Page 1: Biography
Reeve, Alice Elsie
This biography, written by Angela Lassig, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Alice Elsie Reeve, known as Elsie Reeve for most of her life, was one of the first women to pursue a career as a professional jeweller in New Zealand. She was born in Ascot Vale, Melbourne, Australia, on 23 March 1885, the eldest daughter of Cornelia Petty and her husband, Alfred Reeve, a chemist. From an early age Elsie suffered from fibrosis of the lungs, a degenerative condition. Although little is known of her childhood or early education, she commenced studies at the School of Art attached to the Regent Street Polytechnic Institute in London immediately after leaving school. After several years she won the school's highest honour for design: a silver medal and an accompanying scholarship which entitled her to a further year of study. Having previously concentrated on textile design, Reeve used her scholarship year to acquire metalworking skills, with particular emphasis on enamelling. These skills enabled her to embark on a successful career as a jeweller.
In January 1909 Elsie Reeve, her parents and two sisters arrived in New Zealand on the Ionic and settled in Wellington, where Alfred Reeve registered as a dentist. Elsie established herself as an 'artist in enamels' in a studio in Lambton Quay, an area then considered the hub of Wellington artistic life. At this stage she produced mainly enamel pendants and brooches for sale to a select clientele. A facility for self-promotion, one of the keys to her professional success, was in evidence when she publicly launched her career with a function at Wellington's Grand Hotel which was attended by Lady Theresa Ward, wife of the prime minister, among others.
Elsie Reeve returned to England around 1914 and performed clerical duties in the office of the Admiralty during the First World War. She was back in New Zealand by 1922, this time settling with her family in Auckland. Alfred Reeves continued to practise as a dental surgeon and Elsie had a studio at 26 City Chambers, Victoria Street West, describing herself in a directory as an 'art worker'. In 1923 she moved her studio to the Hallenstein Brothers Buildings in Queen Street.
The years from 1922 until her sudden death in 1927 appear to have been her most productive. She was an active member of the craft community and exhibited her work widely. A member of the Auckland Lyceum Club from 1922, Reeve was convener of the club's Crafts Circle in 1923, and she was also a working member of the Auckland Society of Arts. Examples of her jewellery, which she usually described in advertisements as 'hand-wrought', were displayed at the regular exhibitions of the ASA, at galleries in Wellington, and at the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition held in Dunedin in 1925–26. She was businesslike in the promotion of her work, and regularly placed prominent illustrated advertisements in the monthly Ladies' Mirror magazine. The prices commanded by her jewellery, as recorded in exhibition catalogues, were a reflection of her expertise and professionalism.
Reeve's knowledge and skills had diversified greatly since her early interest in enamelling, and she now produced gold and silver jewellery with inset stones. Her personal style demonstrated a knowledge of and sensitivity to the principles of the English Arts and Crafts movement, with which she probably became familiar during her time in London. This influence is evident in her idiosyncratic use of berry, grape and vine-leaf motifs, frequently entwined by wirework tendrils; her preference for non-precious cabochon and simply cut stones and irregularly formed blister pearls; and her choice of an oxidised rather than a highly polished finish for her silver jewellery. Extant examples reveal that she marked her work on the reverse with a small applied panel stamped REEVE.
Elsie Reeve did not marry and from time to time travelled to exhibit her work. She died at Wellington on 6 April 1927 of cardiac failure associated with her chronic lung condition. She was only 42 years of age.