The Kinder House


After many years of neglect, the stone, two-storeyed house in Ayr Street, Parnell, known as the Kinder house, has been renovated and opened to the public as a gallery and memorial to its first and most distinguished resident, the Reverend John Kinder. John Kinder, who is recognised today as one of our most original nineteenth century artists, emigrated to New Zealand in 1855 to take up a position at the Church of England Grammar School in Auckland as Master. Cambridge educated, he left England to escape from the restraints of teaching in a small school at Uttoxeter, in Staffordshire, where his strict religious principles had made him unpopular with the town's shopkeepers and merchants.

JOHN KINDER Self Portrait c1862
(private collection, Auckland)

The fortunes of the family were at a low ebb at the time. His father's death had left John with the responsibility of looking after his mother, younger brother and four sisters. His brother Henry and sister Charlotte came to Auckland in 1853, hoping to find fortune in the young colony and prepare the way for the rest of the family to follow.

John Kinder sailed for Auckland in 1855 with his mother and sister Fanny to start a new life. They were met at the wharf by Charlotte and Henry, who had obtained a job at the Union Bank. While the school was being built John Kinder rented a spacious house in Karangahape Road known as Mr Keven's House.

JOHN KINDER The Master's House, Ayr Street c1866 
(collection of The Auckland Institute and Museum Library)

It was not until the end of 1857 that Kinder was able to move into the Master's House at Ayr Street: a house which was built for him. This was a building of some size and consequence in Auckland at a time when small timber dwellings were the rule. Built to the design of Frederick Thatcher, one of Bishop Selwyn's architects, the Kinder house was the grandest of three stone dwellings erected at Parnell by the mason Benjamin Strange in 1857-58. It cost the considerable sum of £1,404.10.10. This was twice the cost of the Deanery nearby; but the rent was also high - £90 a year.

Built of Rangitoto volcanic stone, the Kinder house is of rubble construction, with dressed stone around the doors and windows. It has a small entrance hall leading to the downstairs dining and living rooms. French doors open on to the garden at the rear. The windows are small casements, with the glass set in the diamond pattern popular with Thatcher and used in the Selwyn buildings. The house is dimly lit by modern standards and, being set close to the ground, may well have been damp in the winter. The interior walls are plain, with a smooth plaster finish, enriched by the use of timber in the entrance hall and the stair. From the exterior, the steep pitch of the gables and the fine detail of the corbelled chimney give a visual interest to the building; as does the texture of the stone.

JOHN KINDER Portrait of Celia Kinder c1862
The Auckland Institute and Museum Library

Little is known about the interior of the house when Kinder moved in to live there with his mother and sister Fanny (who remained a spinster). All of his photographs of the house show the exterior and the garden rather than the rooms of the house: with the possible exception of stereoscopic prints depicting the Kinder ladies having a meal at the kitchen table. These small prints (now in the School of Architecture Library, Auckland University) must date to about 1866-67. They show John Kinder's wife, Celia, whom he married in 1859, with Fanny, and another rather plump lady who may be Kinder's mother (though she looks too young). The child seated between Fanny and Celia Kinder is almost certainly Nessie Kinder, the daughter of Henry, whom John and Celia adopted in 1866.

Certainly, living conditions in the house must have been somewhat cramped. In addition to John, his wife, his mother and two adopted children, there were several boarders and quite often guests to accommodate. We know that the family had brought from England some fine Georgian furniture originally owned by Thomas Kinder, John's father. There were miniatures and a cut-down portrait of John's mother on view as well as samples of his own watercolours and photographs.

JOHN KINDER The Kinder Ladies c1866,
portion of a stereoscopic print  (collection of The School of Architecture Library)

Since John was not the only artist in the family, it is likely that paintings by his younger sister Sarah also found a place on the walls. Sarah had married a Mr Tracey and had gone to live in Odessa, Russia, where she made watercolours of Russian peasants in traditional costume. She was also an accomplished amateur flower painter of charm if not great distinction. Several of her watercolours have been donated to the Kinder house. Later in her life, in 1878, Sarah came as a widow to live in Dunedin with her sister Mary. Charlotte also painted in watercolour. It is possible that John may have encouraged the talents of his sisters when they were children in England.

The Kinders certainly saw themselves as people of quality and education, despite the somewhat straightened circumstances they were reduced to when they first arrived in Auckland. In her first letters written from New Zealand, Charlotte speaks of the novelty of cooking. She had not done any before. Celia complained about the difficulties of getting good servants in Auckland to help with the domestic chores. It is probably misleading to imagine the Kinder ladies being overly concerned with the menial tasks of housekeeping. Instead, they were able to cultivate the arts of painting and sketching as well as engage in needlework. A family chess set suggests there was also time for the intellectual demands of that game in amongst the duties to church and school. John Kinder was a keen gardener who planted the grounds of his house with trees and shrubs.

JOHN KINDER The Kinder House from Ayr Street c1866,
(collection of The School of Architecture Library)

While he was resident in the house Kinder used it as a major motif in his photography and painting. His photographs include views from various angles and directions. One fine print shows the view from Ayr Street looking through the open gate through the door and hall to a curtain draping the French windows in the living room. Although there are no people shown, the feeling of their presence is strong and the implied invitation to traverse the path and enter the house irresistible. In this print the sensitivity of the photographer to the texture of stone, of the wooden fence and the leaves of the trees, is outstanding, as is the control of tone. Although there is a documentary quality to Kinder's vision it is never pedestrian. There is a sense of control, of selection, of premeditation. Kinder's is not an art of impulse or accident. For Kinder the house and its garden provided a suitable setting for taking portrait photographs of family and friends. The Ayr Street doorway was a favoured place. Here he took a self-portrait showing himself leaning on the stone architrave with studied casualness. His wife Celia was photographed there, an d also in the garden under a tree. In his photography Kinder felt able to tackle subjects that his limited skills as a draftsman prevented him attempting in his sketches.

By the time John Kinder left Ayr Street in 1872 to go into residence at St John's College he had made the house and its garden very much a part of his art and life. The building has remained closely identified with him over the subsequent one hundred and ten years. It is fitting that it should now become the first art museum of its kind in New Zealand devoted to the memory of a notable amateur artist and colonist.

JOHN KINDER The Master's House, Ayr Street
(collection of The School of Architecture Library)

Originally published in Art New Zealand 23 Autumn 1982