Katherine Mansfield's early childhood home in Wellington is about to reopen to the public after a much needed 'do over' inside and out.
It's taken five months to replace the roof and damaged weather boards, and refresh the interior including a new paint scheme and period furniture, even the gardens are getting some TLC.
There's an open home on Sunday, 13 October, the day before Mansfield's birthday, but Lynn Freeman got a sneak peak during the week with the director of Katherine Mansfield House & Garden, Cherie Jacobson.
Any previous visitors will notice that even the entrance looks different. Where people used to be greeted by a front of house person, the entrance now resembles a “real fashionable colonial home”, Jacobson says.
“The entrance hall, the dining hall, the drawing room - they were the public facing rooms when you had guests to visit. They were the rooms you really wanted to impress people with, so you put all your best furniture in them, and made them look really good and so that’s what we’ve done here.”
The doors – previously wood - have also been repainted, which Jacobson says some people might find unusual.
“Today we have a tendency to varnish strip wood because we know how beautiful our native woods look but immigrants who’d come from Britain often tried to change the looks of those woods to make them look more like walnut or oak - woods they recognised and were of good quality where they come from.”
Another thing people might notice or pick up on is that the colours inside are bright and lively.
“We often think of the 1800s as gloomy, dark, but actually they loved colour.
“You can see from the wallpaper that was reproduced in the 1980s when the house was first restored, it’s full of pattern and colour, and we’ve used that aesthetic style to inform the changes that’ve been made here.”
Jacobson also notes that the restoration work done in the ‘80s was phenomenal.
“The fact that they managed to save this house, return it to the layout that it’d had - because it had been turned into two flats in the 1940s - and they did so much research and on such a limited budget, it’s really incredible.”
But with the limited resources and some items donated, the finishing touches on the house weren’t always of the right period. Jacobson says they’ve teamed up with an expert in colonial era furniture and interiors, Dr William Cottrell, to source the appropriate items.
“He sourced some really beautiful pieces for us that we think will be a talking point when people come visit and are more era appropriate to late 1880s, early 1900s.
“Her father was still a clerk for a general merchant when this house was built, but he went on to become the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand.
“So they were fashionable, aspirational, social-climbing family, and we wanted to reflect a little bit of that in the house, rather than restrict ourselves to the four years of Mansfield’s childhood, but we do speak to that upstairs.”
The restoration has been informed by drawing on a lot of research and but there’s had to be a bit of guesswork and imagination involved to get it to some of the former glory of estates in that era.
One of the items that they’re sure was in the house is a writing desk and some chairs – and Jacobson adds that items they’re sure had links to the family will be kept in the house.
Mansfield’s own writing has also helped to inform the restoration works, with Prelude - based on the Beauchamp’s move to Karori - describing how the empty house looked, which helps envision the layout, and the venetian blinds.
“And also there are other stories which you can see glimpses of the house so A Birthday talks about a man walking across the suspension bridge over the gully, which would’ve been just down behind this house.
“There are descriptions of staircases and geography of houses that [make] you think ‘oh yeah, this could this house’, so there’s lots of little clues like that but obviously she was a fiction writer and so she’s drawing on sources from various houses she’s lived in and places.”
The dining room is also another aesthetic room with its deep powder blue colour livening up the space, and the many lamps offsetting the wallpaper – recreated from scraps found around the house during the ‘80s.
“When archaeology work was happening in the 1980s, they dug up some shards of China and so from those this dinner set was purchased because it most resembled what they’d found under the house.
“Again, we don’t know for sure this was the Beauchamp family’s China but it’s a pretty good guess and it’s pretty beautiful.”
The kitchen is basically a basic workspace room with all the essential tools of the time.
“Between here and the kitchen, I think that’s where a lot of life was in the house from day to day, because obviously you weren’t spending lots of time in the drawing room or dining room if you didn’t have guests around.”
Heading upstairs, the wood balustrades have been made to look like bamboo to reflect the British people’s fascination with Japanese influenced materials in the late 1800s.
At the top the flight of steps, there's a joint room that previously visitors couldn’t enter because it was used as a staff room.
“Now we’ve set it up as the night nursery, which we think is pretty plausible, because there’s a door joining this little room with the room next door so that would’ve been the children’s bedroom.
“And then the grandmother, in the Beauchamp family case, would’ve slept in this little room that joins the children’s bedroom, with the youngest member of the family in a bassinet [at the foot of the bed].”
Katherine suffered from night terrors throughout her life. And in the characters she uses to portray herself as a child or when she’s writing about herself in her journals, she often talks about sleeping in the same bed as her grandmother, Jacobson says.
The children’s bedroom contains the typical play items like a rocking horse and a little high chair. But if you’re looking around for The Doll House from Mansfield’s story, it’ll be tucked away for an exhibition by the same title of the tale.
“In the exhibition room over there, we’re going to have a collection of doll houses from different eras, we’ve been working with the Lower Hutt Miniature Makers, who just make incredible tiny things.
“We’ll have the doll’s house that was made for this house to resemble the doll’s house in the story, so we had Katherine’s story The Doll’s House translated into te reo Māori last year, so it’s called Te Whare Tāre, and people will be able to see that and the doll’s houses.”
One special room in the house is named in honour after long time and important member of Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society, Laurel Harris.
“[Mansfield] lived in this house for just over four years, very much her childhood home, but I think very important because so much of your character is formed when you’re child, and she would’ve been a highly observant child and that informed her writing.
“But we’re aware people are interested in her whole life she went on to do so many different things; [she] travelled a lot. So this room is for us to explore that, there’s going to be a massive timeline of her life with lots of photos on it around the walls, there’ll be a reading corner with books and things that people can explore some of her work, I think it’ll be a really great place to learn about Katherine as a woman and a writer.”