Glimpses of the past meet vi­sions of the fu­ture in this Napier villa where guests come to din­ner in full-glam­our re­galia


Peter Wells and Dou­glas Lloyd Jenk­ins like to find and res­cue ne­glected ob­jects. Dou­glas, a writer and art cu­ra­tor, works part-time at an Auck­land auc­tion house, and says, “We tend to col­lect things that other peo­ple don’t value.”

The cou­ple took that col­lect­ing hobby a step fur­ther 10 years ago when they bought a run­down 1906 Ed­war­dian villa on Napier Hill.

Al­though based in Auck­land, says Dou­glas, “We had been look­ing for a hol­i­day cot­tage and Peter found this. My orig­i­nal thought was, ‘It’s too big, and too big a project.’” Peter adds: “The real es­tate agent asked us if we were go­ing to bowl it.”

Built by Napier artist Al­fred Har­vey Fin­nis, the villa had at some point been con­verted into three flats and was in a state of dis­re­pair. Wooden win­dows and doors had been re­placed with alu­minium join­ery, soft­board and pin­board cov­ered the orig­i­nal wall­pa­pers and wooden walls, and many of the high ceil­ings had been low­ered.

How­ever, the cou­ple pored over orig­i­nal plans that showed the house as it used to be. Over the past decade they have re­spect­fully ren­o­vated while ad­ding their own mark, re­turn­ing the house to its orig­i­nal glory. >

The great­est find was the sprawl­ing artist’s stu­dio. Fin­nis was a wealthy Hawke’s Bay landowner who painted as a hobby. The stu­dio faced south for the best light, and was painted dark blue, a colour thought to make the sub­ject of an art­work stand out. But the stu­dio was carved into three rooms in­clud­ing a chilly bed­room. Dou­glas, who was di­rec­tor of Napier’s MTG (Mu­seum, The­atre and Gallery) at the time, got up into the roof and saw the orig­i­nal sky­lights and 8.2 me­tre stud. The cou­ple got ex­cited. They pulled the soft­board off the walls, re­moved the false ceil­ings and the walls, and turned the room back into the stu­dio as it ap­pears to­day.

It is now the cen­tre­piece of the villa, cur­rently dec­o­rated with a Ja­panese theme, with three Fin­nis water­colours hang­ing on the orig­i­nal blue walls. It’s the set­ting for the cou­ple’s the­atri­cal black­tie din­ner par­ties, when up to a dozen guests ar­rive dressed in din­ner suits and glam­orous out­fits be­fit­ting the oc­ca­sion. “The women come in floor-length gowns, and their hair up and in jew­ellery. They love it; they end up mak­ing the ef­fort for the house,” says Peter.

Guests eat off china plates from one of the 15 din­ner sets the cou­ple has “res­cued’’. There are even fur coats hang­ing in a wooden dresser to don on chilly nights.

In­ter­ested in cos­tume and fash­ion, Dou­glas co-wrote a book a few years ago about New Zealand fash­ion, The Dress Cir­cle. His view is that New Zealan­ders are too ca­sual. “I’m very in­ter­ested in the way that New Zealan­ders refuse to dress up.’’

The kitchen, tucked off the stu­dio, is tiny for en­ter­tain­ing in such a grand house, but the keen cooks ar­gue that it’s a work­ing space, where they can get messy. “We don’t need an au­di­ence when we cook,’’ says Dou­glas. >

After din­ner, guests re­treat to the li­brary for figs and port in front of the roaring fire be­neath shelves heav­ing with hun­dreds of books. At night, the crim­son walls glow.

The pain­ters loved paint­ing the walls and book­shelves rich, vi­brant colours. Says Dou­glas: “They said they hadn’t painted a wall that wasn’t off-white for 18 months.”

“It’s a very rest­ful room,” says Peter, who is cur­rently un­der­go­ing chemo­ther­apy.

“When you’ve both been writ­ing for 20 years, there is a big stor­age is­sue with all our books. We’re both writ­ers and read­ers so we love this room,’’ says Dou­glas.

The house is filled with pieces they have col­lected, and feels a lit­tle like a gallery. Only the kitchen ap­pli­ances and a couch in the li­brary have been bought new.

Fin­nis House started as a cre­ative space. That legacy con­tin­ues to­day as Peter, an award-win­ning writer and his­to­rian, penned his newly pub­lished fam­ily mem­oir Dear Oliver: Un­cov­er­ing a

Pākehā His­tory in his study with a view of grapevines hang­ing over the ve­ran­dah.

The book is a search for truth about his fam­ily his­tory based on letters he found. His mother, Bess, grew up just down the road from Fin­nis House, which also re­minds him of the villa his grand­mother, Jesse Northe, lived in.

“Houses are all sorts of things – lit­tle lamps of mem­o­ries, trea­sure boxes, win­dow panes you look through. This house here pro­tects Dou­glas and me and it con­nects me back to a past that means a lot to me,’’ says Peter. “It’s a lovely house to live in. It’s like a magic king­dom.”

RIGHT The break­fast room ta­ble is French and the chairs are 1960s Swedish; Peter bought the Turk­ish rug with pay­ments from one of his books: “I try to buy some­thing spe­cific when­ever I get roy­al­ties.” LEFT (clock­wise from top) Cop­per uten­sils hang...

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