movement

Whanganui – forgotten capital of the Arts and Crafts Movement

With a number of cultural festivals and events unfolding over summer, this time of year is especially busy for Whanganui. The town has long stood out as a magnet for arts and culture, drawing creative people in from far and wide. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a major centre of New Zealand’s Arts and Crafts Movement.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts Movement was overturning the cluttered look we associate with the Victorian era. A response to urbanisation and mass-production in Britain, it was a design approach which recalled the pre-industrial world. It embraced hand crafting, simplicity, and nature-inspired patterns.

In 1892 Whanganui became the fourth city in the country to establish a formal arts school. This was the Wanganui Technical School (which eventually merged into the Wanganui Technical College). At this point, design training was an important part of most trades. The Wanganui Technical School taught both boys and girls – woodwork and metalwork were popular for girls and allowed for a career in the design world. Staff had Government funding to travel to all surrounding settlements in the Whanganui region and teach regular classes – art and design was equally accessible in rural areas.

3. Art class at Wanganui Technical School

 Art class at Wanganui Technical School. Auckland Weekly News, 15 August 1901.

While work was sent back to England for marking under a British syllabus, students were encouraged to incorporate native plants into art nouveau designs, and Māori carving and weaving was brought in for exhibition, appreciation and study. New Zealand materials like pāua shell and pounamu were inlaid into finely crafted domestic objects, such as picture frames and mantelpieces. The Movement evolved into a unique New Zealand form.

Edith Collier is the most well-known ex-student of the Wanganui Technical School, but her sister Dorothy was also an accomplished artist. A hammered pewter clock made by her is in the Museum collection, and it is a fine example of the art nouveau look that was emerging in the 1900s.

1. Dorothy Collier clock

Clock with pewter body made by Dorothy Collier. Ref: 2007.52

The Wanganui Art Society was founded in 1898, and a local Arts and Crafts Society appeared in 1901. These groups provided plenty of opportunity for locals to hone their artistic talents, holding regular competitions and exhibitions. For those Arts and Crafts enthusiasts with money to spend, Whanganui also had New Zealand’s first Liberty of London outlet store – one of the most luxurious department stores ever.

2. Liberty Shop

 The Victoria Avenue Liberty shop. From Wanganui Coronation Souvenir 1911.

Opened in 1905 by Mrs Martin, customers could buy “art furniture”, “art needlework”, William Morris fabric, and Tudric pewter ware. Some artists frowned upon Liberty’s as it was suspected that items on sale were mass-produced. The shop was eventually taken over by the Alcorn family; Margaret and Mary Alcorn had one Liberty outlet in Wellington, and a cousin ran another in Christchurch.

4. Liberty Advertisement

 Liberty Advertisement from the Wanganui Chronicle 3 July 1907, page 3.

The Arts and Crafts Movement remained popular in New Zealand right into the 1950s, long after it had faded from popularity elsewhere. A number of local houses were built which carry a distinct cottage look typical of the style. Durie Hill was planned by prominent architect Samuel Hurst Seager according to Arts and Crafts ideals. The state houses of the 1930s-1950s are a further legacy of the Movement. All in all, Whanganui is a forgotten capital of the home-grown Arts and Crafts Movement and deserving of greater appreciation.

 

Scott Flutey is a student of Museum and Heritage Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He is working as a summer intern at Whanganui Regional Museum.

 

Advertisements

Health and Beauty Movement

In the early decades of the 20th century, attitudes towards women’s health and beauty began to change. The growth of aestheticism in the 19th century had seen the advent of art appreciated for its beauty rather than its morality, and the belief that beautiful objects – including women – were there for the sole purpose of being admired.

But some women refused to accept such a passive role and the “new woman aesthete was born, a woman interested in experiencing art and beauty in a different and more active way. Mary Bagot Stack was one of these women.

In the early 1900s Stack spent time in India with her husband. She learned yoga and observed the differences in the way women moved when wearing the tight, restrictive European clothing, compared to the loose and free-flowing Indian garb.

She returned to England and attended Mrs Josef Conn’s Institute of Physical Training in London and learned about exercise as a way to stimulate health. Inspired by this and her experiences in India, Stack opened her own fitness centre in 1910, offering both private and public classes.

Post-war attitudes were changing and health professionals were beginning to acknowledge the benefits of exercise and changes in fashion on women’s health, which Stack had previously witnessed and understood. In the 1920s she developed her own system of exercise, set to music, a novelty for the time. This system was also meant to be a social event to help women recently bereaved by the Great War. The programme proved to be so popular that it grew from small classes to a mass movement, which in 1930, was named the Women’s League of Health and Beauty.

1. Poster

 Poster advertising a Demonstration of Health Exercises and Revived Greek Dancing, 1930s-1940s. Ref: 2017.18.8

The exercises were based on the understanding that movement was essential for a healthy life and generated beauty from within, without the need of extensive make-up and other common beauty trappings. The 12 sequences drew from dance, callisthenics, remedial and slimming motions, and rhythmic exercise, and often incorporated Greek dancing and poses. The poses required women to replicate the positions held in classic Greek statues, generating empathy for the work of art and embodying the balance and beauty of it within themselves.

The League’s popularity spread throughout the United Kingdom, then further out to the Commonwealth. Millicent Ward trained as a Health and Beauty Teacher under Stack before immigrating to New Zealand in 1937, settling in Auckland. Ward ran demonstrations and classes, which were very popular among young businesswomen, and was even called upon by some larger companies to offer classes specifically for their female employees.

Demand grew and there was a call for further classes to be opened elsewhere in the country. Ward trained new teachers and the programme spread throughout New Zealand, known here as the Health & Beauty Movement. When invited to the 70th Anniversary Celebrations, Ward recalled her time training new teachers, and in particular mentioned Wynn Newsome who taught classes in Whanganui.

2. Street parade photo

 Photograph of a street parade in Whanganui, with the float of the Health & Beauty Movement in the procession, 1940s. Ref: 2007.19

At the outbreak of World War II many classes around the country were forced to close, but the Whanganui branch remained open. A Whanganui Regional Museum volunteer recalls attending classes in the 1950s, held on Saturdays in the McGruer’s building on Guyton Street, wearing a uniform of white shirt and black sateen romper shorts.

Mary Stack died in 1935 from thyroid cancer, but her daughter, Prunella, took on her work and continued its popularity and growth. Mary Stack’s legacy lives on today with the movement now known as the Fitness League with the motto “Movement Is Life”.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.