MEET THE MAKER OF A $1M CABINET AND THE COM­MU­NITY FIGHTING TO KEEP IT

WHEN YOU MAKE A CABINET WITH 140 DRAWERS AND COMPARTMENTS, SOME OF THEM SE­CRET, IT’S EASY TO LOSE TRACK OF IT ALL. NOW A RE­GIONAL GALLERY IS RAISING FUNDS TO MAKE SURE IT DOESN’T LOSE THE EXQUISITE $1M WORK OF ART.

The Observer - - WEEKEND - WORDS: JASMINE BURKE PHO­TOS: MARK STAPEL­BERG

Crafts­man Ge­of­frey Han­nah gen­tly but ea­gerly opens doors and drawers of the mag­nif­i­cent Han­nah Cabinet. His coun­ter­parts stand around and ner­vously put their hands up as he passes around the pieces of his cabinet.

“I’m not hold­ing it,” they say to Ge­off, fear­ful of drop­ping a part or even sim­ply smudg­ing their fin­ger­prints on the lov­ingly pol­ished wood.

He pulls count­less drawers out from be­hind one of the doors, reaches into the cabinet and feels around un­til he finds what he’s look­ing for – one of the se­cret drawers.

Af­ter the show­ing, he slots the many pieces back into place with con­fi­dence and quick hands, clos­ing it up as ev­ery­one in close prox­im­ity breathes a sigh of re­lief.

It is too much re­spon­si­bil­ity to be hold­ing a piece of the $1 mil­lion cabinet that took sixand-a-half years to build. Truly a mas­ter­piece, the Aus­tralian-made cabinet is crafted from 34 dif­fer­ent types of tim­bers and ve­neers, four rare species of shell and 17 types of pre­cious and semi-pre­cious stones.

Hung on the walls of the room in Lis­more Re­gional Gallery are art­works, but one piece de­mands your gaze – the cabinet that stands loudly be­hind the rope and against the wall.

Now, a cam­paign has been launched to keep it there.

Bring­ing Home The Han­nah Cabinet is an ini­tia­tive to raise $1 mil­lion to buy the piece to keep it for the gallery’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. If suc­cess­ful, it would be a first for re­gional Aus­tralia.

The cam­paign seeks 90 in­di­vid­u­als or phil­an­thropic and cor­po­rate sup­port­ers to spon­sor one of the 140 drawers, rang­ing from $5000 to $100,000.

With brim­ming pride and a good dose of en­thu­si­asm, Ge­off tells how he made ev­ery in­tri­cate petal or feather from a sliver of wood.

“When you work on some­thing for six years it just con­sumes you all over,” he says.

“When the last piece is done and you sit back and there isn’t any­thing else to do, it’s a real lull in the sys­tem.

“It takes me a month to get over that feel­ing.”

He says whether you’re into wood­work or art or gild­ing “there is some­thing in that cabinet for some­one who’s go­ing to be there”.

Na­tive flora and fauna dec­o­rate the cabinet. Ge­off ex­plains he draws from real life where he can.

“Once I’m happy with it I trace it and cut ev­ery feather and petal out in­di­vid­u­ally with a knife. Some peo­ple say ‘Oh you’re an artist’ but no, I work hard to draw,” he says, look­ing over at his de­signs.

He later hands out his orig­i­nal pen­cil sketches on pa­per. They live in one of the drawers of the cabinet. He holds the sketches up to the fin­ished prod­ucts.

It is spec­tac­u­lar.

Ge­off sits with his hands re­laxed in his lap, his body an­gled – per­haps un­con­sciously – to­ward the cabinet while he ex­plains its in­ner work­ings.

“The mech­a­nisms and the se­cret compartments have to be worked out so it’s there but no one can see it.

“The first thing, when some­one sees it,

they al­ways say ‘Oh, I would’ve worked that out’. But when you have a se­cret com­part­ment it’s got to be easy to ac­cess – you can’t have a screw­driver to get into it. It has all got to be ‘push this and do that’ so it all op­er­ates.

