Arno Gasteiger

Seuffert & Son

As a showcase for New Zealand’s native timbers, the works of two little-known Auckland cabinet-makers are unsurpassed.

Written by       Photographed by National Museum

A Solitary tree fern unfurls its fronds against a backdrop of sharp hills and a glowing sky. From its shade, a moa proudly sur­veys the vista, while, nearby, a kiwi peers at the ground.

Surrounding this scene, with its synod of national symbols, is an elaborate border incorporating a va­riety of Maori motifs. Beyond that again, acres of unbe­lievably intricate mar­quetry cascade over a cluster of cabinets and drawer fronts. Mi­nutely detailed fern fronds decorate the inner surfaces of two smaller doors, while the main door opens to deeper recesses of mir­rors, miniature pillars and polished timber.

The whole structure (variously termed an escritoire or bonheur-du­jour) sits on an inlaid table of simi­larly unimpeachable quality.

This is New Zealand’s most ex­pensive piece of furniture. It is 120 years old, composed entirely of na­tive woods, and is one of a number of surviving works made in Auckland by master-craftsman Anton Seuffert (pronounced Soy-furt) and his son William.

After long neglect, the unique character of their work is being re­discovered, and the Seufferts are being hailed as Australasia’s finest ever cabinet­makers.

Thanks to the care­ful research of Joy Bilkey (a Seuffert de­scendant) the broad outlines of the Seufferts’ lives are known, but many important details are still a mystery.

Anton was born to working class parents in Bohemia in 1815. His fa­ther was a craftsman working with wood, and Anton followed the same path. His talent must have been con­siderable, because he rose to the rank of foreman in the leading Viennese firm of Leistler and Sons, which exe­cuted many commissions for Euro­pean royalty. Anton Seuffert is known to have been responsible for setting up their massive four-room furniture display at the 1851 Exhibi­tion in London.

Possibly he remained in London following the Exhibition, for he is thought to have married an Austrian woman, Anna Biltz, in London in 1856. No record of the marriage has been found, and there remains a suspicion that Anna was of high birth, and her marriage to Anton may have incurred family opposition.

The next definitive record of the Seufferts is their becoming natural­ised in Auckland in January 1861, apparently with three children in train. Exactly when and why they deserted the solid certainty of Eu­rope for the harsh frontier of New Zealand remains a mystery. They lived in Auckland and raised a total of six children. For close to three decades Anton crafted superlative woodwork from native New Zealand timbers.

Eighteen sixty-one was also the year Sir George Grey commenced his second term as governor of New Zealand. The following year, he pur­chased Kawau Island and there es­tablished a substantial estate. Anton Seuffert is thought to have made furniture and panelling for Grey, but, unlike some other artisans, declined to live on the island.

Seuffert’s European reputation must have travelled with him to New Zealand, because as early as 1862 he was entrusted with a major commis­sioned piece to be presented to Queen Victoria by the people of Auckland province (who were also covering the £300 cost by subscription). The February 7 issue of the Southern Cross, an Auckland newspaper of the day, eulogised the furniture thus:

“The escritoire surpasses all our previous expectations. It is indeed one of the most beautiful specimens of cabinet art we have ever seen, and cannot fail to create a favourable impression on the public mind at home on behalf of Auckland. We will not enter into details at present, but merely suggest to our readers the desirability of inspecting this piece of furniture for themselves. No doubt it will occupy a prominent place in the Great Exhibition, coming as a gift from this province to our gracious sovereign, expressive of our grati­tude to the parent country of which she is the august head for timely assistance in the hour of adversity.” (This is a clear reference to the send­ing of 10,000 British troops in the early part of the Maori wars.) “…the most chastely beautiful article ever manufactured from New Zealand woods.”

