Ravenscar House: A Biography by Sally Blundell (Canterbury University Press, 2022), 224pp, $59.99; Road People of Aotearoa: House truck journeys 1978–1984 by Paul Gilbert (Rim Books, 2021), 184pp, $50
While these two books have a common theme of shelter, their inhabitants are poles apart. We are looking, I suppose, at high culture with millions of bucks behind it and a kind of DIY counterculture, where one manages to make a picturesque home with few bits from the tip, cadging some car cases (carcasses?) from an importer and bolting the whole caboodle on the back of an old truck to take to the dusty road.
I’ll begin with the high culture offering. The principal subject of Sally Blundell’s ‘biography’ is Susan Wakefield and her second husband, ‘call me Jim’ Wakefield. I suppose the title ‘lady’ applies to Susan, though this is not the Canterbury aristocracy based on acres and huge estates; rather, a second generation when the accountants and auditors begin to get seriously rich. Susan came out from the UK in the late 1940s with her parents, who were of relatively humble origin but did well for themselves in New Zealand, eventually landing teaching jobs in the colonial city.
Young Susan was a bright wee lass by all accounts, the kind of girl who picked up all the prizes and lined up the Dux. She seemed able to segue from chemistry in high school to Russian at university, where she was carried off by her ‘compulsive polymath and bookworm’ Russian lecturer, exactly twice her age, while spending her leisure hours making babies and writing a doctorate on ‘defective verbs in modern Russian’. It is almost a relief to us that she studied accountancy as an easy option. Someone who could juggle complex molecules and patch up defective verbs would, I assume, find adding columns of figures a breeze.
Jim Wakefield, Susan’s second hubby, was a partner in the accountancy firm and it was love at first ledger entry, apparently. Jim and Susan prospered in a way that only accountants could in the heroic times of Rogernomics, neo-Liberalism and the sell-off of government services. Susan describes herself as adhering to the somewhat oxymoronic philosophy of ‘Rogernomics with a human face’ and was (jokingly?) described by one of her colleagues as ‘Sue the Enforcer’. It must be pointed out that in the many photos of groups of suited gents on various boards she is almost invariably the only woman in the picture—not an easy wicket. Among the gongs and honours she gathered was the Suffrage Centennial Medal in 1993.
I won’t go into the carefully presented details of Jim’s business ventures, from West Coast coal mining to fleets of rental cars, nor list their various addresses and houses. But the culmination of this wealth was Ravenscar House (later to become Ravenscar I when, after its collapse in the Christchurch earthquakes, Ravenscar II was built in central Christchurch). The Frank Lloyd Wright references in the first villa, situated above Taylor’s Mistake, fittingly translated by Warren & Mahoney partners, William Fox and Brian Gregory, are beautifully documented in a series of photographs by Doc Ross, who also shows the building’s elegant articulation into gardens and the spectacular landscape. The library might leave viewers perplexed: an aberration worthy of a Texas millionaire, it seems to be a pastiche of John Soane’s Lincoln Field library sans windows. One might wonder how much reading happened in there.
The main thing Ravenscar House contained, which gave it a wider appeal, was an impressive collection of art, mainly New Zealand works but also pieces from various overseas jaunts by the happy couple. The paintings are by the usual suspects—John Gow very ably advised Susan in her acquisitions. There are a few works by the likes of Petrus van der Velden, Goldie and Lindauer (you can’t seem to have one without the other), a mixed bundle of Frances Hodgkins, a Doris Lusk, a lovely Rita Angus, and serviceable works by Colin McCahon, Pat Hanly, Bill Sutton, Ralph Hotere, Michael Smithers and a dozen or two other big brushers. There is one truly amazing landscape of the inlets from the villa’s position by Leo Bensemann, which makes the pure green masses of McCahon’s versions look blocky and clumsy, somehow. Sculpture seems more ornamental than heroic: apart from a few classical fragments, the industrious Paul Dibble is the only big name. It is a collection described by a Christchurch art historian as having ‘some nice things in it, and a lot of stuff that would be considered ok to mediocre by museological standards’.
The late-September 2010 earthquakes gave the place a severe shake, then the biggie in February 2011 reduced it to a ruin. Miraculously, most of the artworks were comparatively undamaged, but some of the crocks had fallen over. There was an interregnum in the book during which we assume the restoration was going on and the ceramics meticulously stuck together again. To cut a long and detailed story short, the estate decided to build the new Ravenscar—now a museum in the middle of the city that houses the collection.