“In the old days that’s how peo­ple hid things – be­cause there wasn’t a safe, they used to hide things in cab­i­nets.”

Also in­side the cabinet is a framed piece of Marie An­toinette’s “favourite sum­mer fabric” given to Ge­off in 1980.

“It’s lit­tle kids who come in, sit on the floor and look at it and love it ev­ery time you open a drawer.

“And that’s a good feel­ing.

“But it’s not un­com­mon for some­one to come in and be very up­set when they see it. They get over­whelmed with it – even men. That’s a good feel­ing that you can make some­thing for some­one else to love.”

He says ev­ery time he sees his work now he’s re­ally happy. This is ob­vi­ous im­me­di­ately when in his com­pany, but it took him about a year and time away from it to be able to sit back and fi­nally think ‘I’m happy with that’.

To move the cabinet, it must be taken apart – which is ap­par­ently the easy part with no screws in place.

But it was a chal­lenge to make all that work, Ge­off says.

“There’s that much work­ing out to do and I don’t think I could do it again. I think I’ve lost it,” he says.

The many drawers of the Han­nah Cabinet are doc­u­mented, to a point.

“When I got it back from Can­berra, where it was on dis­play for three years, I pulled it apart to re-wax and pol­ish it and found a drawer I hadn’t pol­ished – I for­got it was there!” he laughs.

Love for his fam­ily and the craft he grew up learn­ing made the labour of his pieces lighter.

“When I was 17 I found these adop­tion pa­pers in a tin. They were mine. I said to Mum, ‘What’s this all about?’. She said, ‘Oh you’re happy though, aren’t you love?’. And I said, ‘Yeah, I am’.”

He re­calls the time with an ob­vi­ous fond­ness for his par­ents.

“Ever since that day we never spoke about it.

“But I had the most beau­ti­ful upbringing and couldn’t have landed on my feet any bet­ter than them go­ing to Co­raki and get­ting me out of the hos­pi­tal when I was a baby.

“I owe it to them. That’s why it was named the Han­nah Cabinet.”

Grow­ing up watch­ing his father work with tim­ber and liv­ing in a sawmill house be­low the mill at Bus­bys Flat, Ge­off said he used to

“BUT I HAD THE MOST BEAU­TI­FUL UPBRINGING AND COULDN’T HAVE LANDED ON MY FEET ANY BET­TER THAN THEM GO­ING TO CO­RAKI AND GET­TING ME OUT OF THE HOS­PI­TAL WHEN I WAS A BABY.”

“muck around with wood”.

“It was a beau­ti­ful jour­ney, it still is.” For the past two years he has been work­ing on a jewellery cabinet that looks like a Ge­or­gian build­ing for an ex­hi­bi­tion set for next year.

“And then I’ve got to make a ta­ble for it to sit on,” he says laugh­ing, know­ing he has a lot of work ahead of him.

In 1980, Ge­off was awarded a Churchill Fel­low­ship to ex­plore Euro­pean cab­i­netry from the 17th cen­tury to the 19th cen­tury and has since taught his craft all over the coun­try.

He teaches groups of six stu­dents three days a week in Lis­more as part of his own work­shop and some of them have been there for 20 years.

The wait­ing list is six years.

In March last year, Lis­more was flooded from the Cy­clone Deb­bie weather event.

Ge­off lives in a flood-prone zone in Lis­more and had to move the cabinet up­stairs piece by piece. And then came the worst part of his whole cre­ation ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The finials on the top were miss­ing. Oh that was re­ally drama. I had two weeks to find them or make eight new ones.

“I was on the edge I tell you. The re­lief of find­ing them (af­ter scour­ing the house top to bot­tom) – I still haven’t got over that feel­ing.

“The birds I loved do­ing, the carv­ing, the gild­ing. Ev­ery as­pect was a de­light to do.”

For more in­for­ma­tion on Bring­ing Home the Han­nah Cabinet, visit han­nah­cab­i­net.com

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