Janet Frame's desk
The International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) is home to one of New Zealand's most unusual literary treasures: the Landfall/Janet Frame Desk.
The desk sits just inside our front door, beneath photographs of its two previous owners, Charles Brasch and Janet Frame. Charles Brasch was the founding editor of the literary journal Landfall and used the desk for twenty years, after which he gave it to Janet Frame. She wrote several books at it, including what some readers believe to be her greatest work, her three-volume autobiography.
You can read about the desk's complex and interesting history in the conservation report, below.
Read Janet Frame's poem, 'The Landfall Desk'
View Debbie Litchfield's photos of the desk, published in the 2001 issue of Turbine.
Chris Cochran BArch ANZIA
20 Glenbervie Terrace, Thorndon
Wellington, New Zealand
Telephone & Fax 04-472 8847
10 March 1997
Deputy Works Registrar
Victoria University of Wellington
PO Box 600
Janet Frame's writing desk
Thank you for your letter of 18 December 1996 regarding Janet Frame's writing desk, which is destined to be used in one of the rooms of the Creative Writing Course run by Bill Manhire. As requested I have examined the desk, and prepared the following Conservation Report.
There is nothing remarkable about the design of the Janet Frame desk - it is ordinary and comfortable. The top measures 1525 x 905 mm, and it is 685 mm high; there are four drawers, two on each side, with a sitting space between. Each pair of drawers is supported by four legs, giving the desk eight legs altogether.
The desk is built of rimu, mostly 20 mm thick boards, with the legs 50 mm square; all the visible timber has a dark stained finish. It has a leatherette top set back from the edge, and back from the edge and drawer pulls, made of a bronzed metal. It is a well built piece of New Zealand joinery, possibly dating from the 1930s.
The most dramatic thing about the condition of the desk is that it is in two pieces. The top of the desk, including the leatherette, has been sawn through alongside the left hand pair of drawers; the cut was made from one side and then the other, and they did not quite meet. The two pieces have been rejoined with three timber dowels let into the end grain of the timber top, but these are now loose and broken. A rail that originally joined the inner legs at the back and directly underneath the top is now missing.
Other matters relevant to the condition of the desk are:
- The legs have been sawn off to reduce the height of the desk.
- The leatherette top is loose around the edges and torn, particularly on the right hand part.
- There are no stops to the bottom right hand drawer.
- There is a red ink stain on the top of the right hand part.
Otherwise the general condition is good, with joints tight and timber sound. The desk is worn and serviceable, with visible record of its history of ownership and use in the fabric.
The literary origins of the desk go back to Landfall magazine. According to Janet Frame (footnote 1), the desk was used by Charles Brasch, the founder editor of Landfall, to edit and lay out the magazine during his editorship; this was from the first issue in March 1947 until his retirement with the 80th issue, December 1966. Landfall was then produced in Christchurch, and Brasch offered the 'Landfall desk' to Janet Frame, then living at 61 Evans Street, Dunedin.
Janet Frame sawed the legs off the desk to give a more comfortable working height, and used it for writing from that time.
In 1968, Frame travelled to the United States for a year, and on her return she was met by a friend, Dorothy Ballantyne, who had been looking after her house for her. Dorothy greeted Janet with the bad news that tenants in the house had sawn the Landfall desk in half, a matter which was dismissed by Janet as of no consequence. She thereafter used the desk with the two parts simply pushed together.
Much of Janet Frame's writing over the period c.1966 to c.1989 (other than when she was overseas) was done at the desk, and included her three autobiographical works written in Levin:
- To the Is-Land, The Women's Press and Hutchinson, 1983
- An Angel at my Table, Hutchinson, 1984
- The Envoy from Mirror City, Hutchinson, 1985.
- She also used it to write The Carpathians, Century Hutchinson, 1988.
Giselle and Kevin McCashin live at 30 Bowen Street, Levin, having moved there in about 1986. They became friends with Janet Frame who lived at 32 Bowen Street, although things had apparently not started smoothly between them as Janet put a 'For Sale' sign on her house several days after they moved in (footnote 2). A baby, dog and lawn mower may have caused Janet to be concerned about noise despite her windows being double-glazed. However, the McCashins finished building a fence between the properties, they became good neighbours, and when Janet moved to Shannon in about 1989 she gave the McCashins the writing desk, referred to as the 'Landfall desk', and other household things. Kevin McCashin joined the two parts of the desk together with the 3 dowels and put it in his office/ garage; he used it to do the accounts for his Levin business, which was selling books.
Giselle McCashin is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington, having studied literature and language and graduating BA in 1977. On 11 February 1996, she wrote to the University (footnote 3) asking for help in finding a 'special home' for a desk which had been given to her by Janet Frame. It needed a place where 'it would be appreciated as a special part of the N. Z. literary heritage'.
Roger Robinson, Professor of English, replied on behalf of the University (footnote 4); he subsequently arranged to collect the desk from Levin using his own trailer and deliver it to the von Zedlitz Building, where today it awaits repair.
It would be hard to over estimate the literary significance of the desk because of its close association with Charles Brasch and Janet Frame, two extremely important figures in New Zealand's literary and cultural history.
Charles Brasch (1909 - 1973), was a widely published and collected poet, and is remembered as 'an influential figure in New Zealand writing, especially through his work as founding editor of the literary magazine Landfall.' (footnote 5)
'Janet Frame (b.1924) is New Zealand's most celebrated living writer. Among many national and international awards she has won are the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, the New Zealand Scholarship in Letters and the Turnovsky Prize. Janet Frame has been both a Robert Burns and a Sargeson Fellow. She has been made an Additional Member of the Order of New Zealand and she is an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has been awarded the CBE, an honorary doctorate from the University of Otago, an honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato, and the Massey University Medal.' (footnote 6)
Two of the autobiographical novels written on the desk, To the Is-Land and The Envoy from Mirror City, each won the Wattie Book of the Year Award, and An Angel at my Table was awarded the Non-Fiction Prize, New Zealand Book Awards, in 1984. The Carpathians won the 1989 Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ansett New Zealand Book Award.
