Rita Angus Cottage
194A Sydney Street West, Thorndon, Wellington
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
Private/No Public Access
27th July 1988
Extent of List Entry
Extent includes the land described as Lot 1 DP 3562 (CT WN245/133), Wellington Land District, and the buildings known as the Rita Angus Cottage thereon, and its fittings and fixtures.
Lot 1 DP 3562 (CT WN245/133), Wellington Land District
This small cottage in Sydney Street West in Wellington was home to the artist Rita Angus from 1955 and inspired her creation of some of the best-known and most respected images in New Zealand modern art.
The early history of the cottage is not a well-documented one. The land was purchased by A.J Swanson in 1874. A mortgage was taken out in 1877, making this is the most likely date of original construction of the cottage. The cottage passed through a number of hands before being sold to Rita Angus in 1955. It is in the time between 1955 and 1970 when the cottage was the home of Rita Angus that it has gained so much of its importance and significance as a piece of the artistic and cultural history of New Zealand. Rita Angus, born in 1908 in Hastings, is one of New Zealand’s pioneering artists, bringing urban and industrial scenes to the foreground in place of the picturesque landscapes in fashion previously.
The cottage is simple and typical of the 1870s. Built in rustic weatherboard, the cottage has corner cover boards, with timber double-hung windows and panelled doors. There is a small basement space under the studio at the front, while the kitchen is in the back. The studio faces forward on the left of the cottage, while the verandah is on the right. The verandah is unusual in that it has steps up at one end, and access to the front door at the other. The cottage is composed of three main rooms, the studio, a bedroom and a living room. The kitchen is in a small lean to off the living room and there is a bathroom, which was brought inside around 1972. There are two outbuildings on the property; one housed the bathroom until 1972, the other, a geodesic dome built around 1972 following Angus’ death.
The almost wild nature of the gardens and the magnolia tree (Magnolia Soulangiana) are important aspects of the cottage’s history. The magnolia is one of the oldest of its kind in Wellington and is listed as a protected historic tree by the Wellington City Council. The magnolia featured in several of Angus’ works, making it not only a tree of importance to the landscape of the cottage, but also to the historical and artistic values of the property.
The importance and influence of her surroundings can immediately be seen in Angus’ works from her time at the cottage. Angus named the cottage Fernbank Studio, and it was there that she painted many of her most seminal pieces. Examples include ‘Self Portrait with Fruit’ in 1961, which depicts Angus, the cottage and the magnolia tree, and ‘Untitled, Artists Studio’ in 1961-3, which depicts a stark presentation of her own home and workspace.
Major developments occurred in her career while Angus was living in the Sydney Street cottage, including her first solo exhibition in 1957 and being awarded an Association of New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship. This period marks a growth in Angus’ confidence in herself as an artist, and her attachment to the cottage, to Thorndon and to Wellington as a whole. This confidence is evident in works such as ‘Houses, Thorndon, Wellington’ from 1964.
The simple cottage hidden away down a narrow path suited the lifestyle that Angus loved. Angus’ friend Frederick Page described the simple cottage as ‘a hidden house with a magnolia tree, one of those places that could turn up in a story...there was a touch of magic about it, mystery even, as though one day you could go and it wouldn’t be there’.
In the years following Angus’ death in 1970, the cottage passed to her family and was a rental property until 1984. During this time, the cottage was at risk of demolition so that townhouses could be built, but, due to the poor access to the site, considerable protest from surrounding property owners, as well as letters in support of the retention of the cottage from well-known artists such as Colin McCahon, this did not go ahead. In 1976, new zoning put in place by the Wellington City Council aimed to protect the special character of the Sydney Street West, Tinakori Road, and Hill Street area by preserving the existing buildings and limiting new developments. This zoning was the first of its type in New Zealand.
This recognition of the special nature of the landscape and the importance of the cottage, prompted the Thorndon Trust to purchase the cottage and secure its future. Restoration of the cottage began in 1984. The cottage was re-piled, re-roofed, re-wired, re-floored, had new plumbing, kitchen fixtures put in as well as having general repairs carried out and throughout all of this the cottage has been kept ‘as it was when Rita lived in it’.
The cottage is now used as an artist’s residence so that New Zealand artists can continue to be influenced by the cottage, the magnolia and the Wellington landscape, drawing inspiration from Angus’ muse.
Historical Significance or Value
The documented history of the house begins on 6 September 1877 with a recorded mortgage to the Trustees of the Permanent Equitable Building and Investment Society to a Mr Bright, repaid in 1833.
His widow Mary Swanson sold the land and house in 1916 to Catherine Duignan. It passed through several other hands to Henrietta Catherine McKenzie (Rita Angus) in 1955 and subsequently to the Thorndon Trust. It is between 1955 and 1970 that, as the home of Rita Angus, this modest cottage assumes importance in the artistic and cultural life of New Zealand.
Many paintings of the house, the garden, the Bolton Street Cemetery and the buildings of the neighbourhood attest to the great influence this place had on the life of the artist.
Few homes of New Zealand artists have played such an important role in providing inspiration and subject matter. It was a place close to the artist, and much loved.
None, other than as the most discreet house in the Residential E Zone. It is sited in a natural hollow, emphasized by mature growth all around it. The roof is all that can be seen from public roads.
Architectural Description (Style):
Plain four-roomed cottage, typical of the 1870's with rusticated weatherboards, corner cover boards, double-hung sashes with single glazing bars, plain vertical balusters to verandah balustrade. Bay villa form with main room projecting forward of verandah; unusual plan with door at end of verandah; unusual plan with door at end of verandah into side of hall. Kitchen in small lean-to.
Not extensive. WC moved inside into bathroom early 1970s and other repairs and upgrading carried out at that time. Major repairs, including repiling, re-roofing, new plumbing, wiring, and kitchen fittings carried out by the Thorndon Trust (with assistance of WCC and NZHPT) in 1984.
Good representative example of simple cottage of 1870s.
Magnolia tree in front garden (Magnolia Soulangiana) is one of the oldest of its type in Wellington (Planted c.1920). This features in some paintings e.g. 'Evening'.
Drains laid for A.J Swanson
Bathroom added, minor repairs and upgrades.
Addition of new piles, flooring, roofing, gutters and drainpipes, repairs to gas supply, rewiring, repairs to bathroom, new fixtures in kitchen.
Addition of new hot water cylinder
1998 Cottage painted by W & R Hamilton Contractors Limited. Specification and supervision by Chris Cochran.
Timber framing and sheathing, concrete piles, corrugated iron roof sheathing.
Coke, Merrill, ‘Angus Exhibition Returns, Cottage Faces Restoration’, The Evening Post, June 27 1984.
New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)
New Zealand Historic Places Trust
Cochran, Chris, John Burns and Michael McDonald, ‘Buildings Classification Committee Report-194a Sydney Street’ for the Wellington Regional Committee of the Historic Places Trust, 17 February 1978.
Chris Cochran, ‘Rita Angus Cottage Conservation Report’, for Thorndon Trust Inc, 1 February 1999.
This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. This report includes the text from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.
A fully referenced Upgrade Report is available from the central region office of NZHPT.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.