Featured Image: Mount Taranaki, New Plymouth
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 March 2019
Postcard from Tupare House & Garden, New Plymouth, New Zealand
New Plymouth has two major public gardens, several good private ones and excellent public parks. Of the two public gardens we only went to Tūpare. We were here in mid-January 2019. Pukeiti larger and renowned for its rhododendrons is best visited in early November.
Tūpare is both a garden and an arts and crafts house on a very steep site. A volunteer guide opened the house for a tour at 11 am. I am not a garden aficionado in particular and was equally attracted by the house and the story of the property. It is somewhat symbolic of New Zealand.
New Plymouth is not well known to overseas visitors and perhaps not even to many New Zealanders. It needs introduction.
Demography, Geography and Economy
New Zealand consists of two main islands. The North Island is more populated and the bulk of the population lives in Auckland.
New Zealand’s population is only 4,885,000 in 2019. The population of the North Island is 3,749,500 and the South Island 1,135,500. Auckland’s population is 1,582,000 by contrast Wellington is 413,000, Hamilton 205,000, Christchurch 408,000, Dunedin 122,000 and New Plymouth 59,000 (accuracy approximate; variable sources)
The CIA Factbook says of the New Zealand economy :
Over the past 40 years, the government has transformed New Zealand from an agrarian economy, dependent on concessionary British market access, to a more industrialized, free market economy that can compete globally.
However, New Zealand is still dependent on agriculture and forestry as its main exports and on tourism. Hence its economy is dependent on overseas demand and is inevitably fragile. I’ve always said that New Zealand is ten years ahead of Australia in creativity and innovation, but then comes the next recession.
Taranaki and New Plymouth
New Plymouth is in the Taranaki Region, north of it is the Waikato. South are Wanganui and Manawatu. Regional identity in New Zealand is vey strong based on history.
Taranaki is centred on a large volcano Mount Taranaki (previously Egmont) and the mountain is the most visible landmark. Mount Taranaki is conical and looks like Mount Fuji in winter. Several films set in Japan have been made here. Taranaki is the large bulge on the West coast of the North Island, New Plymouth is on the seaward edge of that bulge. It is the only large town in Taranaki.
New Plymouth is a relatively prosperous community. Because of the volcanic nature of the soils, it is a rich agricultural region. And, because of the bulge it isn’t on the direct land route between Auckland and Wellington. The Port of New Plymouth is tricky of access, particularly in sailing times because it is on a lee shore.
European settlement in Taranaki began in the early 1840s when many of the original Maori inhabitants were absent, because of the inter-tribal musket wars. This, the rapid growth of the colonist population, the insatiable demands for land and dubious practices, led to war with the local Maori in the 1860s. Reparations to the Maori are still ongoing.
Following the peace and economic stability, New Plymouth became a major port for dairy produce from the region and later the administrative centre for Taranaki’s petro-chemical industry.
Our Personal Experience of New Plymouth
We came to New Plymouth for the first time in March 2000 for a few days. We enjoyed the ambience of the town, the art museum and a ride on a Chaddy’s lifeboat out of the harbour to the island and the local seal colonies. We also discovered the artist Len Lye and the excellent gallery of his works. In the interim New Plymouth has grown. It has become more of an art centre, with a greater range of attractions and facilities and has excellent restaurants (a haven for foodie culture). There are lovely places to cycle and bush walking tracks in the centre of town.
We stayed here for three days and four nights in January 2019 and felt very welcome and comfortable. We saw different things than on our first trip. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre had improved incredibly as had the Museum and Library. The former is a world class gallery complex with knowledgeable attendants.
Tupare House and Garden
Tūpare was bought by the QEII National Trust in 1985 and ownership was transferred to the Taranaki Regional Council in 2002. The descriptions below are taken from the Tūpare Taranaki Council website and from photographs of the information boards on site.
The Landscaped Garden
Tūpare is a premier landscaped garden with a unique homestead, originally developed by Sir Russell Matthews and his family from 1932.
Sculpted from a hillside overlooking the Waiwhakaiho River, the plantings and landscapes remain true to its heritage. As you walk the winding paths cut into the hillside, you’ll find stately trees, deciduous maples, copper beeches and dawn redwoods, as well as a stunning collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, and hydrangeas that were all carefully planted by Sir Russell.
The Waiwhakaiho River flat retains an idyllic pastoral feeling with simple plantings of specimen trees, complemented by the movement of the wind and water and a pleasant swimming hole.
The Chapman-Taylor House
Tūpare’s distinctive Chapman-Taylor designed house is a great example of the Arts & Crafts style of architecture.
When Russell and Mary Matthews bought the Mangorei Road property in 1931, it was a wilderness covered in blackberry, gorse and bracken.
The Matthews began developing the garden during the Depression when labour was cheap and plentiful. For 18 months, the family employed men through the ‘over the fence’ Depression Relief Scheme to clear the land. They also planted shelter trees, starting with eucalypts in 1933, followed by rhododendrons, magnolias and maples. (A windbreak in Australia in is called a shelter belt New Zealand.)
As the garden progressed, the range of plants at Tūpare included Russell’s favourite rhododendron hybrids, daisies, and Mary’s favourite cottage garden plants. Russell also used his engineering skills to achieve the contoured walls, brick walls and concrete walls on what is a very steep property.
Initially designed by the renowned James Chapman-Taylor, the house at Tūpare was built under the direction of Russell Matthews, with much of the furniture and accessories commissioned or bought on overseas trips.
