Dorothy Michaelis Theomin (1888-1966) was a mountaineer, a photographer of mountains, an avid traveler, and a philanthropist who lived most of her life in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her family were powerful and cosmopolitan people who loved the arts, architecture, and gardens. They made their fortune by importing pianos to New Zealand in the Edwardian era, when they built their family home, Olveston.
When Dorothy Theomin died in 1966, she left Olveston, the grounds, and the impressive art and furnishings collections in trust to the city of Dunedin. It remains a fascinating glimpse into privileged Edwardian society in a colonial setting. There was much to hold my attention when I visited in March 2013. The flowers in the garden particularly attracted me. Not only were they beautiful, they also, like the furniture, paintings, and very modern fittings of the kitchen, spoke to the family’s identification with the then-British Empire, and the entwined histories of botany and imperialism.
The Spider Chrysanthemum (above) was first cultivated in China, then Japan. It eventually found its way from England to America by way of a military man, Colonel John Stevens, who brought it to New Jersey to beautify the country’s first baseball pitch in 1798.
The gardens of Olveston are filled with other blooms, some very humble, such as the Purpletop Verbena (above) and the Cosmos flower (below).
Symbolic, main stage flowers such as the English Rose (below) and the giant Dahlia (further below) take pride of place.
The Olveston house and its contents deserve further study. Together, these do provide the visitor with a “time capsule” experience of Dunedin’s past, as the Olveston Trust website states. But they are also a fascinating window into what was, at the time, highly modern. Among the family’s collections of Japanese armour, Italian masters, and Chinese jade and ceramics can be found what were the latest kitchen inventions and a number of paintings by the artist Frances Mary Hodgkins (1869-1947), who would have been at the height of her powers at the time that the family collected her work.
Like Dorothy Theomin, Hodgkins was constantly on the move in her at times difficult life as an artist. Both made images under extreme physical conditions, and often when their physical health would have been a challenge. But Hodgkins nevertheless painted prolifically up until her death and was honoured many times in her lifetime as one of New Zealand’s foremost artists.
When I look at my series of photographs of the flowers in the Olveston gardens, I feel a living link to these women, their creativity, and resilience. While the house was arrested in time, at the moment of Dorothy Theomin’s death, the flowers grow in the same landscaping that had been created during her lifetime. They are the descendants of the flowers once planted by Theomin and her family.