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Art attack

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Frances Bennington lives surrounded by the art, furniture and objects she has collected for more than four decades. Sarah Lang had a look.

Photograph by Anna Briggs

The open-plan living area of her Roseneath home feels like an art gallery − ceramics, vases and sculptures are lined up on the floor like soldiers, while glass works are displayed on specially made shelves. Two paintings hang on the living room walls, filling the scarce wall space.‘I had to renovate to get some wall space,’ she says.

In the entrance way to her two-storey home high on a Roseneath hill, two Michael Parekowhai panels greet visitors, along with a Gregor Kregar installation − ceramic figures of men in pink overalls from his I disappear series. A painting by the late Philip Clairmont hangs on a wall near the front door.

The part-time legal office manager also loves colour, and says: ‘I could not live in a house of beige or white.’

Photograph by Anna Briggs

Five years ago, she renovated the 1950s-era house, extending the living area and building a new kitchen. The fresh kitchen joinery is lacquered an eggplant shade, while the splashback is opal glass, reminiscent of the sea she watches out the expansive windows. The same blue-green opal glass features in her bathroom.

Off the living area, the wooden deck has picture-postcard views over Wellington Harbour, framing Shelley Bay in the distance. Frances likes to garden, and she painted three planters different colours; the plants in them include perfumed roses she loves to pop into one of her many vases. ‘To get up in the morning and see colour gives me a positive start to the day,’ she says.

She covets art that has meaning to her, and pieces she wants to live amongst. Over the years, she has never bought a piece simply because an artist is in vogue. ‘You should buy what you love,’ she says. ‘A lot of artists I’ve met personally. If I didn’t like them, I don’t think I would own their art work.’

Photograph by Anna Briggs

In the kitchen, she pulls out two jugs she bought in a box for $1 at an auction in Christchurch in 1974. That was the year her art collecting habit began − her penchant for glass art stems from a red glass jug which she still has today. Red is her favourite colour. ‘Red is a strong emotional colour and makes you sit up and take notice.’

In her home, she has arranged every piece on display in a bid to achieve a sense of balance. A number of glass works by New Zealand and international artists grace her living space − Dale Chihuly, Gary Nash, David Murray, Katie Brown and Warren Langley, to name a few. A glass lamp shade with red glass roses hangs in the living room. A Greer Twiss bronze sculpture rests on a cabinet.

Frances’ art collection is a history of an interesting and well-travelled life. Growing up in Auckland in a large Catholic family, her mother was a dressmaker. Frances studied to be a librarian, although she always had an eye for arts and crafts and became an accomplished knitter. She attended her first contemporary art exhibition of works by Milan Mrkusich in Auckland. ‘I found that I liked modern abstract art. From then on, I went to exhibitions and looked at things and I think that’s how you develop a personal taste. You should buy what you like.’

Photograph by Anna Briggs

Her late husband, Seddon, was a museum executive who managed museums and galleries in Wellington, Dunedin, Perth, and Pittsburgh. His career took them to live in different places, where Frances often met artists, invited them home, and bought their works. While living in Perth in 1980, she managed a contemporary art gallery, staging an exhibition of glass art and neon works.

They lived in Pittsburgh from 1994 to 2004, when Seddon ran the Carnegie Science Museum. Frances had a florist shop in Pittsburgh, where she began acquiring and collecting vases, which now fill her living room. While they were in Pittsburgh, Michael Parekowhai had an exhibition at the Andy Warhol museum, which was associated with the Carnegie museum. ‘He was staying just below where we lived. I was interested in his work and I like trying to support artists.’

Barry Brickell stayed with the couple when he visited Wellington in the early 1980s. A curving Brickell ceramic sculpture is now a memory of that visit, outside on the deck.

‘Back then, a lot of artists had no money, they didn’t get grants and they learned to live really simply through their art.’

Photograph by Anna Briggs

When the couple furnished their first home in the 1970s, they bought antique kauri dressers and beds made in New Zealand in the early 1900s. A kauri dining table she bought for $30 now sits in the open-plan dining area, while she has kauri furniture in her bedrooms. A kauri antique bed in the master bedroom has a 2.5-metre-high bedhead – Frances had to raise the ceiling to keep it when she did her renovations. A 1.5-metre-high kauri dresser sits on the opposite wall, complete with a secret drawer. Frances loves the golden colour of kauri furniture.

She also covets chairs. Drawn to 3D objects, she finds chairs to be interesting sculptural forms, which also have a functional purpose. ‘I like the design and the practicality of this one,’ she says, pulling out an Italian Vico Magistretti verandah chair she bought in 1981.

Frances’ four grandchildren have learned to live among her art and sculptures when they visit her. Her two now adult sons grew up surrounded by art.

‘I never put anything away with my boys or my grandchildren. I’ve never had a problem with it.’

First published Capital #56


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