No caravans were involved in our caravan club visit to historic Government House. Just twelve keen and interested members who gathered outside the imposing gates, waiting to be let in by the policeman on duty for our pre-arranged tour. Most of our group had never been to this lovely historic building before, although we can admit to a couple of visits over the years. Staff member Owen welcomed our group and ushered us into the recently opened Visitors Centre, where we looked at the interesting artefacts on display and learnt of some of the history.
We watched a video of welcome from the current Governor General, Lt Gen Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparea, GNZM, QSO, our 36th Governor General. Then we went through to the small theatrette to watch a film. This historic little building was the former squash court, specially built for the the Earl of Liverpool, the 16th Governor General, (1912-1920) who declared that he really couldn’t take office without having a squash court on the premises! With our heads full of all sorts of interesting facts and figures, we then took the short walk up to Government House.
Government House was designed by John Campbell, and completed in 1910, on a prime plot of 54 acres. It contains eight guest suites, a self contained apartment for the Governor General and family, as well as a ballroom, conservatory, sitting rooms, service rooms, kitchens, and a wing of offices. After almost 100 years of use, the House was closed for major strengthening and refurbishments, at a cost of $40 million. It reopened for business in 2011, and Robin and I joined the huge crowds when we attended one of the very popular Open Days to admire the make-over.
Owen took us through the house starting at the Ballroom, which is used for receptions, concerts, balls, investitures and other award ceremonies. Most significantly, it is the room where the Prime Minister and his or her Ministers as sworn in as members of the Executive Council by the Governor-General after a General Election. At one end is the dais on which stand the two thrones. Above these hangs a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, painted by Denis Fildes in 1960. The two beautiful Czech crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling were completely disassembled and rewired with energy-efficient bulbs as part of the Conservation Project during the refurbishment.
I loved the airy conservatory with it’s black and white marble floor tiles, and the pretty outlook over the extensive gardens. From here we entered the adjoining Blundell and Porritt rooms, carpeted in a pretty pale blue and silver fern design. We were told the story of how Lady Freyberg lamented the fact that she did not have a sea view from any of the windows. To put things right, a folding screen by Peter McIntyre (official New Zealand war artist) was commissioned, depicting Wellington Harbour by day on one side and by night on the other.
The House is a treasure trove of paintings, silver and objects d’art carefully displayed. Cabinets full of treasures glittered under the lights, and we gazed in awe at diamond encrusted goodies and golden objects, gifts from very important people from exotic lands.
The Norrie State Dining Room is a very grand room indeed and features a long, extending table that dates from about 1880 and can seat up to 26 guests. It is where State Dinners for visiting Heads of State are often held. The room is named after Sir Willoughby (later Lord) and Lady Norrie (1952-7) who donated to New Zealand and Government House the remarkable royal portraits which are a feature of the room. In presenting the paintings to Prime Minister Holland, Lord Norrie said he was presenting the collection to thank New Zealand for the five happiest years of his life. Beautiful pieces of silver are on display, polished and glinting under the lights. The dining chairs are rather special, 38 tapestry chairs were created by branches of the Country Women’s Institute in the 1950s, for the cancelled visit of King George VI. The design on the back of each chair is the coat of arms of a New Zealand city or borough. And yes, we found the chair made in our new home town, Levin.
We were all very interested in the collection of 20 carved panels in the entrance hall. The panels display the full “Armorial achievements” of the last Governors, Lord Islington (1910-12), who was the first resident in the House, and the Earl of Liverpool (who was also the first Governor-General), and all subsequent Governors-General of New Zealand. This collection is believed to be unique among Commonwealth Government Houses.
Our tour finished with a walk in the gardens. With so many kowhai trees in full flower, it was no wonder that there were tuis everywhere. This was the former site of the Mt View Lunatic Asylum, and a remnant from that era, known as "Convict's Wall" still exists. Owen related that the bricks were made at Mt Cook Prison and as well as featuring arrows to show where they were made, the prisoners often added their own little touches to the bricks.
We walked back down the hill to the car park, and there was the lovely House peeping through the trees. It was such an interesting tour, and the elegantly refurbished House was a delight to see. We appreciated our informative guide Owen who related so many interesting stories throughout the morning.