A few months earlier, on Novem­ber 5, the Southern Cross had de­scribed the partially completed cabi­net:

“But nothing can surpass the deli­cacy of finish, beauty of design, and artistic grouping of shades in the inlaid portions of the centre pieces. The centre panel of the upper range of drawers contains a design, en­closed in a border of the beautiful native clematis which is characteris­tic of New Zealand. In the distance is seen the volcanic hills of this coun­try, washed at their base by the wa­ters of the Southern Ocean, while in the foreground the graceful ponga (tree fern) casts a shadow over the solitary kiwi, and around the edge of the water, plants of the native flax (phormium tenax) complete the pic­ture. There is an attachment, almost romantic, on the part of the native woman to the pikiarere (clematis) which clusters around the border of this panel. It is the emblem of purity and innocence, and the Maori maid­ens wreath their brows and hair with chaplets of these snowy flowers when they emerge from the sea water after bathing. This will be a superb piece of furniture when Mr Seufert completes it and will uphold our character both as manufacturers and producers.”

Perhaps the irony of rhapsodising over these Maori maidens as sym­bols of purity and innocence, while presenting the cabinet as a reward for assistance in waging war on these same people, was not entirely lost on Seuffert. Later cabinets generally retained similar scenery, minus the garnish of maidens! Most were pres­entation items for eminent persons departing the country. Included in the list of favoured recipients were Sir George Grey, Bishop Selwyn, Sir Joseph Hooker (the world-famous botanist), David Murdoch (a bank executive), a Captain Burton (ordered his own) and Archdeacon Lloyd.

The cabinet presented to Queen Victoria is still to be found in Buck­ingham Palace, while others survive in various collections. Correlating the present cabinets with their original owners can, however, prove chal­lenging. Knowing the date of manu­facture is helpful, and a rather crude clue is provided in the sticky labels Seuffert attached to the underside of his works. After May 1869 the labels read: “A. Seuffert, cabinet maker to His Royal Highness the Duke of Ed­inburgh, Elliott St, Auckland, New Zealand.” Prior to that they were simply: “A. Seufert, cabinet maker, Auckland, New Zealand.”

The change to “ff” in Seuffert roughly corresponds to the time of the royal appointment, occasioned by the visit to Auckland of Queen Victoria’s son, Duke Alfred, en route to Japan in command of HMS Ga­latea. Seuffert made a set of drawers and a bed for His Royal Highness to use while here. The bed is still in use in the Queen’s suite in Government House, Wellington.

Though the magnificent escri­toires, some containing 30,000 pieces of wood, were the big ticket items in Seuffert’s repertoire, he produced a range of more modest pieces. Many British officers returning home se­cured a small table (or generally just the easily carried top) graced by Seuffert’s sublime marquetry. These typically cost f5-£15. Intricate fern boxes and books were another specialty, and perhaps humblest of all were glove and jewel boxes.

Almost all of his work was com­missioned. There was no shopfront display from which customers could choose. Rather, Anton maintained a workshop with a small showroom housing samples and a design book from which clients could order. Then, as now, Queen Street must have been the hub of the Auckland universe, since his business premises were advertised as the corner of Wellesley and Elliott Streets, “just four doors from Queen Street.”

Queen Street or not, 1860s Auck­land was hardly Vienna, and it must have presented the new immigrants with a degree of culture shock.

“The town…appeared to us very small, and the main streets rather mean looking thoroughfares,” wrote one traveller. Almost all the build­ings were of new unpainted wood and major fires frequently reduced areas to smoking cinders. There was no reticulated water, and a visitor in summer complained of not seeing a single cup of clean water during a 20-day sojourn. Copious mosquitoes bred in the wooden barrels used for water storage.

Of course, there was no gas, elec­tricity or sewerage system, and efflu­ent seeped into Ligar Canal, a slug­gish stream running just to the west of what eventually became Queen Street. The location of Seuffert’s workshop would have placed him unpleasantly close to this malodor­ous watercourse, “which gave rise in summer to a stench that was almost unbearable.” By the late 1850s, some 10,000 people lived in the general area of the town.

Considerable disaster overtook Anton in 1864, when his premises were largely destroyed — not by fire or flood, but by flour! A baker, using the area above Seuffert’s workshop for storage, exceeded the structural limits of the building. The floor gave way, and precious furniture being readied for the 1865 Colonial Exhibi­tion in Dunedin was destroyed. The only item Anton was able to send was a small table borrowed back from its owner for the occasion!

