Marjorie H Mills, needlewoman and artist

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.

3. Nurse

Glamorous nurse in Invalid Dishes

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.

4. Jam maker

 The jam maker is surrounded by dancing fruit in Jams and Preserves

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.

1. Recipe book with hand-made cover

 Recipe book with cover hand-made by Marjorie Mills (ref: 1986.74.1)

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.

2. Woman baking

 The first page shows a woman busy baking in Block Cake, plus the title of the index; take note of the currants with legs, running around the kitchen floor

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.

Frivolous confection on show

Pat Cush

Pat Cush

Pat Cush is an artist, and, in this reporter’s opinion, a very good one. He also works as a volunteer at the Whanganui Regional Museum, labouring for the love of it alongside exhibition officer, Dale Hudson.

For this story, Pat chose an object put on display only recently; a rococo porcelain basket which was a bequest to the museum from the estate of the late Esther Constance Harris. As an aside, that dear lady was a much loved choir mistress at St Luke’s Church in Castlecliff for many years, giving this reporter’s very much younger self a good grounding in soprano vocals until the onset of hairy legs and mixed octaves.

The frivolous confection

The frivolous confection

The porcelain basket features typical aspects of the late baroque style with exuberant representations of shells, forget-me-nots and the ubiquitous cherub. According to the museum provenance, the piece comes out of a Coburg factory, dated late 19th century, in the style of the famously elaborate Dresden ornamental chinaware.

So why did Pat choose this object for this Vaults story?  “Partly because I like it,” he says, “out of the new objects it’s my favourite.”

Pat’s interest in the porcelain basket is explained by some rather perverse reasoning … but it seems to make sense. “I think it’s a ridiculous art form and I like it because of that. It’s impractical and unnecessary, it’s absolutely camp … it’s madness … it’s a reaction to the austerity that came before it.   It’s just the most bizarre thing to look at,” he says.

“I’m not looking at it as an historical artefact, I’m looking at it as an arty object … and look at it! There’s so much to see, you can’t get bored with it. It is aesthetically pleasing for me, not because it’s ridiculous and camp, but because it’s just interesting.  Essentially it is a fun object and you can either like it or not like it,” says Pat.

They were considered ‘relics of paradise’ by those who enjoyed them more than a century ago.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek newspaper in May 2015.  Reproduced her with permission of the publishers.

Snapshots in watercolour

Snapshots in watercolour

Museum educator Margie Beautrais shows us a collection of paintings by Christopher Aubrey.  This is an exhibit not to be missed. You’ve entered the museum through the automatic glass doors, nodded “hello” to the front counter person, convinced them you live here so you’re entitled to free admission, and you’re now advancing to the Maori Court. Before you descend to the level of the waka, look to your left. There’s a small side room, softly lit, and therein hang a small number of framed water colours. They’re worth a look, truly.

Margie says these paintings – dated around the turn of the century (not the last one, the one before) – are that era’s version of amateur photography. Those with enough talent could paint a scene to record it. The paintings on show here are Mr Aubrey’s impressions of early Wanganui; detailed pictures of places, topographically accurate and charming in their execution. “They’re very different from photographs, because photography was around then, but you get a much better sense of the feel of what the place was like and a much stronger connection with the person,” says Margie, a painter herself. She calls herself ‘a closet painter’ but says she doesn’t paint closets, which just confused me. She says she paints but does not exhibit, or hasn’t for ages, anyway. She says she uses watercolour, but not in the traditional way like Mr Aubrey does. “These are painted in the correct watercolour technique,” she says, “where the artist uses a bit of pencil to draw their scene or outline, then uses a wash to build up the different colours and then puts the details on.” Finally, she says, the white is added last. She says she thinks Mr Aubrey’s work has been painted outdoors.

The first of Mr Aubrey’s paintings Margie had ever seen was one of Portal St, Durie Hill, when it was just an unpaved walking track. The view is looking down behind two men walking toward the river from about halfway up the hill. It has been on display before.

“There’s something very charming about his work … the buildings that he paints are beautifully done, the perspective is wonderful, the ships are marvellous, ‘cause they’re boy things.” Then Margie pointed out the amateur aspects, the marks of the self-taught artist. “The cows are wobbly,” she says, “he’s someone who used watercolour painting to record what he saw and it was obviously his hobby.” She used the term ‘naive art’. “They’re delicate,” she says, “and they appeal to me because they’re a record of how someone saw Wanganui.”  A couple of his paintings show the same scene at different times of the day. His subject is industrial but the moods are almost poetic.

