Extraordinary! The Giant’s House sculpture mosaic garden

27 November 2019

New Zealand is full of surprises, but it’s saved one of the best until the very end of our trip. I’ve never seen anything quite like the Giant’s House sculpture mosaic garden. It is, quite simply, extraordinary!

The Giant’s House is a magnificent two storey villa dating from 1880. It was built for the first bank manager of Akaroa, which probably explains why it’s such a grand affair. However it’s not the house itself that’s brought us here, but rather its terraced gardens adorned with various sculptures and mosaics.

The gardens are the work of artist Josie Martin. Although starting out as a painter, in 1993 Josie turned her hand to sculpture. Her website says:

Ever adventurous Josie is mindful of the larger world and other ways of seeing. Josie’s elegant abstract sculptures are seriously playful and a celebration of life. They are surreal, biomorphic entities, whimsical and flamboyant, organic and eccentric. Constantly changing metomorphosing [sic] forms confronting or circumscribing void spaces refer to her interest in horticulture reflecting the zany balance of nature.

SOURCE: The Giant’s House website, retrieved 10 January 2020

Even though the Giant’s House has been recognised since 2018 as a Garden of International Significance, if I’d read that quote from Josie’s website before visiting, it would have put me right off. To use an inelegant and slightly vulgar phrase that we Brits reserve for artistic pretension, it sounds like a load of “arty-farty” nonsense. Sorry, Josie.

But I know now this assessment is totally wrong, and I regret that it ever crossed my mind. Far from being pretentious and slightly preposterous, we quickly discover that the garden here is a work of quirky, creative genius.

It began very simply, almost accidentally. Josie dug up some pretty bits of broken china while gardening and used them to make a mosaic doorstep. And after that, she just kept on going, using broken china, tile, mirror and glass to clothe and populate her garden with mosaic masterpieces.

Mosaics are everywhere, including paths, steps and walls, benches, arches and seats. And scattered along the winding paths is a host of life-sized sculptures, here a lady seated on a bench eating strawberries, there French mime artist Marcel Marceau resplendent in a blue top hat and waistcoat.

There are animals too: look, there’s an elephant and a giraffe peering over a low-slung hedge, in front of which is a wall decorated with images of kiwi. And have you seen over there, a man-sized blue cat playing a musical instrument? The cat is a member of a four-piece band calling itself Kitty Catch-Me and the Rolling Dice … well of course he is, cool cats belong in jazz bands, don’t they?

In front of the Giant’s House sits a grand piano. Fashioned from mosaic, inevitably. The piano lid is held open by two lanky, naked dancers, and inside the piano are living, growing succulent plants. And why not, this is a garden after all.

The piano bears the legend “sweet patooti”. It means nowt to me (I’m an ancient English fossil, don’t you know), but according to my old pal Professor Google, “patootie” is a North American term for an attractive girl or girlfriend, or is slang for buttocks. The piano stool, which may or may not be shaped to accommodate the buttocks of said girlfriend, is supported by four dog legs, and each of its four corners is embellished with a dog’s head.

Do I understand what’s going on here? No, not really. Do I care that I don’t know what’s going on here? Not in the slightest. Life’s full of mysteries, and this one’s up there with the pyramids. And everyone admires the pyramids, even if they don’t fully understand them.

The piano and stool sit on a paved area carved out of the lawn and inlaid with the legend “You never know”. Yes, that’s it, you never know what you’ll find in this garden, just around the next corner or lurking behind a nearby bush. This place is quirky, crazy … totally bloody bonkers, in fact. And I love it.

Everyone else loves it too. Everywhere we see visitors smiling, chuckling and sometimes laughing uproariously. There’s a spring in their step as they move between the exhibits, pointing out quirky little details and animatedly discussing the sculptures with their fellows.

The essence of art is about how we see the world. Some art is deadly serious, encouraging us to reflect on matters of life and death. The Giant’s House garden isn’t serious at all: it’s about the joy of living and laughter, showing us reasons to be cheerful in the most mundane of subjects and situations.

