A recipe book, recently discovered in an obscure box in the Museum, was given to “Win” by Marjorie H Mills in 1935. This information is inscribed on the flyleaf. The book itself is titled The Red Recipe Book and is a commercially produced indexed book for recording recipes and household hints. Bound in bright red buckram, the index titles are printed in red or blue ink: Small Cakes, Pastry, Baked Puddings, Jams and Preserves, and so on.
What is fascinating about this quite ordinary mass-produced recipe book is that each index page has been individually and appropriately illustrated in sophisticated watercolours and inks by the giver, Marjorie Mills. The Queen of Hearts sweeps haughtily past a minion in the Pastry section (remember those tarts). A very glamorous nurse is the subject of the Medical Hints; design and palette is distinctively art deco, giving a clue as to when it was created, further ratified by the date on the flyleaf. A wan creature in a purple robe trimmed with swansdown languishes in a luxuriously appointed bed in Invalid Dishes. In Jams and Preserves a beautiful young woman, dressed in a large flowery apron and incongruous red high heels, carries a basketful of newly harvested fruit across the grass; she is encircled by small dancing plums, apples and peaches.
In addition, this lovely little book has a home-made fawn linen cover with a hand-made applique design of a blue vase holding a spray of red berries with a sun behind it. No recipes have been written into the book.
Why was this book so beautifully and lavishly illustrated? A clue is in a small hand-painted card found tucked inside the recipe book which depicts a bride dressed in white holding a bouquet of pink roses, with the words, “With best Wishes / for Future / Happiness / from / Marjorie. H. Mills”. This personalised wedding gift, to a friend or a relative, epitomises the talent of Marjorie Mills.
Marjorie Hinemoa Mills, it turns out, was a deeply respected artist, embroiderer and business woman. Born in 1896 in Wellington, she moved as a teenager, with her family, to Feilding and went to Feilding District High School. Marjorie was taught embroidery by her mother, and later attended Saturday art classes where she learned drawing and painting. Her talents in embroidery were extended and enriched, and after leaving school, she started working for the Alcorn sisters in Wellington, designing embroidery patterns. The Depression meant an end to her employment in 1930, but Marjorie bounced back to open a needlework shop in Palmerston North in 1934 with a business partner, Irene Esau. They called the business Millesa, a combination of part of their surnames. By 1938 she had moved back to Wellington to open her own needlework business which became immediately popular.
In the 1950s Marjorie sold her business and went abroad, attending a two-year course at St Martin’s School of Art and travelling extensively to see the art of Europe. Returning to Wellington, she opened another needlework business which proved just as successful as her others.
All this time, she was designing, painting, drawing and embroidering, frequently exhibiting her works in shows run by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. She moved to Blenheim in the 1970s and taught art, later moving to be nearer her family in Dannevirke, where she passed away in 1987.
Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.