Nonetheless, he was awarded an honorary certificate for “an inlaid table of superior design and work­manship” together with a medal “for great success in the employment of New Zealand woods in inlaid furni­ture.” This was only one of a number of awards Seuffert won, including citations from the 1873 International Exhibition in Vienna, the Sydney International Exhibition 1879, the Melbourne International Exhibition 1880, and the Colonial and Indian Exhibition 1886.

Anton Seuffert died in August 1887, aged 72, having suffered from heart disorders and bronchitis for Several years.Yet since atleast 1882  the firm had been called A. Seuffert and Son, reflecting the growing con­tribution of his son William to the work.

It is likely that William had been active in the firm for many years prior to 1882. One relative relates that Anton, fairly late in his career, made an intricate inlaid coffee table as a present for a relative, only to have it seized in settlement of a small debt. Anton was said to have been so enraged that he refused to make any more furniture, and instead left the work to William.

In 1890 the firm became William Seuffert, cabinet maker. William survived until 1943, and for many of those years continued with the sort of work his father had been renowned for. Cognoscenti claim that William’s work surpassed that of his father, but he is generally less well known, per­haps because he is not identified with a striking series of large items such as Anton’s escritoires.

William possibly had difficulty making a living from the sort of intri­cate work in which he excelled. Wise’s directory of householders lists no William Seuffert from 1900 to 1910, but from 1911-1913 William Sewffert of Campbell Tce, Parnell (his premises) is described as a carter. From 1914 the spelling reverts to Seuffert, and he is listed as an artist.

Family sources portray William as an easy-going man — an enthusi­astic fisherman and gardener, and a talented artist who turned down an offer of being a professional cartoon ist for a daily paper in favour of woodworking. He was an unassum­ing man, likely to flee out the back door of the workshop if a superior-looking carriage drew up at the gate. In part, the fishing and gardening provided respite from the intense concentration required for the inlay work.

William’s brothers Carl and Al­bert are mentioned fairly regularly from 1903-1930 in Wise’s — Carl ini­tially as a cabinet maker, then a la­bourer, and Albert as a French po­lisher. Hence all three of Anton’s sons followed in his footsteps to some extent. Curiously, all died childless, so the Seuffert name disappeared.

William’s work attracted fulsome praise from contemporary newspa­pers. Although he did produce some geometric patterns, his forte was detailed marquetry pictures in wood — on boxes, cabinets, tabletops, even framed. The story is told of a female companion to the Governor of New South Wales who refused to believe that the detail and beauty of one such picture was crafted in tim­ber. In exasperation, William took a plane and whipped a shaving off the surface!

A number of smaller items, such as inlaid boxes, made by William for family members on special occa­sions, remain in their possession. His most notable piece was a large cabi­net made for presentation to Major General Baden Powell as a reward for his valour during the Boer War. It bore the inscription “…from admir­ers in the province of Auckland, New Zealand, in recognition of distin­guished services rendered to the Empire during the siege of Mafeking from October 1889 to May 17, 1890.”

The main panel depicted Auck­land harbour, while side doors showed a Maori chief, woman and child. The three-fold cabinet was broadly similar to Anton’s earlier escritoires, but the supporting table resembled a desk with four large drawers extending down to floor level on each side. The fronts of these were inlaid with ferns, titree flowers, titoki, acorns and leaves, and Wil­liam worked on the cabinet for two and a half years.

Some of William’s table tops earned particular praise: “…It is need­less to say that it was the work of Mr Seuffert, who manifestly aspires to excel the work of his father, who in his time stood alone in the art. The work is a table top, and the design is bold almost to audacity, but it is so faithfully worked out that it is a work of art. The border is designed in ornamental woods, but the centre is a wonderful construction of particles of wood into a handsome picture. The design is thoroughly character­istic. There are four birds life size, the tui, the fantail, the miromiro, and the korimako, all native birds and the characteristics of each are fully carried out. The New Zealand ber­ries, flowers, etc, are beautifully shown and the butterflies in the centre are perfect wonders of accuracy. It is the finest piece of inlaid work we have yet seen, for nothing could exceed the delicacy with which the colours are blended. The numbers of pieces of wood used in making this table top must be some­thing extraordinary.”

