Lyttelton to Diamond Harbour is a lovely drive, bringing postcard-perfect harbour views at every bend. My destination today is picturesque Stoddart Cottage, not far from Diamond Harbour’s village centre.
It is a historically evocative site, associated with renowned Canterbury impressionist painter Margaret Olrog Stoddart, who was born at the cottage on 3 October 1865. Her Scottish father, Mark, had completed the building a few years earlier using materials imported from Australia. The family farmed on the headland, known as Stoddart Point, until 1876 before setting sail for Edinburgh. They were away for three years but returned to Canterbury and, in 1882, Margaret enrolled at the Canterbury College School of Art. This was the starting point of a long and illustrious career that saw her become one of the first women to succeed as a professional artist in New Zealand. Over the years, her artistic focus shifted from botanical studies to increasingly impressionistic landscapes. She painted and exhibited successfully not just in New Zealand but also Australia, Europe and Great Britain.
However, her warm and impressionistic local scenes – of Stoddart Cottage, the wharf at Diamond Harbour and Godley House – still rank as some of her most-loved works. Many of her paintings are held in the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū collection.
Stoddart Cottage today, with its tidy white picket fence and cottage garden, retains a strong sense of continuity with the past. The carpark is by a stand of tall eucalypts, beloved of local bellbirds; these fast-growing trees were first established in the area by Mark Stoddart with timber used for posts, fencing battens and rails.
Inside the cottage is a room that serves as a small museum, displaying artefacts recovered during earthquake repair work in 2017. Among the finds was a haul of black beer bottles. Excerpts from Mark Stoddart’s diary indicate that he, along with friends and family, continued to enjoy life after coming here! Other items found included pin cushion dolls, bottle stoppers, pipes, keys, items of cutlery and crockery shards. An imposing 1871 photo of the Stoddart family on one wall shows six-year-old Margaret on her father’s knee.
This is not just a place to connect with the past though, as Stoddart Cottage also houses a delightful art exhibition space and a craft co-op, showcasing work from the local creative community. Since the cottage formally re-opened in April 2017, following full earthquake repairs, these two
initiatives have been flourishing. Margaret Stoddart’s old family home is clearly in good hands, at the heart of a thriving creative community.
‘The exhibition space is now booked up by artists until the end of 2020 and the craft co-op is going from strength to strength with over 30 members to date,’ says Paula Smith, who chairs the Stoddart Cottage Trust, founded in 1998 following an earlier restoration by a team of volunteers.
It is a wonderful comeback story, given how badly damaged the cottage was in the earthquakes and aftershocks of 2011/12. The Trust itself practically ceased to exist for a time, with no meetings held between 2011 and 2014.
‘I remember coming across Paula in the garden one day and both of us looking through the windows and seeing all the rubble from the collapsed chimneys,’ recalls cottage manager Charlotte McCoy.
Temporary repairs enabled the cottage to re-open to the public in mid-2014, with the Trust then regrouping but still struggling to get enough volunteers. The cottage then closed again for a second round of repairs. It was around this time that the plan was formulated to offer the cottage as a base for an arts and crafts co-op. It was formed not long after the fully repaired cottage re-opened again in April 2017.
Effectively, the cottage today operates as a sustainable social enterprise, with small commissions from monthly art exhibitions and craft co-op sales used by the Trust to fund heritage activities and events. Visitor numbers are growing steadily. ‘We think a visit to the cottage is part of a great day out in Diamond Harbour,’ observes Paula.
On the day of my visit, the cottage gallery has an exhibition by semi-professional local photographer Steve Howard called Weaving Light from the Mountains to the Sea. His focus is on nightscape and landscape imagery in and around Lyttelton Harbour, Banks Peninsula and the Canterbury high country. Steve is well-known locally for his interesting use of light and artful creativity and several of his images were recently selected for wider publication by Getty Images.
The craft co-op boasts high-standard craft products, from wooden toys to ceramics, soaps, cards and artwork, jewellery, knitwear and quilted items.
The Trust leases the cottage from the Christchurch City Council and its charitable purpose is to promote and preserve the building’s unique heritage. Often the heritage and art themes overlap here. Last August, the cottage hosted an exhibition called Impressionable, featuring works by senior students at Diamond Harbour School, inspired by Margaret’s story to produce their own impressionist art.‘Some of them were little masterpieces,’ says Charlotte.
Volunteers help keep the cottage open and accessible to the public three days a week: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm. A long-term goal for the Stoddart Cottage Trust is to acquire a small number of Margaret Stoddart paintings for permanent display.
People who may wish to bequest a Margaret Stoddart painting to the Trust, or who may wish to make a donation, can get in touch with Paula online: facebook.com/StoddartCottage
Canterbury’s Impressionist Painter: Margaret Stoddart, 1865-1934
• Born 3 October 1865 at Stoddart Cottage to Mark and Anna (nee Schjott) Stoddart.
• When Margaret was 11, her family sold their farm and left Diamond Harbour bound for Scotland. Margaret and her sister attended school in Edinburgh before the family returned to New Zealand in 1879 to live at Fendalton’s Lismore Lodge.
• In 1882, Margaret enrolled at the Canterbury College School of Art. She was only 17 when she made her debut in the Canterbury Society of Arts’ annual exhibition.
• Expeditions to the high country and to the Chatham Islands fuelled her passion for capturing botanical treasures and local scenes.
• She went to Melbourne in 1894 and successfully exhibited there.
• In 1897 she moved back to Diamond Harbour with her two sisters and mother to live and work in ‘the Big House’ (later known as Godley House).
• A year later, Margaret left for England and settled in St Ives, Cornwall, the centre of English impressionism. During nine years abroad, she honed her eye for landscapes and painted and exhibited widely. Her work was shown at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français in Paris for seven years in succession, as well as at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. In London, she exhibited at the Baillie Gallery.
• Before returning to New Zealand in 1906, she exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts with the Society of Women Artists. She then resumed her old life at Diamond Harbour with her landscapes of that time considered her best work of local subjects.
• In 1913, the Stoddart estate was sold to Lyttelton Borough Council. Before leaving Diamond Harbour for the last time, Margaret painted one of her best known works of Godley House.
• A year later, she settled in Hackthorne Road, Cashmere where she continued to paint and gave private painting lessons, as well as participating in philanthropic activities and the city’s cultural life.
• Margaret worked continuously from 1914 until her death in 1934, capturing many Christchurch scenes and iconic natural landscapes.
Source: The Painter, Margaret Stoddart 1865–1934 – Stoddart Cottage
WORDS & IMAGES Kim Newth