Department of Lands and Survey

Designs preserved in metal

Print blocks

From the Vaults is a regular Midweek feature in which a member of staff from the Whanganui Regional Museum discusses an item or exhibit from the museum’s vast collection. Front of house staff member Yoka van Dyk is a print maker – among other things – so it was appropriate she choose some Nancy Adams print blocks for this story.
The blocks were commissioned by the Department of Lands and Survey – the predecessor of DoC – in the 1980s and were made for illustrations in official publications about Egmont National Park, including a handbook and track pamphlets. They feature original art work by botanical artist Nancy M Adams.
Yoka saw them on display in the ‘new acquisitions’ section.  “They’re just exquisite little objects, just beautiful,” she says.
To accompany her story, Yoka brought along a burin, one of the tools that would have been used to make the print blocks. The burin is a fine chisel used for engraving designs on metal. “There are all different types,” says Yoka, “because you have different ones to make different lines. This point is very sharp with a sort of lozenge shape on the very end and it fits comfortably in your hand.” She demonstrated the use of the burin, keeping it low to remove a sliver of metal and show how varying depths of cut, using the wedge-shaped cutting edge, will produce different widths of line.
“These ones are very finely detailed and you have to be a very good drawer to be able to execute designs like this,” she says.
Both the skill of the engraver and the detailed designs of Nancy Adams are represented by the print blocks, which are made of brass, mounted on wood. Nancy Adams’ watercolours and drawings are widely known through reproduction in nearly 40 publications on native trees and shrubs, alpine plants, wild flowers and seaweeds that she has written and illustrated.
“Before, there were no books for the layman, really, only for botanical scientists, and with no pictures, so she jumped into that gap and started illustrating plants. And because she was a scientist as well, she could combine the two – her scientific side as well as her exquisite, articulate artistic side,: says Yoka.
Her father was an amateur horticulturalist, so Nancy  – born Jacqueline Nancy Mary Whittaker – grew up with Latin botanical names and a deep interest in plants. She joined the Dominion Museum in Wellington in 1959, eventually specialising in marine algae. She retired in 1987 as assistant curator of Botany and became an honorary research associate of the museum.
Quite a few of the print blocks are seaweed illustrations and each engraving is an intricate, detailed work of art. Engraving as a means of illustration was very common before the advent of photography and is still used for fine work.
“With drawing you really have to observe every minute detail, and interpret that. For her [Nancy], the real process was using the hand and eye,” says Yoka.
As well as working front-of-house at the museum, Yoka spends Mondays working at the Sarjeant Gallery. “I love working in the cultural hub of Wanganui,” she says.
Yoka came to New Zealand from Holland in 1987, intending to take a six-month break from her work as an artistic therapist. The country evidently appealed. She returned to her homeland in 2009, intending to live. She lasted 10 months and returned to New Zealand. An account of Yoka’s story and the nature of her work will feature in a future issue of Midweek.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek on 25th July 2012. Reproduced with permission from the publishers.