17 March 2018

Princes St Synagogue Auckland, built in 1885 by architect Edward Bartley

The first Jewish settler in New Zealand was Joel Samuel Polack in 1831. Born in London to Dutch parents, he established a successful retail business and later branched out into shipping, mainly to Cal­ifornia. When New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, it was the perfect time for the Auckland Jewish community’s found­at­ion; they soon acquired land for their first cemetery.

The first Hebrew congregation began worship in Auckland in 1843. Their first formal place of worship was in Nathan & Joseph's Ware­house in Shortland Street. By 1853 the congregation had grown to 100 and worship was held in a small building in Emily Place. By the 1860s this building had become too small for the rapidly increasing population and moneys were collected to build a new synagogue.

In 1884, the Jewish Community purchased a section on the corner of Princes and Bowen Sts. At that time the site was occupied by the former Albert Barracks Guard House, which overlooked a vegetable garden used by soldiers.

The community asked architects to submit synagogue designs and they chose Edward Bartley to take on the project. Bartley was an Irish carpenter and joiner arrived in New Zealand in 1854 and trained as an architect and builder. In 1872, he went into partnership with another builder, forming Matthews & Bartley Builders. He moved to the North Shore in 1872, later building his own home in Devonport. Other significant Bartley buildings included the Foundation for the Blind Jubilee Building and the original Wellesley St Opera House. And was a founding member of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Princes St Synagogue in Auckland
built by Edward Bartley by 1885

The Princes St Synagogue structure was designed in a mixed Roman­esque and Gothic style, the project influenced by an important Glasgow Syn­agogue. It was built to seat a congregation of 375. As one of NZ’s oldest massed concrete buildings, the basement was set aside for childcare, wedding and barmitzvahs, and a school annexe was later added.

The interior ornamentation was by the decorator JL Holland. The int­erior of the building featured a barrel vaulted timber ceiling and an ornate circular ark, covered by a stained glass dome im­port­ed from Australia. The blend of Arabic and Classical styles feat­uring ornate stained-glass windows; an ell­iptical stair­case; a decorated barrel-vaulted, wood-panelled ceil­ing supp­orted by graceful Arabic arches and columns; and ornate plaster work.

During his long career Bartley served as architect to the Anglican Church, the Auckland Savings Bank and the Auckland Hospital & Charitable Aid Board. The Mount Eden Public Library designed by the firm Bartley and Wade was prob­ably his last building. For the 1913 Auckland Exhibition he was a member of the Building Committee which selected the designs and oversaw the construction of the exhibition buildings in the Auckland Domain.

Along with his 3 sons who became archit­ects, Bartley also trained Malcolm Keith Draffin (1890-1964). Draffin later became an Auckland War Memorial Museum architect.

The barrel-vaulted, wood-panelled ceil­ing with graceful Arabic arches and columns are still intact. The women's pews upstairs were removed and the bank office spaces remain.

The synagogue had been Auck­land’s main synag­ogue until 1967. Only then, due to substantial growth in the Jewish Community, did the congregation move to a lar­g­er, newly synagogue opposite Myers Park.

After the original building was de-cons­ec­rated in 1969, ownership reverted to Auckland City Council. The building was left vacant and slowly deteriorated over 20+ years, until it was renovated to oper­ate a branch of the National Bank in 1989. The interior of the form­­er syn­agogue was meticulously restored to its original condit­ion in the late 1980s, with extensive structural and streng­thening work of the interior office spaces.

The University of Auckland has leased the old synagogue since 2003, using the building as home to the University’s Alumni Relations and Develop­ment office. It is located at the campus entrance.

The former synagogue is registered by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and has Historic Place Category 1 Status. The conservation project won the inaugural Auckland City Heritage Aw­ard. And they won a New Zealand Institute of Arch­itects National Award citation in 1990 for successfully reconciling the tenant’s commercial requirements with the need to conserve one of Auckland’s significant buildings.

Decoration and lamps on the arches and columns

This important part of Auckland’s cultural history is for sale. The synagogue is the only landmark historic building of its type in the city and one of only two extant C19th synagogues in all the country. It had acted as Auckland’s main synagogue and focal point for the Jewish community from 1885 until 1968! The ad­joining building, the Trish Clark Gallery for contemporary art that was built in 1986, is one of Auckland’s leading art spaces. Along with the old synagogue, the whole complex is for sale in Apr 2018.

You might like to read The History of the Jews in New Zealand (1958) by Lazarus Mor­ris Goldman for an excellent and detailed analysis of Jewish settlers in C19th New Zealand.

