In­laid na­tive tim­ber fit for a queen

Auckland City Harbour News - - News - By Heather McCracken

He was one of New Zealand’s finest crafts­men, with work dis­played in royal palaces and private col­lec­tions around the world.

But cab­i­net­maker An­ton Seuf­fert died in poverty, leav­ing his Kings­land widow to beg for a pen­sion to sur­vive.

His story in­spired great­greatBrian Peet to re­search and write a book on his life and work.

“I just find it a fas­ci­nat­ing re­flec­tion on early New Zealand and what peo­ple had to go through to live in this coun­try,” Mr Peet says. “It was a tough life.” Seuf­fert learned his trade near Vi­enna mak­ing cab­i­nets for the Aus­trian Em­peror, and later for royal house­holds in Lon­don.

He moved to New Zealand with his wife and two young chil­dren in 1859, set­tling in Auck­land.

Life was dif­fi­cult for the cou­ple, who went on to have five more chil­dren, in­clud­ing a son lost to ty­phoid at age 11.

An­ton, and later sons William, Al­bert and Carl, be­came renowned for their work us­ing na­tive tim­bers.

The pieces in­laid with in­tri­cate de­signs fea­tur­ing lo­cal birds and plants took months or even years to com­plete.

Mr Peet’s re­search showed large cab­i­nets could sell for more than 80 pounds, at a time when a sub­stan­tial house in Re­muera could be bought for 450 pounds.

The price meant most were sold to Bri­tish dig­ni­taries or pro­duced as gifts for royal vis­its.

De­spite this, the fam­ily con­tin­ued to live in poverty, Mr Peet says.

“All his money was just be­ing used to keep his tribe of kids alive. There’s no ev­i­dence of any wealth.”

When An­ton died in 1887 he left his wife des­ti­tute, re­liant on sup­port from her sons.

The fam­ily busi­ness was con­tin­ued by eldest son William, who died in 1943.

Mr Peet says he be­came in­ter­ested in the Seuf­fert story be­cause of his fam­ily con­nec­tion – he is de­scended from eldest daugh­ter Josifi known as So­phie – and has an in­ter­est in wood­work.

“I started col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion and tak­ing pho­tos of pieces as they came up at pub­lic auc­tion,” he says.

He dis­cov­ered about 120 Seuf­fert works, in­clud­ing pieces held in the Royal Kew Gar­dens, the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert mu­seum in Lon­don, Te Papa and Auck­land Mu­seum.

The Green­lane res­i­dent says he’s still as­tounded by the stan­dard of crafts­man­ship.

“It just blows me away, some of the pieces are just so com­plex.”

Art+Ob­ject di­rec­tor Ross Mil­lar says pieces rarely come up for auc­tion but can fetch prices of up to $350,000.

He says Seuf­fert’s work is the epit­ome of top-end Vic­to­rian cab­i­netry.

“It is ab­so­lutely beau­ti­ful.”

The Seuf­fert Legacy is avail­able at some book­shops, or from the web­site www. seuf­fert.co.nz.

Photo: JA­SON OXENHAM

Mas­ter craft: Brian Peet, au­thor of a book on Seuf­fert furniture, holds a ve­neer box made by his great-great-grand­fa­ther, An­ton Seuf­fert.

Royal gift: The cabi­net pre­sented to Queen Vic­to­ria by the cit­i­zens of Auck­land and dis­played at the Lon­don Ex­hi­bi­tion in 1862.

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