When Chapman-Taylor prepared drawings for the house at Tūpare, the only change Russell and Mary requested was extending the size of the dining room to accommodate a decent sized dining table. Chapman-Taylor did not take this well. Not only did he decline the proposed changes, but he insisted on his full-time supervision of the construction. Russell Matthews thought this unnecessary and the commission was terminated. The Matthews did, however, follow the general form of the plan as originally designed.
The construction was supervised by Russell Matthews from 1932 to 1935, but took 12 years to complete. Most of the construction work was carried out by Russell Matthews’ road construction gangs in the winter off-season, through an employment agreement with the government department. Sand and shingle from the neighbouring Waiwhakaiho River were used to make the concrete for the house. The original cedar roof shingles were imported from Canada. The craftsmanship inside and out is superb including the adzed beams throughout.
Our volunteer guide said the family house he lived in is a virtually identical dwelling, but his parents did not dare to buck James Chapman-Taylor and consequently their living room table never quite fitted. He also extolled the modern copy William Morris curtains imported from the UK. Although expensive, he said, they last superbly.
The key element that makes the house at Tūpare especially wonderful is that it was left almost as is. The furniture and possessions of the family remain in situ.
Tūpare was an important house in New Plymouth and many local people were very proud of it. Even though it was a private residence, everyone knew that Russell and Mary Matthews lived there and that it was an attractive home. The Matthews were very prominent people in the city.
Tūpare attracted many local and international visitors. In the 1960s, busloads of people from various societies visited.
Lady Matthews (1911-1999), Sir Russell Matthews (1896-1987)
Russell and Mary Brodie met by chance. Both were from established middle class families. They married in 1932 and left for a 9-month honeymoon in the UK.
On their return, they lived for 18-months in the primitive corrugated iron shed at Tūpare, causing their parents much anxiety. They moved into the house while it was still under construction and lived with the concrete and dust. In 1942 Mary Matthews developed TB leading to long periods of absence from home and requiring a succession of housekeeping, nursing and childcare help for 11 years.
Russell was the 10th and youngest child of James, a Waitara bank manager, and Grace (Marshall). He went to New Plymouth High School and was raised in an environment where business and entrepreneurial skills were much admired.
He had numerous philanthropic and very successful business interests. He was a fellow of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, Fellow of the British Royal Horticultural Society, Chairman of the New Zealand Rhododendron Association, patron of Pukeiti (another local garden of international significance) and was knighted in 1982. He was a forthright, energetic man and the driving force behind Tūpare.
Russell Matthews rose from assistant engineer to the New Plymouth Borough Council to owner in 1942 of Russell Matthews & Co the largest road sealing business in New Zealand. He had devised and supervised the first bitumen road surface laid in New Zealand in New Plymouth in 1913/14. The bitumen was imported from California and because of WWI no more arrived for several years. Matthews initially declared unfit served for 10 months in WWI and stayed in London to complete a three-year engineering course in road construction afterwards.
The Matthews had two sons and two daughters. The daughters initially shared a room in the upstairs section of the house, but later had separate rooms. The boys had to sleep downstairs in the basement. All the children had to perform chores and participate in the upkeep of the property.
I was reminded by our visit to the site to a visit to Sissinghurst in the UK in 2014. There is no comparison, of course, between the gardens. Sissinghurst was purchased by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson in 1930 and developed with similar energy and vision. The comparison breaks down as Vita was an aristocrat and Harold a new or not quite-aristocrat (but also both worthy people). Whilst both were prepared to rough it a little, they would not have born the hardships nor the manual labour that Russell and Brodie were prepared to undergo to achieve Harold’s dream house and garden.
During Brodie’s long struggle with TB, Matthews hired a string of mainly Polish refugee couples after the war as gardeners and house help. They lasted usually about six months, by which time they’d developed a command of English and could move on to better jobs. Although very convenient for the Matthews, they also considered this as part of integrating eastern European immigrants into the New Zealand community.
The Poles lived in the cottage, which was a marvellous place to live after their recent experiences in Europe. It is larger than it looks from the outside and both Denise and I would have loved to live there.
Although the garden and surrounds at Tūpare are superb, they were only achieved by hard work and continued maintenance. The house whilst lovely and comfortable is not extravagant.
Tūpare is inspiring because of the dream and its fruition. It is perhaps an example of what can be achieved by hard work (not my cup-of-tea necessarily) and it seems hard to categorise the Matthews as ‘capitalist exploiters’. Whereas travelling in England visiting many National Trust properties, one inevitably begins to feel that the British aristocracy had a very good deal, which they exploit to this day.
However, in modern times it is not only the aristocracy who get more than their fair share. The concentration of wealth in the world today means that the richest 1% own 45 percent of the world’s wealth and this concentration of wealth is new. Wealth in the hands of a few has increased rapidly but not inexplicably since the 1980s.
Key Words: Tupare, garden, Arts & Crafts, house, New Plymouth, Taranaki, Mount Taranaki, New Zealand, Sir Russell Matthews, Chapman-Taylor, William Morris, bitumen roads, European settlement, Maori, Sissinghurst, wealth concentration, Len Lye
PDF Download of Tupare Map
Len Lye Artist
The Puke Ariki Museum and Library
This is also the location of the Information Centre called i-Sites across New Zealand. The also organised a local historical walking tour of New Plymouth beginning at the museum. The coffee shop inside the Library is also excellent.
Chaddy’s Lifeboat tours
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