Nobody other than the world’s unreconstructed misery-guts could spend an hour or two in the gardens at the Giant’s House without having their spirits lifted. This place is truly magical.

Another outstanding museum in “the middle of nowhere”

27 November 2019

We head out from Akaroa further around Banks Peninsula towards the tiny village of Okains Bay. On the way we call in at the Akaroa lighthouse. The six-sided wooded structure dates from 1878-79, and originally stood at the entrance to Akaroa harbour. In 1977 it was replaced by an automated lighthouse, and the following year a Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in Akaroa. The Society arranged for the original lighthouse to be dismantled and re-assembled on its present site. It’s possibly the most impressive of all the lighthouses we’ve seen in New Zealand, even if it is in the “wrong place”.

The main purpose of our drive this morning is to visit the Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum. The museum incorporates a range of replica and relocated heritage buildings, the most striking of which is the whare whakairo, or carved meeting house. According to the Culture Trip website the whare whakairo is probably the most iconic building of all native Maori architecture, playing a pivotal role in the day to day life of a tribe’s village.

The whare whakiro (meeting house)

The whare whakairo at the museum is very impressive, and it’s easy to believe that we are looking at something that is deeply embedded in Maori history. But don’t be fooled. As with so much on this trip, things aren’t quite what they seem:

These meeting houses weren’t really a part of Maori village life until after the arrival of European settlers. The mid-19th century was a time of social, political and spiritual change. There was much selling of land to the settlers coming over from Great Britain, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and Christianity all created a need for discussions within and between communities …

The whare whakairo is a larger and more elaborate version of earlier house designs such as the wharepuni (sleeping house) and pātaka (storehouse). It is not an ancient form of architecture, but seems to have first appeared after contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century.

SOURCE: Culture Tip website, retrieved 9 January 2020

Whare whakairo are usually elaborately decorated, both inside and out, with images of ancestors, gods and other figures, and with more abstract designs

The whare whakairo at the museum was built on site in accordance with tikanga Maori (Maori custom). The rafters came from an old meeting house in Tokomaru Bay on North Island, in keeping with the tradition that each new house should have something within it from an old one.

Cottage built in 1883 from totara slabs and shingles

As well as Maori buildings the museum boasts a number of others built by Europeans. The totara slab cottage was built in 1883. Totara wood is hard, straight-grained and very resistant to rot. Such cottages were common in early colonial times, but very few have survived to the present day. The cottage at the museum was destroyed by a storm at its original location in 1968, after which the pieces were salvaged, relocated and rebuilt on the museum site.

The historic Okains Bay Store. Dating from 1883, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand

Next to the museum on the main street – indeed, just about the only street in Okains Bay – is the historic Okains Bay Store, which dates from 1883. Owned by the museum and let to the tenants who run the business, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand.

Replica of a traditional Maori waka (canoe)

The museum’s treasures are spread all over Okains Bay. On the opposite side of the road from the main site is the Riverside Waka Shed. Waka (canoes) are integral to Maori culture, and it’s good to be able to get up close to a full size replica.

Okains Bay is not the obvious site for a museum. Plainly the Banks Peninsula attracts a good number of tourists, but surely not in sufficient numbers to maintain a museum on the scale and to the standard of the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum? The museum must attract a good deal of dedicated support from the local community. It reinforces the impression that’s been growing on us throughout our travels, that although New Zealand is a young country it takes its history and culture – both Maori and European – seriously. New Zealand “does museums” very well indeed.

Outwitting the French? – the Akaroa story

25 / 26 November 2019

Akaroa has a lot to live up to. We’ve been on South Island for around a month, and during that time loads of fellow tourists have asked us if we’ve been to Akaroa. When we’ve responded that it will be the last place we stop off at before flying back to the UK they have – without exception – uttered words to the effect of “Great. You’ll LOVE Akaroa“.

