Treasured art lost in blaze

Last updated 05:00 22/01/2014
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Max O'Leary
Fire razed the home of John Matthews to the ground.

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Art collectors John and Lynda Matthews watched their life's passion go up in flames just minutes after being woken by the screeching of a fire alarm at their Omata house.

Their home and a majority of their nationally significant contemporary New Zealand art collection featuring major works by Don Driver, Ralph Hotere, Tony Fomison and Michael Smither went up in flames at around 12.30am yesterday.

The couple initially attempted to douse the flames with fire hoses and extinguishers but were quickly overwhelmed.

By the time fire crews arrived it was too late and they were left with little more than the pyjamas they wore to bed that night.

"I thought I had put it out. I thought for a moment I had achieved it. But some flames must have got into the ceiling cavity and then you have really had it. Once it got in there it really rocketed along," Mr Matthews said yesterday.

The flames devoured millions of dollars worth of art collected over the last 50 years, many commissioned specifically by the Matthews for their home. The destruction of the works has shocked the country's art community and left the couple reeling.

"You keep these artworks and treasures for the artists and people who enjoy looking at the works. That is the big disappointment. They are gone. It's all gone," Mr Mathews said.

Mr Matthews is well known in Taranaki for his role as chairman of the Len Lye Foundation and his tireless promotion of the artist's work.

He designed and built New Plymouth's landmark Wind Wand and has been instrumental in making the city's Len Lye Centre a reality. He is also the owner of Waiwhakaiho engineering firm Technix Group.

Len Lye Foundation trustee and emeritus professor at Auckland University Roger Horrocks said the Matthews' art collection was one of the most important private collections in the country.

"By importance I mean a collection that any public gallery would be excited to exhibit. John would be among a small group of people in New Zealand who have created a large collection with a distinctive taste and a very serious love of art.

"I think it is a tragedy that the art has been lost. It's a great blow for New Zealand art as well as a great blow for John and Lynda."

Former Govett-Brewster Art Gallery director Rhana Devenport said news of the collection's destruction reduced her to tears.

Now director of the Auckland Art Gallery, she said all of the lost works were unique and could not be reproduced.

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"Some could say he could build another Wind Wand. He does have the ability to do that. However, those individual works, he had a very personal eye, a unique eye, he had a great sense of humour and intrigue in terms of artists' works.

"He was extremely adventurous in the works he had amassed in the decades. I wouldn't say it's a typical collection. It's a very unique reflection of John and Lynda's interests and passions," she said.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined but Mr Matthews' said he suspected a neon globe light on one of the works could be to be blame.

The couple were woken by smoke alarms that automatically alerted the fire brigade.

New Plymouth Senior Station Officer Ian Drewery said there had been a "total loss" of property and the house was burnt to the ground.

Fighting the fire at the rural location had been complicated by the lack of a reticulated water supply. Two water tankers were called in to keep the seven fire appliances supplied with water.

"With the wind and the speed the fire was racing through the house it was too dangerous to launch an interior attack," he said.

The efforts of the fire brigades became limited to ensuring the blaze did not spread to nearby vegetation, he said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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