19th Century Minimalism

August 20, 2021

When Michael Shepherd announced that he was going to take us to one of the most remarkable pieces of 19th Century stonework in New Zealand, he wasn’t kidding. On a foggy morning in July, we drove out to the craggy landscape of schist tors and outcrops south of Alexandra – not anticipating the extraordinary assemblage of stonework hewn from (and folded into) the land at Mitchell’s Cottage.

As we walked up towards the beautifully constructed, modest cottage, Michael directed us towards one of the most astounding objects I have ever seen in New Zealand (and one that I would have loved to have known about when I wrote ‘Vernacular’ with David Straight).

It is interesting to consider both the needs and impulses that drive people to make things. In the case of this minimalist, roughly hexagonal table, its function is self-evident, but the effort involved in carving this geometric slab from a solid schist outcrop is difficult to fathom.

Michael’s comment was that the makers of this stone table (formed by two brothers involved in the gold rush in New Zealand) were true artists. The hexagonal form, and deliberate proportions and placement, certainly involve far greater attention than one would normally afford to an informal table in the landscape.

My guess is that stone was extracted from this outcrop for use within the buildings, and a poetic approach was adapted to the way in which the outcrop was finished. There is no way of knowing whether I’m correct or not, but it would seem to be an improbably extravagant use of one’s time to carve such a large outcrop down by 500mm over much of its area to achieve this effect. After all, economy with one’s efforts is a significant factor in many vernacular stoneworking traditions.

A similarly elevated perspective on the creation of structures for everyday purposes is also demonstrated in the stone cubicle formed at the base of the outcrop shown above – which is assumed to have functioned as a cooler.

As one can see in the image below, this cubicle and the stone wall on the lower side of the sheep fold sit poetically within the landscape – no doubt due in large part to the sensibility that John and Andrew Mitchell brought from the Shetland Islands (where the latter learnt their local masonry traditions from their father). The simplicity and spareness of the stonework at Mitchell’s Cottage far exceed the functional requirements of people settling in a place – making this a masterpiece of not just craftsmanship, but art.