Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2017

Author Robert La Nauze in conversation at the State Library of Victoria

From time to time, the State Library of Victoria (SLV) runs a series called Author in Conversation, and today (with the sun shining at last as I walked down to the railway station) I went to a very interesting presentation about an often overlooked aspect of our city’s history.  Made to Order, George Thwaites & Sons, Colonial Cabinetmakers explores the history of the craftsman who was cabinetmaker to all the grandees of colonial Melbourne, so his story is part of the material culture of our city.  And, as was noted during the presentation, the history of things is also the history of people…

This is the blurb for the book:

From majestic carved chairs and handsome cedar desks in Melbourne’s banks to grand bookcases in country mansions and stately furniture still housed in Victoria’s Government House today, Made to Order celebrates the furniture made by George Thwaites and his sons. For three decades following the discovery of gold, Melbourne gave rise to gothic-revival style buildings, and foremost in furnishing these new government and commercial buildings – and the homes of the well-heeled – was the cabinet work of Geo. Thwaites & Son. This book illuminates the lives of not only the owners but the artisans, whose contribution to the fabric of colonial and Victorian society has been largely overlooked. Made to Order provides a fascinating insight into colonial Melbourne and features an extraordinary range of furniture that provides a testament to the quality of the Thwaites’ workmanship.

Author Robert La Nauze is an artist and engineer who worked in research and technology management before he retired. His biography of William Thwaites, Engineer to Marvellous Melbourne (2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Victorian History Publication Awards and Made to Order is his second book.  He was in conversation with Graeme Davison who is Emeritus Sir John Monash Distinguished Professor in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University. Davison is an author too: his books include The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978 and 2004), The Unforgiving Minute: How Australia Learned to Tell the Time (1991), The Use and Abuse of Australian history (2000) and Car Wars: How the Car Won our Hearts and Conquered our Cities (2004).  I haven’t read any of these books, but I am pretty sure I’ve read reviews of them in the Melbourne press.

Anyway…

When asked about the influences on his book, La Nauze talked about the issue of family history and how to make it interesting.  Mostly family histories are written for families, but, he says, if you want to make them interesting for other people, then you need a different approach.  (Though the drafts are still lurking in his computer), he abandoned a normal linear story of the Thwaites family and decided to write a history of the furniture instead.

I like antique furniture… not in my house because I don’t have the time or inclination for polishing and I don’t want to feel anxious if someone spills a glass of wine … but I like looking at it in galleries and museums.  George Thwaites made all kinds of gorgeous things including this lovely sewing box and gorgeous (if not very comfortable) chairs and Sir Redmond Barry’s bookcase and other stunning items that we saw in the slide show (and that are reproduced in the book).  What is quite remarkable about Thwaites’ work is that it was made as the industrial revolution was transforming manufacturing but he refused to allow the new machines into his workshop because he said you couldn’t make beautiful furniture except by hand.

Mind you, he had new challenges as a craftsman in Australia.  Early settlers were used to working with European softwoods and they had to use different processes and methods with Australian hardwoods.  Blackwood, for example, has the same hardness as English oak, but has a different composition and it dulls a plane very quickly.  When it came to designs, much of what Thwaites made was commissioned by wealthy people who chose designs from pattern books (mostly from England and France), but negotiated adapted designs with Thwaites.  (For example, featuring Australian flora and fauna).   You can see typical patterns in the greyed-out images on the book cover, but while Thwaites was a product of his market i.e. High Victorian furniture influenced by Gothic Revival, he resisted the excesses of Victorian style furniture and made beautifully proportioned pieces instead.

La Nauze made the point that while Thwaites was an excellent craftsman, his success was also due to the Gold Rush and the vast sums of money that were sloshing around the colony.  It is probable that in his early career Thwaites made quite ordinary furniture and sold it to quite ordinary people.  But once the Gold Rush was in full swing, the commissions came rolling in.  People had money to spend and they liked to spend it on artisan-made status-enhancing furniture.  It was a time of great social change when power and influence was shifting from the aristocracy and the wealthy were not always people with titles!

La Nauze also paid credit to the resources of the SLV where he did the research for the book and as part of the presentation we were invited to a look at some of the items, but *sigh* I had a train to catch so I missed that bit.

These are the details of the book if you are interested: Xmas is a long way off but I think this book would be a perfect gift book for anyone interested in furniture, artisanship or history.

Author: Robert La Nauze
Title: Made to Order, George Thwaites & Sons, Colonial Cabinetmakers
Publisher: New South Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781742235516 (hbk)
Available from Fishpond: Made to Order: George Thwaites and sons, colonial cabinet makers

 


Responses

  1. Loved this post. Thank you, Lisa.

  2. I loved this story. Thank you Lisa.

  3. Astonishing when you think of all the great things – grand buildings, boulevards, and now furniture – we got from the Gold Rush compared with the nothing we got from the last minerals boom.

    • Yes. It’s tragic really…

  4. I do love the history of objects – and telling family stories through them is a wonderful way to go. It’s something Diane Bell did years ago in her book Generations and I’ve never forgotten it.

    • Me too, and I love hearing the stories of precious things in people’s houses as well.


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