There is not a lot known about Christopher Aubrey apart from what he allows us to see through his paintings. “He’s a bit of a mystery man,” says Margie. His paintings are held in various galleries and museums throughout New Zealand and show he lived an itinerant life, travelling through the South Island, painting as he went, before moving north through Wellington, Wairarapa, Manawatu, Wanganui, eventually making his way to Auckland.

Watercolours fade relatively quickly, so they’re not exhibited for long periods of time.  “If Christopher Aubrey lived now, he would be showing his paintings in the Open Studios, and people would be admiring and buying them,” says Margie, and I’m inclined to agree.

Please note the Aubrey exhibition is no longer on display but the works are available to view by contacting the Archivist, Sandi Black:

Also, Museum admission is free for everyone now.

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2011 and reproduced with publisher’s permission.

A Man for all Seasons

8.John Tiffin Stewart by photographer Frank Denton, late 19th century

John Tiffin Stewart by photographer Frank Denton, late 19th century (1996.79)

The multi-talented J T Stewart was born in Rothesay, Scotland.  He began an apprenticeship with a firm of civil engineers before attending the University of Glasgow where he graduated as a civil engineer. Stewart could turn his hand to anything. He was the quintessential golden man – he had a wide range of talents and abilities, and he used them to the full.

5.Chinese Camp in Melbourne, Australia, 1855

Chinese Camp in Melbourne, Australia, 1855 (1984.42.2)

Stewart left Scotland for Australia in 1852 where he worked for three years on the Victorian goldfields. In 1855 he came to New Zealand where he was appointed to the government engineering staff. In 1857 he mapped the Manawatū River. As assistant surveyor for the Land Purchase Department, in 1858 he began to define native land boundaries. Between 1861 and 1863 he was provincial engineer for Wellington, surveying roads in the Wairarapa.

2.Mr Kebbell's on the Manawatu, a surveyors’ camp, set up near a mission station by the Manawatū River, 1894

Mr Kebbell’s on the Manawatu, a surveyors’ camp, set up near a mission station by the Manawatū River, 1894 (1805.83.13)

By 1874 Stewart was in charge of the Wellington and Manawatū districts. From headquarters in Foxton he surveyed Māori land purchased by the Government in the Waitōtara and Manawatū areas and supervised the subdivision of Palmerston North and other settlements in Manawatū. He also planned and oversaw the completion of the Manawatū Gorge road.

7.Botanical Studies: a kōwhai-ngutakaka, or kakabeak, flower, 1859

Botanical Studies: a kōwhai-ngutakaka, or kakabeak, flower, 1859 (1805.83.123b)

Stewart was also a skilled watercolour artist. In the course of his work he often took time to observe and record scenes, landscapes, botanical specimens and Māori carvings. A large collection of his art works, maps, plans and family memorabilia is in the Whanganui Regional Museum Collection.

6.Clouds over Aramoho, late 19th century

Clouds over Aramoho, late 19th century (1805.83.45)

On 22 November 1865 John Stewart married Frances Anne Carkeek and they had five sons and five daughters. Stewart’s association with Whanganui began in 1868 when he began work on the Wanganui Town Bridge. He was known to roll up his plans in an oil sheet and walk to and from Wellington to confer with his superiors.

1.Man o’ War Bluff on the Whanganui River, early 20th century

Man o’ War Bluff on the Whanganui River, early 20th century (1805.83.15)

In November 1870 Stewart returned to Foxton as district engineer in charge of Taranaki, Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay districts. He transferred to Whanganui in 1885 and was elected to the Wanganui Borough Council for a two year term, during which he prepared a report on the clearing of the Whanganui River for navigation.

3.The wrecks of the City of Auckland and the Felixstowe on Manawatū Beach, 1878

The wrecks of the City of Auckland and the Felixstowe on Manawatū Beach, 1878 (1805.83.48)

After his retirement as district engineer Stewart became the government appointee to the newly created Wanganui River Trust. He served as chairman, secretary in charge of works, and as honorary engineer for the Trust. During the period of his association with the Trust the river was made navigable as far as Taumarunui, despite some Māori opposition. The river became part of a scenic route for tourists travelling to the central North Island.

Mt Ngāuruhoe, 1887

Mt Ngāuruhoe, 1887 (1805.83.6)

John and Frances Stewart played an active role in the Whanganui community. They were amongst the founders of the Wanganui Orphanage in 1889, later bequeathing their house for use as a Karitāne Home for sick infants. When the Wanganui Borough Council ran a competition for the development of Lake Virginia in 1904, Stewart, in association with his daughter and son-in-law, Henry Sarjeant, submitted the winning plan.

J T Stewart died in Whanganui on 19 April 1913 at the age of 85.