Jim and Susan Wakefield owned one of the most significant private collections of New Zealand art in the country. Their home, Ravenscar, initially poised to house the collection, was demolished following the 2011 earthquake. Sarah Lang explores the recreated Ravenscar House Museum.
In central Christchurch, across the road from the Canterbury Museum, is a striking building. The sign says "Ravenscar House Museum", and it is both a museum and, in a sense, a home. Opened in November 2021, Ravenscar is home to Jim and Susan Wakefield’s extensive collection of predominantly New Zealand art. The Ravenscar Collection numbers around 330 items, including paintings, sculptures, glass art, ceramics, antique and designer furniture, carpets, and classical antiquities. Especially significant are 110 paintings, by artists including Frances Hodgkins (10 paintings), Colin McCahon (five), Gordon Walters, Ralph Hotere, Doris Lusk, CF Goldie, and Gottfried Lindauer.
Jim, who died in November 2020, was a serial entrepreneur and racing-industry-body chairman. Susan (nee Lojkine), 79, was a tax consultant who at one time chaired the Commerce Commission. The philanthropists (both Members of the New Zealand Order of Merit) knew the importance of their collection. Their original plan was to gift their home, Ravenscar House in the coastal suburb of Scarborough, to the city to display the Ravenscar Collection. In 1999 they transferred the ownership of nearly all the collection to the Ravenscar Trust, chaired by their son Steve Wakefield. But after the February 2011 earthquake, the house had to be demolished.
The next best thing? To fund the construction of a new Ravenscar, to house their collection in a museum laid out as a home. The $16 million museum was built by the Ravenscar Trust, on land gifted by Christchurch City Council to Canterbury Museum, which operates Ravenscar and is responsible for ongoing costs and maintenance.
The arresting architecture doesn’t replicate the Scarborough home, but is a nod to it. It’s the work of Patterson Architects, with input from the Wakefields, who wanted the building itself to be a work of art. Some features are reminiscent of neighbouring heritage buildings, but this is still a frankly modern building. It features concrete exterior walls faced with crushed earthquake rubble, vaulted ceilings, and huge glass windows. “I think of it as a jewellery box with treasures inside,” says Susan’s daughter and Jim’s step-daughter Frances Lojkine, who shows me around.
Outside the entrance is a cast-bronze sculpture, The Long Horizon (1999) by Paul Dibble, which stood outside the entrance to the Scarborough house. Inside, a foyer, dining room, bedroom, living room, and library are linked by a glazed terrace that frames views of a central courtyard. A Roman-style impluvium – the sunken pool of an atrium – receives rainwater through the compluvium, a quadrangular opening in the roof, creating a waterfall effect on rainy days.
Jim saw the site before his death. Because of the lasting effects of a stroke, Susan couldn’t attend the opening of the house, but Frances gave her a tour beforehand. “Susan said it was better than she ever could have imagined. That meant a lot.”
Frances had more than a familial interest in the project, having catalogued the collection alongside Jenny May, an architectural historian and heritage consultant.
The cheerful environmental planner with an art-history degree saw this task as a privilege. “To me, this isn’t really a museum or a gallery. It’s a house.” It doesn’t recreate, but gives a sense of, the Scarborough home and how the couple lived in it. A woman who knows Susan approaches, saying, "It feels as if Susan is here", Frances thanks her with a smile.
Frances had left home before her mother remarried and the art collection began in earnest. When she visited, she’d pass the Frances Hodgkins painting The Farmer’s Daughter, of a girl with a very intense stare, on the stairway. “It was very in your face!”
“When I sat at the dining table, I fell in love with Frances Hodgkins’ painting The Mill House.” Frances is actually named after Hodgkins. Any pressure to be a famous painter? “Ha! No. But with my studies in art history and art conservation, it’s nice to be named for an iconic New Zealand painter.”
Frances explained that, when cataloguing the collection, she and Jenny began by loading Susan’s information about each work into an online database, then sought to find out more about each work and its history, including any conservation work it had undergone. All but 20 paintings and pieces of furniture held by the Ravenscar Trust, plus 10 or so pieces from the Wakefields’ retained private collection, made the cut (30 carpets were ditched). “We worked with Canterbury Museum’s curatorial/exhibitions team, to decide where to hang and put everything. We mainly kept stuff together, in the rooms they’d been in at the old house.”
In the dining room, the table is set as if the Wakefields were about to sit down for dinner, surrounded by still-life paintings and landscapes, especially depicting areas around Scarborough. In the bedroom is Colin McCahon’s Taylor’s Mistake (1948). Jim had hung the painting in his Scarborough bedroom so he had the real view and the painted view of the distinctive headlands together. The glass art displayed includes an (untitled) blue ovoid vase by Garry Nash (2004) which is made to look as if it has cracks all over. Frances gave this piece to her mother, sparking Susan's interest in glass art.
In the living room is a collection of glass works by Australia-based artist Wendy Fairclough. Five of her pieces were destroyed in the earthquakes. So Frances asked Wendy if she would remake the broken works for Ravenscar House. She did, chuffed that her glassworks would sit next to a McCahon.
Why not have the conventional label with the artist’s name and a title beside each work? Because, Frances explains, this would detract from the sense that this is a home. Each room has a few sentences on a small, subtle information panel.. Visitors can get a brochure or an app that details each work, and a QR-code scan system may be introduced. Frances jokes that the staff have to chase away people who decide to sit on the furniture. In the bedroom, The Bikini Chair by Garth Chester – a curved play on a beach lounger – is particularly inviting.
Renowned English furniture-maker David Linley, the Queen’s nephew, custom-built the bed, bedside tables, side table, coffee table, TV cabinet, and two decorative columns. It’s the only commissioned set of Linley furniture in New Zealand. Framed on the wall are Linley’s sketches for the pieces. While there’s a no-touch policy elsewhere, in the library you can sit on a couch and read a book (some of them about artists whose work hangs in the house). “That’s to help people really experience that room,” Frances says of the couple’s “haven”. It’s partly a portrait gallery, with five impressive figures looking down on you. A Charles Goldie painting Ina Te Papatahi (1902) depicts the Ngāpuhi kuia with her moko, smoking a pipe.
Here, you can pull out drawers to look through glass cases at classical antiquities, a particular love of Susan’s. There’s an alarming-looking tweezer (Roman bronze, date unknown) and an even-more-alarming three-pronged manicure set (Roman bronze, third-century A.D). “I wasn’t sure what it was at first!” Frances says.
Designing the garden and water features, landscape architect Suzanne Turley looked through photographs from Susan’s old garden and talked to the family. There are young birch trees. There’s a red maple because Frances gave Susan one for Christmas once.
When Frances is there, she feels that Jim and Susan are there too. “That’s what’s guided us the whole time. I have an emotional response, and I hope other people get a whiff of that feeling.”