Reviews, News and Commentary

Rooms: Portraits of Remarkable New Zealand Homes

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Rooms: Portraits of Remarkable New Zealand Homes

By Jane Ussher and John Walsh

Massey University Press

RRP $85

Reviewed by John Daly-People4s

New Zealanders have a fascination with homes and interiors evidenced by the sales of numerous magazines on architecture and house interiors. The former mainly deal with the forms, spaces and structures of building with the other focused on objects, decoration  and the use of the spaces.

Both these elements are brought together in  the new book “Rooms” by photographer Jane Ussher and architectural writer John Walsh looks at the range of interior spaces in New Zealand homes from the small villa through to grand mansions.

It is an eclectic collection which is a mixture of historical, social  and aesthetic enquiry. These are not all images of “home beautiful”, but rather ordinary, lived-in homes but lived in with a sense of the interiors reflecting something of the owners rather than reflecting current design trends.

Carterton House

Jane Ussher is a perceptive and knowledgeable photographer having photographed buildings as diverse as Shackleton’s Antarctic hut through to Government House while John Walsh is a perceptive writer about New Zealand’s architectural history.

In the book Ussher focuses her camera on a range of rooms that she considers to be beautiful, intriguing, distinctive and unique. Shot in a range of locations across New Zealand, from simple cottages through to some of the country’s most important buildings such as Olveston and Larnachs Castle in Dunedin and Mansion House on Kawau Island

The more than 300  images are introduced with an excellent essay by John Walsh who provides context for the interiors as well as the photographers approach. As he notes in his introduction “Ussher’s journey  through some of the nations most photogenic interiors has taken her into rooms with the visual calorie count of French haute cuisine; just looking at portraits of these rooms will make  a viewer feel full. But there are palette-cleansers too, rooms as sparse as those found in traditional Japanese houses or voguish dealer galleries. Actually, the gallery analogy has a more general applicability. The interiors that Ussher most commonly portrays are living or sitting rooms and hallways – spaces with surfaces free for the display of things and experiments in colour.”

Merivale House, Christchurch

In some of these houses it is art which dominates as with Parnell Cottage where there are six images of the place presenting artworks by Jude Rae, Peter Robinson, Michael Hight, Terry Stringer, Layla Walker, Gavin Hurley, Hannah Maurice, Yvonne Todd, Michael Parekowhai Francis Upritchard, Judy Millar, Richard Killeen and Imogen Taylor.

By contrast Otahuhu Studio is represented with just one image – a door painted by the owner /artist Sam Mathews

With The Chapman-Taylor House, Takapuna Ussher seem to have been taken with the juxtaposition of a  yellow glazed vase  and  painting of a yellow glazed bowl by Neil Driver. This house also has a large wall mural by the jeweller Reuban Watts who commissioned the house nearly a century ago.

Westmere House, Auckland

Other interiors are included for their lavish or exotic decorations such as the French wallpaper used in Remuera House featuring an oriental scene which stretches around virtually the whole dining room

With some of the interior Ussher focusses on the minimalist such as Freemans Bay Cottage with its three modernist lamps or the Toomath / Wilson Modernist House, Wellington where the architectural fittings are given prominence.

Some rooms are included because of their use of colour, dramatic contrasts and refined placement of furniture. Other demonstrate the careful architecture design elements while others show how sheer abundance of objects and detail can make an impression.

No individuals appear in these photographs but what we get from them is not just a “portrait” of the room. There is also a sense of the people who inhabit these spaces. Their selected objects, works of art, designer and traditional furniture, the colours and fabrics speak about aesthetic and design decisions which are often very different.

Ussher spent about two years actually taking the photographs but the idea behind the book had been developing for a lot longer as the photographing of spaces and rooms was something of an obsession for her.

“Planning for the trips was complicated by the resurgence of Covid but the time away from the camera allowed me to clarify what I wanted to include in the book so in some ways it was advantageous. The two major Auckland lockdowns meant we couldn’t get out of town to shoot and later on, when the borders were open, we didn’t want to create anxiety for homeowners by being visitors from Auckland into parts of the country with low Covid numbers.”

Brooklyn House, Wellington

“I think trust played a major role. Amazingly, almost no one said no. The fact that we were offering anonymity to people whose homes had never been published before certainly helped, but I also think that they were curious to see what the photographs would say about their space. In some cases, taking the photographs was a very collaborative process, with the owners contributing ideas or helping create a better composition by moving things while in other instances the owners were happy to give me free reign.”

Jane Ussher and John Walsh have created not just a valuable resource and a great coffee table book, this is a work of insight into our history made possible by the breadth of knowledge and experience of the two collaborators.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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