day the New Zealander reprinted a report of the opening from the 3 May edition of the Illustrated London News. Further news of the exhibition was slow arriving; the Southern Cross rehearsed its periodic complaint as to the tardiness of the mails. On 24 October it published an extended article complaining of the effect of the exhibition on the London retail trade. There seem to have been no reports concerning the New Zealand exhibits published in the colonial press. As Jock Phillips observes in his entry on 'Exhibitions and world's fairs' in Te Ara; the encyclopedia of New Zealand, 'amid the scale of the Great Exhibition, the display was small and little noticed.' New Zealand responses to the exhibition were of little concern to its commissioners. Auerbach notes that while the exhibition documented the vastness of British possessions, it 'also domesticated the empire. Through maps and charts, [domestic] visitors learned what 'belonged' to them. But Auerbach also asserts that 'a number of colonial exhibits suggested, iconographically, a high level of integration between the metropole and the periphery.'<Auerbach, p. 101>
[Johann Martin Levien (1811-1871)], Cradle ([1846]).
Mossgreen, Melbourne

The sort of integration Auerbach seems to envisage is encapsulated in another cradle with an alleged royal provenance attributed to Levien and produced around the time he received his royal warrant. The cradle, which was listed for sale by the Australian auction house Mossgreen earlier this year, was executed in a Renaissance revival style and made extensive use of veneered New Zealand timbers. While lacking a documented provenance (the possible royal connection could be easily confirmed or dismissed through the Royal Archives at Windsor), it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that the boat-shaped cot not only evokes Māori waka but also echoes the account published in 1841 in a Wellington newspaper concerning an earlier 'royal' cradle, one made for the 'Child of the Ocean Queen'.

But Levien's furniture also represents the disconnection of empire; the tension inherent between ruler and ruled. While Levien made good use of his time in New Zealand, his continued location in the colony would have never enabled him to obtain the level of recognition and wealth – his estate was sworn for probate purposes at less than £5,000 (the equivalent economic status today of £3 million) – that he achieved in London. In part, this design hiatus between metropolis and frontier resulted from inefficient communication. If the first mention of design in the New Zealand press had been prompted by British postal reforms of 1840, so too the status of design in the colony was compromised by a continued failure in the way Britain connected its economic, cultural and social networks. As the Southern Cross fumed in a frustrated editorial in September 1851 'let the advocates of expedition in this era of rapid communication, fancy upwards of eight months elapsing between the posting of a letter in London and its receipt in Auckland.' Such reforms would only occur with the reform of the corrupted British civil service following the gradual implementation of the Northcote -Trevelyan reforms from 1854. But, more significantly, in design terms at least, the disconnection of empire ensured that while the periphery provided raw materials and a small consumer base, the design, production and mediation of commodities remained primarily a metropolitan concern.