OK, confession time, I’d never even heard of Akaroa until New Zealand in Depth suggested the itinerary for our trip. I now know it’s situated on Banks Peninsula, the most prominent volcanic feature of the South Island. The peninsula is made up of the eroded remnants of two large shield volcanoes, and Akaroa harbour is formed from the crater of one these volcanoes. The name Akaroa is derived from southern Maori dialect words meaning “long harbour”.

The story of Akaroa’s foundation is fascinating, at least to the nerds like me. The first Europeans to visit Akaroa Harbour regularly were whalers and deserters from whaling ships. The European town of Akaroa owes its origins to Akaroa Harbour’s being a favourite port of call for whaling ships, although it never developed as a whaling station.

It was a French whaler – Captain Jean François Langlois – who first decided that this would be a great place to establish a French colony. In pursuit of his vision, in 1838 he made a down payment in commodities to the value of £6 to 12 local Maori chiefs, with the promise of a further £234 worth of commodities to be paid at a later date.

Having done the deal, Langlois hot-footed it back to France to advertise for settlers to return with him to the other side of the world. However the Brits got wind of his plans, and inevitably were not best pleased by the turn of events. They’d lost Calais to the French in 1558 and were still sore about it. They were definitely not about to let the garlic brigade snatch the South Island of New Zealand from under their noses as well. Swift action was needed, so the Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand despatched the ship HMS Britomart to formally claim the area for Great Britain.

Arriving on 16 August 1840, Captain Stanley of the Britomart raised the British flag, and held a court at each of the occupied settlements in the area to further make the point. Job done. When Langlois and 57 fellow countrymen arrived two days later they discovered the Brits were well and truly in charge, and that – as has so often happened in the history of those two great nations – the French had been royally shafted by perfidious albion.

No one would have blamed the thwarted colonists for turning round and going straight back to France, muttering profane Gallic curses as they left. But instead they stuck around and founded the town of Akaroa, although in a fit of pique they named the place Port Louis-Philippe, after the reigning King of France.

And although the name of the town later changed, the founders are said to have left an indelible mark on it. No lesser authority than the government’s official 100% Pure New Zealand website names Akaroa the “most French town in New Zealand” on account of its “French street names and charming colonial cottages”. But even governments get things wrong (!) and a 200 page report written by a professional historian and a heritage landscape architect in 2009 suggests that – street names notwithstanding – the French influence on modern Akaroa is overstated;

The fact that Akaroa was founded by settlers sent out by a French colonising company has misled some into thinking that Akaroa today has a French character. But the 19th and early 20th century buildings that set Akaroa’s character are of a “Colonial Vernacular” style that owes more to British than to French precedents.

SOURCE: John Wilson and Louise Beaumont: Akaroa Historical Overview, 2009, p5. Retrieved 9 January 2020

It may not be very French after all, but Akaroa is undoubtedly unusual.

Akaroa has the highest density of registered historic buildings anywhere in the country, surpassing even the historic towns of Russell and Arrowtown. Even by this rather clinical measure, Akaroa is a very special place

SOURCE: Akaroa Civic Trust Newsletter, November 2008, quoted in the Akaroa Historical Overview, page 1. Retrieved 9 January 2020.

As we wander the streets on a glorious, sunny day, we can well appreciate why the tourists we met earlier on this trip were so enthusiastic about Akaroa. It oozes character, and even the presence of a lot of other holidaymakers doesn’t detract from its quaint, peaceful charm.

And yet, regardless of the academic evidence to the contrary, the French get most of the credit. If he knew, Captain Langlois would doubtless shrug his shoulders and permit himself a Gallic chuckle at the irony of it all. C’est la vie, n’est pas?

Neither a typical New Zealand town nor a Southern Hemisphere outlier of French culture, Akaroa is one of a kind. It’s a good place for us to wind down as our epic voyage around New Zealand draws to a close.