The newspapers had a long-run­ning problem with superlatives in describing Seuffert work. Each new item from 1862 until at least the early 1900s was described as “the finest piece ever seen.” One table contained over 40,000 pieces. Another, with a fern and scroll pattern constructed from a mere 2000 fragments of wood, sold for 21 guineas. The Baden Pow­ell cabinet was sold for about £125, which in these days of high inflation seems paltry considering the £300 Anton received for the Queen Victo­ria piece 30 years previously!

The less elaborate Burton cabinet (now owned by a private collector in Christchurch) cost £85 originally and is thought to have been constructed in only a few weeks. A Seuffert escri­toire in good condition sold in April 1986 by Peter Webb Galleries in Auckland holds the New Zealand record price for a piece of New Zea­land furniture offered at auction: $55,000.

A few years ago the National Museum in Wellington purchased the cabinet that had been presented to Sir Joseph Hooker in 1867 by “grateful colonists” in recognition of his work in compiling the Handbook of the New Zealand Flora. Although this cabinet had won an award at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, it languished thereafter, proba­bly in a fern house at Kew Gardens, where Hooker became director. Here it was apparently regarded as an “amusing piece of colonial vulgar­ism.” In 1987 it was purchased at auction in London for £8000.

When the cabinet duly arrived in Wellington, the full extent of its de­cay became apparent Humidity, heat, and dirt in Kew herbarium had de­stroyed the varnish, discoloured the wood, lifted the veneers and caused  cracking and warping. “It was in a sad state, and we were very disap­pointed,” comments Michael Fitz­gerald, curator of history at the Na­tional Museum. “But at the same time, we realised that with skilled attention the cabinet could be brought back to life.”

For a few years it just sat in the museum’s storeroom, reabsorbing the ambience of Aotearoa, , while funds for its restoration were sought, and a capable craftsman located. That per­son turned out to be Detlef Klein. Like Seuffert, Detlef is an immigrant from central Europe (Germany) where, after serving a cabinet-mak­ing apprenticeship, he trained as a furniture conservator. He and his wife Angelika live along the road from the Alligator Swamp Cooperative, in the rumpled wilderness behind the Waiwera estuary, and it was here that the Hooker cabinet came to spend four months while Detlef transformed it.

Since then he has restored two more of the Seufferts’ pieces, and has developed a deep fascination with their work.

“I spend a very long time just look­ing at the work, trying to understand what the artist was attempting to do and how he did it — the order in which the pieces were assembled, how he balanced tensions that arise in the wood, looking for subtle re­peats in the patterns of the wood-grain, that sort of thing. Areas of veneer may be missing, and I have to work out what was there before I can replace it.”

Detlef Klein stresses the difference between conservation and restora­tion: “Wherever possible I’m a con­servator, trying to remove only dirt and adding back nothing but the merest haze of polish. Only in the last resort, if wood is actually miss­ing, do I add a new piece. Then I have to search around and find a matching piece — perhaps from an old fence post, or even firewood.” (In using this source Detlef is following the Seufferts’ own practice; it is said that no wood found its way into the Seuf­fert fireplace unless it had been inspected and found wanting by Wil­liam.)

Klein admits that an acceptable match can be very elusive. As for glues and finishes, he uses what Seuffert himself used: animal glues, tree resin-based copal varnishes and shellac polishes. “None of these seal out the moisture like modern plas­tics do, and the wood remains a liv­ing, breathing substance.”

This traditional approach presents its own problems, though, because the wood expands and contracts with changes in humidity, leading to buck­ling and cracking. Careful design reduces these problems, says Klein, as do construction methods which balance opposing forces in the wood­work.

The variety of native timbers used by the Seufferts was enormous. Detlef Klein has identified at least 40 spe­cies, including everything I had ever heard of, plus a few unexpected ones such as nikau and cabbage tree. The range of timbers involved further complicates the distortion problems of the marquetry.

The Seufferts searched far and wide for their wood. Much of the marquetry was done with small pieces that could be gleaned from Waitakere firewood. At the other extreme, in a letter to Julius von Haast Anton enquires (in German) about getting totara from some distance, and offers to pay freight as well.