It is not uncommon for objects of cultural value, that derive their significance from ownership or use by a famous person, to be devoid of any outward sign of the association. In the case of this desk however, the signs are clear and dramatic. Frame herself cut the legs of the desk down to a more comfortable height, thus personalising the piece of furniture. It was later cut in two by her tenants, and their lack of skill with a saw is evident in the need to make two cuts, one from each side, that furthermore do not meet in the middle; Frame saw no need to effect permanent repairs and continued to use the desk over the next 20 years. Another indication of a general lack of concern for a functional object is shown by the torn and stained top to the desk. Something of Janet Frame's personality and work habits can thus be read from this modest piece of furniture.
I presume from the sequence of ownership, and documentary evidence, that the significant 'marks' on the desk are attributable to the time of Frame's ownership rather than Brasch's. Even if marks do not tell the story of its early ownership by Brasch, its use by him in the preparation of Landfall and its gifting to Frame are significant events in its history and add greatly to its cultural value.
Given this history, I believe it is more appropriate to call it the Landfall/Janet Frame desk, acknowledging the dual reasons for its literary significance.
Other values associated with the desk are insignificant in comparison with its literary importance. In terms of design, joinery technology and materials, the desk is ordinary for its time and there must be many similar examples extant. Many would be in better condition.
It is built from solid timber boards, the desk top made by jointing wide (up to 290 mm) boards, so that it pre-dates the use of plywood and other composite sheet materials that are common in similar furniture today. This gives the desk a modest technical interest.
It likewise has a modest aesthetic value derived from its solid timber construction and its straightforward and practical design.
I understand from you that you want a piece of furniture that is usable and functional to the extent that it can be moved around, sat at and written upon. The cultural values embodied in the desk must be preserved, yet it is not to be solely a museum piece.
I have taken as a guide to conservation philosophy the ICOMOS New Zealand Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Heritage Value. While this document applies to buildings and places, principles relevant to the treatment of the Landfall/Janet Frame desk can be extracted from it. The desk shares with historic buildings the conservation challenge of keeping or making an object of cultural heritage useful while preserving its essential qualities.
Work on the desk should therefore:
- Involve the least possible loss of historic fabric;
- Involve the least possible change to the fabric while rendering the object functionally useful;
- Respect the evidence of time and history inherent in the fabric;
- Be carried out using original or like materials;
- Be reversible where possible, and
- Be properly documented.
I have set out below a proposal for conservation that follows these principles.
The work needed is repair rather than restoration. I have not written a specification, since I understand from you that your own works staff are likely to carry out the work. If this is the case, and if you accept my recommended method of treatment, then I suggest that I meet with the joiner and discuss and finalise the details of the work with him.
The recommended method of repair is:
- Repair Splits - If possible, repair splits in the right hand part of the desk top without removing the leatherette; insert glue into the splits and cramp together.
- Join Desk - Rejoin the two parts of the desk, method to be discussed. It may be a new doweling system, possibly using and improving the three existing dowels. The cut surfaces to be brought together but not planed flush, although surfaces can be glued.
- Fix New Rail - As part of the joining of the two parts, fix new rail between the inner legs at the back, glued and screwed; new heart rimu, 95 x 20 mm dressed size, stained finish to match existing.
- Fix Existing Leatherette - Unfold and flatten the frayed and torn edges of the leatherette top to the desk; glue loose edges; glue to be soluble/reversible.
- New Drawer Stop - Glue new drawer stop to runners of the bottom right hand drawer.
- Clean and Polish - Clean leatherette with a neutral detergent. Lightly polish the timber with an ordinary furniture polish; do not attempt to remove or disguise blemishes.
- Identify New Material - Date stamp the new rail with the month and year and the name of the joiner who has done the work.
I can see no need to restrict the use of the desk once it has been treated in the manner described above. Vandalism excluded, the only threat appears to come from excessive light levels in the south-west corner bay window of the von Zedlitz Building where you propose to locate it. To counter this, you might have a cloth over the desk, particularly when the room is not in use during vacations.
The provenance of the desk should be available to those interested. A small plaque could be fixed to the wall near where the desk is to sit, and perhaps a copy of this report could be kept in one of the drawers. It may be appropriate at some time to have a student carry out further research and write the story more fully. A graphic evocation of its history would be to have copies of the books written on it kept in one of the drawers, in which case one of the locks could be cleaned and oiled and a key made.
Otherwise, the desk will continue to age and in due time will have added cultural value as students in the Creative Writing Course perhaps go on to become well known for their own writing.Thank you for the commission to report on the Janet Frame desk. I have enjoyed it.
1: As told by Janet Frame to Michael King and retold to CC in a conversation 24 February 1997. (back to text)
2: Conversation with Giselle McCashin, 24 February 1997. (back to text)
3: See copy of the letter in the Appendix, McCashin to the University, 11 February 1996. (back to text)
4: See copy of the letter in the Appendix, 19 February 1996. (back to text)
5: From 100 New Zealand Poems, Bill Manhire, Godwit Press, 1993. (back to text)
6: Elizabeth Alley in The Inward Sun, Celebrating the Life and Work of Janet Frame, Daphne Brasell Associates Press, 1994. (back to text)