The tale of Ravenscar House Museum is no short story. It’s one that trails back to the early 1990s when Susan and Jim Wakefield decided their new home in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland was looking rather bare. Resolved that a few artworks would liven the place up, they began to search. Novices in the art realm, they bought pieces they liked rather than names they recognised. “We had no thought at that time of collecting,” Susan once said. “We bought paintings to put on our walls to enjoy looking at them.” It was a simple strategy that would serve them well, for their natural taste and eye for talent soon proved to be exceptional.
Their first purchase was a landscape by renowned 19th-century artist Thomas Attwood and the second was a Frances Hodgkins watercolour. “We kept on doing it for a while because we had quite a big house,” says Wakefield. What accumulated over the following decades was close to 300 paintings, objects, furnishings and antiquities, mainly from Aotearoa, including works from some of the country’s most prolific artists.
After moving to Ōtautahi Christchurch, their art found a new home in a house they built on Scarborough Hill. There, they were eager to share their burgeoning exhibits with the public and welcomed visitors through occasional tours and open days, eventually resolving to one day gift the entire collection to the community. The accidental art collectors even purchased two inner-city buildings where they intended to display the works.
Then, in 2011 the Canterbury earthquakes hit, taking these buildings and the Wakefields’ hillside home as casualties; miraculously, the collection was largely unscathed. So, with renewed philanthropic resolve, the couple partnered with Canterbury Museum to use their insurance payout and rebuild in a new way on a new site; in 2015 the Christchurch City Council agreed to donate land on Rolleston Avenue for the new building. Three decades after their first foray into the art world, the doors have finally opened to the Ravenscar House Museum.
Designed by Patterson Associates, the museum lies in the heart of the city’s art district. The building makes a commanding first impression as a staunch, windowless assemblage of concrete. It’s sculptural in appearance, with high gabled roofs mirroring the neo-Gothic form of nearby Canterbury Museum and the Arts Centre. Constructed from precast panels, the textured slabs are partly composed of crushed bricks from the original home and rubble retrieved from some of the city’s fallen landmarks. “Given much of Christchurch’s built history was removed after the earthquakes,” says Patterson director Andrew Mitchell, “it’s comforting to know some of it now lives on in our building.”
Traditionally, a house museum comes about when a historic home opens to the public, but Jim and Susan will never live here. Instead, the building reflects the footprint of their Scarborough house with four chambers built in the exact dimensions of the dining room, bedroom, living room and library. Each is lined with art and incorporates select pieces of the couple’s furniture. “We wanted to bring the context of their Scarborough home to life through a play on ‘ghost rooms’,” says Mitchell. These chambers are set around a central courtyard and linked via a glazed walkway that overlooks the gardens. This landscaping, masterfully planned by Suzanne Turley, is dotted with sculptures and takes its cues from the plantings of the original home — careful to incorporate many of Susan Wakefield’s favourite colours.
After decades in the making, the Ravenscar House Museum is complete, and the Wakefields’ dream realised. The building is a sharp, contemporary backdrop for an incredibly comprehensive collection. The exhibitions traverse decades, genres and mediums, and include works from Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere, Rita Angus, Gordon Walters and Charles Goldie.
Sadly, Jim Wakefield passed away while the museum was under construction, and Susan Wakefield’s poor health dictated she step back from the project.
Still, she recently visited the completed museum and was, by all accounts, thrilled. She once said they donated their collection to “afford visitors the same degree of joyful uplift of the spirit” that it gave them. And while the exhibits are sure to spark joy, it’s not merely the art that makes this place unique. It’s all of it: the collection, the building, the gardens and the thing that unites it all, the staggering generosity of a local couple who liked to look at beautiful things.
Ravenscar House Museum
52 Rolleston Avenue, Ōtautahi Christchurch