13 March 2018

Modigliani revival at the Tate Modern

What a creative life and a tragic death Amadeo Modigliani (1884–1920) had. He left home in Livorno Italy in 1906, at 21, with money from his mother, and moved to the centre of the art world: Paris. He was en­grossed by the works he saw, from artists ranging from the late Paul Cézanne to his cont­emporary Kees van Dongen.

Modigliani lived at various addresses in the boh­emian district of Montmartre, not far from Pablo Picasso’s home. In the early days in Paris, Amadeo’s sub­jects included figures from the demimonde eg circus performers. But during the 13 years that followed, he struggled with the dark side which, in turn, strengthened his art.

Modigliani’s years of poverty were clear from the beginning – he was tubercular, hungry and poor. The consequences of his short and disordered life have resulted in debates amongst scholars, museums, dealers, auction houses and private collectors. His official cat­al­ogue raisonné is no longer 100% trusted because of disputed forg­eries and subsequent court cases. But at least the authenticity of Dr Paul Alexandre’s wonderful collection of Modiglianis was never chall­enged.

The very handsome Amadeus Modigliani

Now the Tate Modern in London has brought together drawings, paintings and sculptures by Modigliani which might help with understanding his art. All the early work done in Italy was destroyed at Modigliani’s own request. So the Tate Exhibition consists of paintings and carved stone sculpture done during his chaotic, artistic life in Paris.

The paintings were sensitively hung in the Tate Mod­ern galleries, with their colours creating a radiance. And the display ref­lected Amadeus’ progress over time. In 1909, he painted a very handsome portrait of his friend Paul Alexandre with layers of al­most Turner-like brushwork. That same year he depicted the youth he referred to as a Young Gypsy with a stylised geometric angularity, posing him with legs spread apart and hands loosely resting in his lap. In 1918, Modigliani painted the Little Peasant with a simp­lif­ied classicism but left him with the same rounded hands and arms a la Paul Alexandre but in a lighter palette.

What about the 12 nudes in the same section of the Tate, perfectly timed to mark the 100-year annivers­ary of Modigliani’s only solo show. That exhibit, at Gallerie Ber­the Weill, was closed by police on its first day because of indecency. The heroic Mrs Weill’s im­pressive list of artists included Raoul Dufy, André Derain, Georges Braque, Kees van Dongen, Maurice Utrillo and Suzanne Valadon.

Paul Alexandre by Modigliani

Tate is showing the 1919 Self-Portrait owned by Brasil’s Museu de Arte. This paintings crys­tallised everything Modigliani saw in his idol Cezanne, but made it person­al. Plus paintings of the saucy Maud Abrantès stand out. She may have been the mistress of both Modigliani and his patron Alexandre, but was married to an art dealer. Maud was probably the model for The Jewess, a painting that was inspired by the Fauves. Modig­liani must have loved The Jewess; he exhibited it in the 1908 Salon des Indép­endants.

Was being Jewish in post-Dreyfus Paris a problem? Modigliani was not interested in the issue! While there were several memoirs that des­c­ribed Modigliani’s passionate response to anti-Semitism, there was no evidence that he felt himself an “outsider”. This cosmop­olitan family had come from France, Tunisia, Italy, Algeria and Sardinia; national boundaries melted away. In Paris, his friends included many Jewish artists eg Lipchitz, Soutine, Chagall, Zad­kine, Nadelman and Kisling, artists of mixed origin eg Diego Rivera, and non-Jews like Picasso, Laurens, Gris and Cocteau. If he was consid­ered Italian, it was because of his dashing, aris­tocratic style.

The end was tragic. Amadeus’s young lover Jeanne Hébuterne was 36 weeks pregnant with their second baby. Suffering from acute kidney pain and spitting blood, Modigliani lay in bed and a frightened Hébuterne huddled by his side in their Rue de la Grande Chaumière flat. They were cold that winter, hungry and messy. When he finally fell into a coma, Modigliani was carried to hospital and tended by nuns while friends surrounded him.

Amadeus died and the artist’s brother paid expenses for a lavish funeral, where thousands of people gathered behind a horse-drawn carriage bearing his flower-covered casket. As the funeral cortege passed by, Hébuterne leapt out the 5th storey open window and died on the footpath below. At Cimetière du Père Lachaise, the Jew­ish funeral was packed out. Hébuterne’s Catholic parents arranged their daughter’s tiny funeral early the next day.

Decades after her parents’ deaths, Amadeus’ daughter Jeanne wrote a book called Modigliani: Man and Myth. Jeanne described her father as the pampered and indulged youngest son in an eccentric Italian family, his own bankrupted father, and Amadeus’ near-death exper­ien­­ces in childhood from pleurisy and typhoid. Perhaps by choosing the life of a Bohemian artist, he was toughening himself up physically while saving his poetic soul.

