Goodness knows how she found any spare time but Jane Brenkley, mother of 11 children, must have spent many, many hours working at her hobby on her kitchen table. She crafted decorative boxes, picture frames, trays and small tables from pieces of wood, carving them with a pocket knife, painting with vegetable dyes, burning in poker-work designs, lining boxes with wallpaper and pictures from magazines and inscribing personal messages and verses.
She made hundreds of items, usually decorated with flowers or Maori scenes, and somehow fitted her work not only around her children, but also housework, farm chores and her job as the Norsewood midwife in southern Hawke’s Bay.
Most of Jane’s now highly collectable folk art was done in the 1940s and 1950s. She died in 1973, aged 90, and is buried in the Norsewood cemetery. She probably never dreamed that the gifts she made for family and friends would, by 2010, be selling at auction for thousands of dollars. A pair of her poker-work vases sold at Art + Object last year for more than $4000 and her most desirable occasional tables, which come up for sale perhaps twice a year, are approaching the $10,000 mark. Small boxes and frames, however, can still be found for less than $1000.
Fenella Tonkin of Cordy’s auctions in Auckland was one of the earliest Jane Brenkley fans. One of the two Brenkley boxes she owns was “a birthday present to myself”. Neither of the boxes is for sale.
“They are just boxes; I’m not sure that they have a particular purpose, but I love the colours and the detail and the way the artist has done everything herself, including making the box.
“There is no dovetailing on the boxes, just nails. I see them as ‘naive’ in the true sense of the word.”
Fenella believes that New Zealanders have been slow to appreciate the value of early craftwork. Chip carving, a hobby popular with women in the early 1900s, is an example of a collectable craft that’s undervalued, Fenella suggests.
Chip-carved tables, picture frames, trays and small plaques can be found in many second-hand shops and seldom give any clue to their makers.
Collectors of Jane Brenkley, on the other hand, will find almost all her pieces carry her signature. Similar handmade wooden items “in the style of Jane Brenkley”, but without a signature and date, will be less valuable, though not necessarily any less collectable. Usually such unsigned pieces can be found in antiques shops for between $20 and $100.
The interior of the large box pictured above; it contains the trademark Jane Brenkley decoration and verses and her signature is on the bottom right of the lid.
This pair of botanical paintings on kauri panels (62cm x 30cm) with chip-carved framing date to the late 1800s and is signed by the artist, F Tizard. It’s on sale for $400 at Royal Oak Traders.
Chip carving was a popular “parlour craft” among women in colonial New Zealand. This kauri picture frame, 30cm square, is by an unknown hobbyist. It is for sale at Royal Oak Traders, Auckland, for $79. (09) 625 8787.
This pine folk art letter rack, 42cm x 31cm, is etched with poker-work and painted with flowers and dates to early last century. It’s on sale at Peter Wedde Antiques in Wellington for $165. (04) 475 9858, peterweddeantiques.co.nz.
Handkerchief satchels in suede, sometimes lined with fabric, were popular craft items, decorated with poker-work and paint to sell as souvenirs or gifts. These two from the 1950s are also for sale at Peter Wedde Antiques; the 21cm-wide satchel featuring the Maori woman image is $125; the Maori chief image, 16cm wide, is $85.
Story: Pam Neville
Photographs: Belinda Merrie
Stylist: Tracey Strange