“They would have made all their own veneers on a handsaw powered by hand, treadle, or steam. Veneers were thick by today’s standards, 2- 3rnm compared with the paper-thin machine-peeled stuff we call veneer today. In fact, the peeling process used commercially changes the wood fibre properties, so you can hardly even call the product wood,” Detlef comments with some passion.

But how was the marquetry itself  executed? I recalled spending a good deal of my youth completing one modest kitset picture, so did the professionals have a repertoire of cunning, or were they simply giants of patience and precision. Detlef explains:

“Patterns were transferred to wood by careful tracing, initially from a paper template, but as the work de­veloped, pieces would be modified to suit the growing picture. Thin veneers were cut with special knives, but, if thicker than 2mm, a fine fret-saw was necessary. Often, a shoulder knife was used. This was a knife attached to a long handle which was pushed by the shoulder and merely guided by the fingers. Wet glue sof­tened the wood so it could be trimmed more easily.

“The pieces were then positioned using paper strips that were glued on one side. After assembling an entire panel, Seuffert would turn it so that the tape was now outermost, then glue the whole thing to the base wood, which was usually kauri. Af­ter the glue had set, the tape would be moistened to enable removal.”

Think for a moment what this means: the piece is assembled look­ing at the side that ends up attached to the baseboard. Any cuts therefore have to be perfectly square, because you do not see the finished surface until you have cemented the whole panel into place. And what about Seuffert’s complicated curves?

Detlef explains that the construc­tion of regular patterns was often done in a different, labour-saving way. Slices of veneer would be ce­mented together along their long sides, as if they were slices of bread being joined to reconstitute a loaf. The ‘loaf’ would be re-sliced along the top or at some other angle, to give ready-made fragments that, when assembled, would yield some new and dazzling pattern.

“The glued work requires careful handling,” Detlef continues. “If the humidity gets too high, these animal glues absorb water, soften and lose their grip. Should the humidity fall too low, they dry out and crack off. Different climatic conditions play havoc with inlay work. Leaving a piece in hot sun can ruin it in weeks.”

Since a major part of furniture conservation seems to involve fas­tidious cleaning, I enquire how this is done. Cotton buds play an impor­tant part, I am told, but it takes a measure of persistence to extract the recipe of the traditional solvent. Af­ter all, this could be no industrial strength Mr Muscle. It has to be suf­ficiently subtle not to damage the delicate gossamer of ancient lacquer, yet potent enough to erase genera­tions of grime. With suitable reti­cence the secret is finally extracted.


“What, common saliva?” I gasp.

“Ah…yes,” somewhat defensively. “Of course, we use other solvents as well, but you’d be astonished what large areas are cleaned by spittle on cotton buds in Europe.” His gesture embraces not merely the confines of Detlef’s small workshop, but cavern­ous cathedrals and shadowy corri­dors inhabited by galaxies of Bour­bons and Hapsburgs.

So, having cleaned the surface, how do we restore life to a lack-lustre visage?

“The polish can be touched up with a trace of the same varnish or shellac that was used on the original work. Applied on a soft cloth, it will melt into the outer layers of old pol­ish to give a delicate facelift.”

I let this sink in for a moment, before venturing a comment: “You mean that the main secrets of furni­ture conservation are spit and pol­ish?” We both laugh.

Just prior to my visit, Detlef had completed restoration of an Anton Seuffert wine table. Purchased as derelict rubbish for £20 in England, the owner had brought it to New Zealand in his hand luggage for res­toration, but vital parts of the mar­quetry pattern were missing.

After spending hours guessing what the pattern must have been like, Detlef started to do some research on the name Wyatt, found scrawled on the underside of the table. He discov­ered that the gentleman in question was a colonel in the Yorkshire regi­ment, stationed here during the Taranaki land wars, and, on further enquiry, found that the regimental arms formed the central part of the table pattern.

“Once I’d worked out the design, I was able to restore it quite easily — it only took about 40 hours. After completion I noticed one mistake, though it’s not very major.” (To me, it’s invisible). “The grain in this piece of wood should have matched that over there, and I didn’t see it until too late. Looking at the repeats in the patterns of the woodgrain makes me think Seuffert must have been mak­ing a batch of rather similar tables, just altering details.”