Sleeping nude by Modigliani

Modigliani was my favourite C20th Bohemian; he was an emotionally intense portrait painter, poet, philosopher, a consumptive and an uncontrolled son and lover. But until I see the exhibition myself, I am relying on Frances Brent in TabletThe Tate,  his daughter Jeanne’s book, Modigliani: Man and Myth and previous posts in this blog.

The Modigliani Exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York just ended in Feb 2018. It was largely a pre-WW1 drawing show, focused on the coll­ection of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s first patron, the doctor who created a meeting place for artists in Mont­parnasse. The New York exhib­it­ion was accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale UP.

10 March 2018

Amazing and expensive ceramic finds: Chinese 1722-35 and American 1763-73

I know that ceramics from the later 17th century and all the 18th century are greatly prized by Chinese collectors, for their technical skills and often coloured decoration. The best work came from the three great Qing Dynasty emperors, Kangxi (ruled 1661-1722), Yongzheng (1722-35) and Qianlong (1735-96).

The Yongzheng Emperor (1678–1735) was the 5th emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, reigning for 13 years. According to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan the Yongzheng Emperor promulgated an order in 1727 for court objects that had to differ in appearance from those outside, thus establish­ing a unique style for his court. The painted enamel motifs that Yongzheng loved were blue landscapes, landscapes with flowers, peacocks and wild goose, plums, orchids, bamboo and chrys­anthemums. The exquisite under-glaze blue wares made in Yongzheng’s imperial kilns are some the best creations of the entire Qing era.

In 2009 the Taiwan museum borrowed 37 relics from the Palace Museum in Beijing for its exhibition on Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng. The pieces included an imperial stone seal and a massive Yongzheng portrait.

Yongzheng doucai lingzhi wine bowl, 1722-35
10.4 cm high
photo credit: Woolley and Wallis, Salisbury

Recently a ceramic object from the Yongzheng dynasty, in the Woolley and Wallis catalogue from their Salisbury Sales of May 2015, caught my attention. A 10.4 cm Yongzheng doucai lingzhi wine bowl had a gently flaring body was delicately decorated with four pairs of ruyi-heads separated by florets extending to leafy tendrils. All the exterior decoration was contained within concentric bands, while the interior was glazed white.

The original estimate was £100,000-150,000, but on the day of the auction, the bids came thick and fast. The successful buyer was a Chinese private collector who paid £482,800 ($740,000) for the lot, including auction costs.

Two references for Qing porcelain are very useful. Firstly consider For the Imperial Court: Qing Porcelain from the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, written by Rosemary E Scott and pub­lished in 1997. Secondly Imperial Perfection: The Palace Porcel­ain of Three Chinese Emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, published in 2004, is valuable.


An unexpected find was 9 cm tall teapot, decorated with a bright blue pattern featuring two cranes under a palm tree on one side, and a man on a bridge on the other side. When found in 2016 in Britain, the teapot was already missing a lid, and the handle was repaired.

Woolley and Wallis in Salisbury identified it as the work of John Bartlam, a Staffordshire potter who left Britain in 1763 for South Carolina, drawn by its plentiful supplies of local kaolin and its wealthy consumers. He established the first known manufacturer of porcelain in the USA. British apprais­ers said this was the only known Bartlam American teapot in existence, and thus earliest USA-made porcelain teapot to survive.

Porcelain teapot, 9 cms high
made by John Barlam between 1763-73
photo credit: Woolley and Wallis, Salisbury

Interest in the teapot unexpectedly skyrocketed, thanks in particular to strong engagement from American bidders, and the post sold for a hammer price plus fees of US$800,000. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York won the auction and will house the unique teapot in their collection.

Woolley and Wallis Auctioneers said the vessel’s historic imp­ortance rested in its association with the beginning of Amer­ic­an porcelain product­ion. Because of era of manufacture, the pot was said to represent the unique entrepreneurial spirit and important historical era, before the Boston Tea Party of Dec 1773. Thus this art object meant so much more to the Americans than it did to the other buyers.

The wine bowl and the porcelain tea pot are about the same size (10.4 cm Vs 9 cms respectively), were put up for auction within a couple of years of each other (2015 and 2018) and earned about the same amount of money ($740,000 Vs $800,000). Yet they succeeded at auction for totally different reasons.

The tiny wine bowl was worth a fortune because of fine crafts­man­ship, delicate decoration and historical value to fans of early C18th Qing ceramics. The teapot was not valuable because of its fine craftsmanship or delicate decoration; rather because of its great rarity and strong nationalist sentiment.