Inlaid native timber fit for a queen
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.
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.