When the walls talk

Updated: Apr 30

A letter to the future, hidden inside the walls of the Sarjeant Gallery for over 100 years, shows the depth of feeling over who actually designed the historic building.


Pictures, papers, and letters from 1917 and 1918 have been found, in perfect condition, in a time capsule inside the walls of the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui.


Among the items was a personal letter from Mr John Cornfoot Brodie, the Clerk of Works on the original Sarjeant Gallery construction, and the man responsible for hiding the time capsule.


In his letter, dated 28 January 1918, Brodie states the primary purpose of his message – that the name of the true architect of the Sarjeant Gallery should one day be corrected. This vexed question has been discussed at length in recent years, and was an issue at the time of construction.

Sarjeant Gallery Curator of the Collections, Jennifer Taylor Moore, with the contents of the time capsule.

The design of the Sarjeant Gallery was put to a competition and was won by a design from the office of Edmund Anscombe of Dunedin. Anscombe, who claimed the credit, was not the architect. The designs were in fact entirely the work of a talented 21-year-old clerk called Donald Hosie who worked in Anscombe’s office.


Many were suspicious at the time that the design was not Anscombe’s. The moderator of the competition, S Hurst Seger, investigated the matter very seriously and ruled that Hosie was the designer. Despite this, Hosie still let the honour go to Anscombe saying “I am a young man and I will have my time again.”


That Anscombe claimed to be and was credited on the foundation stone as the architect greatly aggrieved many. Hosie went off to fight in Europe in 1917 and died on the battlefield at Passchendaele on 12 October 1917 three weeks after the Sarjeant’s foundation stone bearing Anscombe’s name was laid.


Brodie makes his own feelings about the situation clear in his letter to the future, saying the young man killed in France should have all the honour and that the claimant of the design is “no gentleman”


The time capsule was found earlier this month after workmen on the roof of the gallery realised their drill had hit a void. They traced the depth of the drill bit, made a hole in the interior wall, reached inside and discovered the 103 year old time capsule. The work is part of the huge redevelopment and earthquake strengthening project for the Sarjeant Gallery, a heritage building constructed between 1917–1919. The redeveloped gallery is set to reopen in 2023.


Items from the time capsule will be on display at Sarjeant on the Quay until mid-May.