Detlef also thinks that some of the elaborate escritoires belong in a se­ries. “Two of the ones I’ve seen have numbers, and there is great overall similarity between most of the cabi­nets. But there is also a subtle pro­gression in style and construction towards greater simplicity and resis­tance to the warping we talked about earlier. That first 1861 Queen Victo­ria cabinet, with its distinctive curved base, was derived from Bohemian tabernacle secretoires, a form that Anton would have been familiar with from his youth.

“The second one was probably a cabinet with a geometric pattern on the main door panel, but sitting on a simpler table — quite different from the Victoria cabinet. Next came the Hooker cabinet, and finally the start of a series all featuring the moa/tree fern/kiwi trio as the main scene, all on the simpler table. Components for a number of cabinets could have been made at the same time — perhaps the numbers indicate this, and it could explain how the Burton cabinet was made in such a short time.”

I ask Detlef whether he has learned anything about Anton Seuffert the person, from handling his work. Can Anton would have been familiar with from his youth.

“The second one was probably a cabinet with a geometric pattern on the main door panel, but sitting on a simpler table — quite different from the Victoria cabinet. Next came the Hooker cabinet, and finally the start of a series all featuring the moa/tree fern/kiwi trio as the main scene, all on the simpler table. Components for a number of cabinets could have been made at the same time — perhaps the numbers indicate this, and it could explain how the Burton cabinet was made in such a short time.”

I ask Detlef whether he has learned anything about Anton Seuffert the person, from handling his work. Can he cast any light on the mystery of why Seuffert ever came to Auckland? In Europe there had been a large, sophisticated and appreciative mar­ket for his skills. This was not true in New Zealand. During the 1850s and ’60s, Auckland was considerably affected by the land wars, and the cessation of hostilities was followed only by depression as the military and farmers left the city. Gas lighting was not introduced until 1865. Amusements were simple, and re­finements to life, including sophisti­cated furniture, were a luxury far beyond the ken of most.

Detlef shares his ideas: “Anton was an unusual person for a man of his background. Look how he used such an astonishingly wide variety of native timbers so quickly, and how his themes became local — Maoris, moas, ferns and flowers. And I’ve said how he adapted his construc­tion methods.

“Anton was flexible, intelligent, inventive, making a traditional vet distinctive Louis XV cabinet. These are most remarkable qualities for a German peasant, especially one trained to learn from his master as an apprentice. I am German, and have been through the system. I know. It produces conformity, not originality. In Europe everything depended on birth. Seuffert was born a nobody. He did remarkably well to reach a foreman’s position at Leistler and Sons, for that was a top job. But with his birth rank there was no way he could ever go higher in Europe, and he was only 40 years old.

“I think he was stifled in his job, indeed in all Europe. When he heard about New Zealand, possibly from another 1851 exhibitor named Le­vien, it strongly attracted him. After all, New Zealand boasted inexhaust­ible supplies of a wide range of new and beautiful woods (Levien im­ported them) and the society was egalitarian in outlook — a place where a man could rise as high as his talents would let him. So, Anton migrated here and struggled to sell his magnificent inlay work.”

Ironically, he mostly succeeded in passing them back to overseas visitors returning home. The occa­sional large pieces provided more income and artistic satisfaction, but I suspect it was never easy.

“And now,” Peter Webb’s voice announces, “we have lot 220, a fine example of a marquetry wine table by Anton Seuffert, well known colo­nial furniture maker of Auckland. What am I bid? Six thousand dollars over there, $8000 at the back… $10,000 on my right… $12,000 in the centre, $14,000 on my right. I’ll take thousands.”

Two aproned boys hold the small table aloft.

“Fifteen thousand in the centre, $16,000 at the back, $17,000 in the centre. Any more bids?”

A stern rap of the hammer. “Sold!”

A second table, by William, fetches $13,000 a moment later. Both prices are 50 per cent higher than expected. Although long dead, Seuffert and son are still rising.

More by

More by National Museum