Late last year, I had an amazing opportunity to meet Bill Toomath, and explore his Roseneath house. In particular, the building features a dramatic addition – a study room that was designed to replicate a scene from the 15th century painting, St Jerome in his Study.
My impressions of the ‘design den’ were that it seemed very functional, easily storing a huge array of books, as well as providing areas for reading, drawing and computer use. The timeless geometry of the replica seems to fit in perfectly with the modern New Zealand building, just as it did in the original chapel. Furthermore, the room has a great mediation of light, and some stunning views out to the harbour. All in all, an amazing work space.
The rest of the house was also excellent: a 60’s modernist building in Roseneath, clad in dark timber, and the middle of a row of 3 Toomath-designed houses.
The painting itself depicts St. Jerome working on the Vulgate, the first translation of the bible into Latin. Although the translation took place in the 4th century, Jerome is depicted in an environment contemporary to the painting’s time period (15th century). A few more facts for those interested:
The scene is devised such that the light rays coincide with the perspective axes, centering on the saints’s bust and hands.
The lion in the shadows to the right of the saint is from a story where St. Jerome pulls a thorn out of a lion’s paws. In gratitude, the lion follows St. Jerome around for the rest of his life, like a house cat. The peacock and partridge have no importance to the story of St. Jerome. However, the peacock more generally symbolizes immortality (something that a saint would be guaranteed in heaven) and the partridge symbolizes the truth of Christ (another thing a saint would be especially concerned with).
William (Bill) Toomath is of course, a renowned Wellington architect, and has been a key proponent of New Zealand modernism. Having studied architecture at Auckland University, he was one of the founding members of the Architectural Group (be sure to check this link – 1950’s news reports are always worth it). Later studying at Harvard Graduate school of design, Bill worked briefly with major international figures such as Walter Gropius and I.M. Pei, before returning to New Zealand in 1954. Having been in practice since, some of his major projects include Wool House, Wellington Teachers’ College, the Mackay house and the Toomath Senior house.
Bill and his study were the subject of the documentary Antonello and the Architect, which was shown at the 2007 JASMAX film festival. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see it myself, but from what I’d heard, it was played to a very warm reception. The DVD is available for purchase here.