Monumental 'arts and crafts' sideboard takes up residence in Museum foyer

Friday, 18 September 2015

A 2.8 metre high wooden sideboard, carved with mythical creatures by a 22-year-old woman in 1891, has gone on display in the foyer of Canterbury Museum.

20150917 Elmslie Sideboard

Canterbury Museum Curator, Marguerite Hill with the Elmslie Sideboard in the Museum foyer.

The sideboard was carved in Christchurch by Jessie Mitchell Elmslie. Canterbury Museum acquired it at auction earlier this year as an excellent example of Arts and Crafts furniture created locally. The Museum had hoped to display it in the Mountfort Gallery with other examples of fine furniture, but it was just too big.

Museum Curator Marguerite Hill says it’s a monumental piece. “At the time it would have been very unusual for such a large item to be carved by a woman.”

The Arts and Crafts Movement emerged in the late nineteenth century and encouraged traditional crafts at a time when mass production was beginning.

“It was an inclusive movement and encouraged many women artists to try their hand at crafts which they previously wouldn’t have been able to do, such as carving and silversmithing”, Marguerite says.
Jessie’s father, John, was the minister at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Cashel Street, Christchurch. One of his parishioners taught Jessie to carve. Jessie married James Colin Campbell in October 1891 and moved to Whanganui.

“We know, through a photograph, that she had the sideboard in her home in 1906. It’s likely she continued her craft after she married, as she designed and made a copper memorial panel for her father when he died in 1907. The memorial panel is still in the care of St Paul’s and will be reinstated when their church reopens,” Marguerite says.

Ancient legends and medieval tales were a key influence in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Jessie carved her sideboard with a sea wyvern (part serpent, with dragon wings and lots of tails instead of feet) and a close look reveals a heraldic dolphin which looks more like a fish. In legend, dolphins represent swiftness and charity while wyverns symbolise strength and valour.

The sideboard was purchased with funding from the Friends of Canterbury Museum.