William Cottrell delighted a large audience of Friends at Te Papa with his illustrated lecture on furniture making in New Zealand in the 19th and early 20th Century. The favourable conditions for this flourishing domestic industry included a plentiful supply of suitable native timbers (rimu, kauri, totara); a strong demand from a rapidly expanding immigrant population; and the presence in the colonists’ ranks of skilled and entrepreneurial craftsmen.

Through his research and practical skills in restoring many fine examples of colonial furniture, William Cottrell demonstrated how the patterns of London-based designers such as Thomas King and George Smith were copied unashamedly and with impunity by local craftsmen throughout the colony.  Mr Cottrell’s detailed sleuthing of the origin of designs of various examples of furniture reminded one somewhat of the British TV show “Fake or Fortune”.  However the prices of genuine New Zealand colonial furniture remain modest it seems compared with those in the fine arts. The copying of designs was made much easier by the advent of photography and eventually catalogues of designs were published in New Zealand, the first in Dunedin by Craig and Gillies in 1875, but still these remained for the most part derivative rather than original.

The lecture was brought to an interesting conclusion with examples of the way Mr Cottrell’s knowledge is being used to refurnish Katherine Mansfield’s house in Thorndon Wellington.  Following warm applause at the end of the lecture Mr Cottrell was surprised by an intervention from a group in the audience who identified themselves as descendants of Josephus Hargreaves, a cabinet maker who started business in Nelson in 1842.  They asked for a family photograph with Mr Cottrell to which he graciously agreed.

William Cottrell wrote “Furniture of the New Zealand Colonial Era 1830-1900”, which won the Montana Book Awards in 2006.  He is currently writing a second book for Te Papa Press on the travel of designs around the world to 19th Century New Zealand and our earliest colonial printed catalogues.

Further reading can be found on Te Ara under the heading Furniture.

Lindsay Taiaroa

Member, Friends of Te Papa