For the building, a broadly similar programme to the previous house was postulated but in an urban setting, and Andrew Patterson Associates were an optimal choice of architects. Again, the programme was to be a mixture of dwelling and art, though it seems doubtful that the place would be lived in much. Although the family expressed an interest in Renzo Piano’s aesthetic, Susan had a special affection for Kettles Yard, a picturesque but dysfunctional muddle of ancient houses in Oxford, crammed full of English art with a smattering of impressionists. Most definitely not a Piano; more a clapped-out Harmonium.
As the building was to be an earthquake-proof bunker, there is much talk in the book of foundation and concrete pouring. The architects recycled some of the Welsh brick from the old house into the impenetrable reinforced concrete walls. The original house had consisted largely of imported materials, from Italian Marble to Welsh slate, Dutch Oak (from 1620) to Hinuera Stone, with expense never spared. I have the feeling that Ravenscar II is a tad heavy, but once you are inside, it’s a pretty good setting for the treasures. Inspired by the above-mentioned Kettle Yard, none of the works on the wall is labelled, but, of course, most visitors will know an Angus from a Lusk.
The book is a very thorough, professional job from all angles. I assume you’d buy it as you exit through the gift shop and look to see if any of your cousins figure in the cast of thousands in the index. One can also appreciate the fine reproductions of the artworks and compare and contrast the two Ravenscars through fine pictures. I’m impressed, if only half convinced, until I see the place.
Paul Gilbert’s book is completely different. I must express an interest here: New Zealand is a small country and so it seems totally normal that I knew Gilbert; we both attended the same Elam photography workshop in 1973, I as a teacher, he as an enthusiastic young student. Gilbert later took on my old job at Elam for a few years, and later still, it seems, he took to the road.
The book covers the period 1978–84. Haru Sameshima provides an extensive essay that serves as a conclusion, illustrated in part by extracts from newspapers and posters of various manifestations. He gives a good account of a complex cultural situation, where the big ‘hippie’ festivals of those years—Sweetwater and Nambassa, for instance—were in part generated by theatre and performance groups moving around in house trucks. So Sameshima must manage a double-entry system: picturesque trucks and their hairy inhabitants on the one side; performance and later financial issues attached to art events on the other. This is serious history writing, with footnotes, a bibliography and other critical apparatus. The situation was made more complex, sadly, when Gilbert died in 2019, leaving a couple of thousand photo scans and limited indications of their contents in the hands of the publisher. His friends and ex-colleagues, Megan Jenkinson and John Turner chose some 240 photos, maybe 100 too many to my mind.
The book is arranged in photo sequences: an introductory suite, a ‘Truckbuilding’ sequence, a happy people sequence, a series of trucks, happy families (in various configurations), a beautifully evocative series of ‘Messages from the Interior’, and a travelling circus and concerts sequence.
Each sequence has its jewels, although I found myself looking through Gilbert’s photos rather than at them: they are inevitably very heavily content-driven, and very few of them would work as great stand-alone images at an artistic level. There are some very evocative images of camp life; smoke coming out of skinny chimneys, the beautiful people involved and, above all, the colourful details of the interiors of these often-splendid vehicles. Some of the rigs look terrifying and had me wondering how they ever got past the rigours of a NZ WOF vehicle inspection. One of my favourite pictures is of a diesel motor in the corner of a room adorned with floral wallpaper.
Much of the gypsy life has echoes of Woodstock and there was obviously much joy and fun. It never seems to rain, and the idea of a quarrelsome family with grubby brats and smelly dogs cooped up in a space the size of a prison cell is never evoked. Our hippies were probably swept away by the rough winds of economic change and the need to somehow get back into the middle-class rat race from whence they came before house prices caught up with them. John Tucker, the trucker who features in the book, does mention in an interview with Kim Hill that the whole business became too expensive and cumbersome, as the thirsty old trucks started losing their muscle and dropping cogs, and the plywood houses were juddered into leaks. The performance circuit also became much more a question of dollars with the big and popular groups elbowing out the humbler acts. It was 1984, and big brother was moving in.
Gilbert was well out of it by then and became a boatie for the rest of his life, leaving an equally splendid collection of photos of New Zealand’s various aquatic jewels in full sail set in our gorgeous coastal landscape.
MAX OETTLI is a photographer, writer and teacher. His last appointment was as Principal Lecturer in photography at the Dunedin School of Art. He and his wife are based in Geneva for now.