Page 1: Biography
Sargood, Percy Rolfe
This biography, written by Jim McAloon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996. It was updated in January, 2021.
Percy Rolfe Sargood was born in Melbourne, Australia, on 26 September 1865, the son of Marian Australia Rolfe and her husband, Frederick Thomas Sargood, a drapery and softgoods merchant. By 1890 the business established by Frederick Sargood was one of the leading Australasian firms of its type, with branches in most major cities on both sides of the Tasman and a London purchasing house. The Dunedin branch, which was established in 1862, served as the head office for New Zealand.
Percy Sargood was educated at leading private schools in Melbourne and England. On leaving school in 1883 he began as an apprentice in the family firm's Melbourne office, and after two years in the London branch and with another company, came to New Zealand in 1891 to take charge of the Dunedin and Christchurch branches. In 1892 he was made a junior partner in the firm, and in 1902 he took over full control of the now semi-independent New Zealand operation. The company, known as Sargood, Son and Ewen, took on limited liability status in 1907, and Sargood was governing director from then until his death.
Percy Sargood had much in common with other Dunedin merchant princes. To a greater extent than most of them, however, he made philanthropy his life's work. In this he was motivated by an optimistic and liberal imperialism, believing in the British Empire and in the rights of all its citizens to share in the advance of civilisation. At the same time, his philanthropic activities and managerial practice reflected a highly developed paternalism. The company was an extension of the collective personality of its founding family. Sargood issued frequent motivational messages to his staff, exhorting them to pay close attention to detail and to customer satisfaction. The firm established a provident fund before these were commonplace; staff welfare was to coincide with a strong identification with the firm.
On 14 February 1893, at Dunedin, Sargood had married Lucy Constance Ormond, a member of a leading Hawke's Bay family; they were to have two daughters and a son. Fine art was their greatest passion and frequent business trips overseas enabled Percy and Lucy to build up a large personal collection. The Sargoods' major contribution, however, was in endowing art galleries rather than in selecting work of lasting significance. Despite Percy Sargood's occasional criticisms of the lack of originality in New Zealand art, not all of their own purchases were of enduring merit. One item, a large piece of nineteenth century Italian marble interior sculpture, was donated to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and many years later removed from the collection.
The Sargoods' most notable gift to the art world was a donation of £4,000 in 1927 to enable the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Society and the Dunedin City Council to relocate the gallery in more spacious premises at Logan Park. The Sargoods, in making the gift, hoped that the gallery would be the focus of a major public recreation area, and that art would be a vehicle for increased international understanding as well as a worthwhile form of recreation for the masses. In addition, the gallery was to serve as a memorial to their son, Rolfe, who was killed at Gallipoli.
In 1930 Percy Sargood founded the Empire Art Loan Collections Society, to enable the circulation around the Commonwealth of major works from British galleries. He had conceived this project while on a visit to London in 1927, and the society was established with the support of leading British politicians. Sargood was particularly aware of the inability of New Zealand resources to fund extensive purchasing of fine art and intended that the society should provide a substitute. Between its foundation and 1940, nine exhibitions of paintings, miniatures, ceramics and prints were held under its auspices in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Jamaica and South Africa.
Percy and Lucy Sargood were leading supporters of the Otago Museum, and of patriotic associations in both world wars. Percy was also prominent in local organisations for the relief of poverty, in the Boy Scouts' Association (in which he was highly decorated), and in other imperially minded organisations.
The couple had a second significant business asset in Wanaka station, where they pioneered irrigation, bred quality stock, and dispensed hospitality to overseas visitors. In 1914 Percy initiated a scheme whereby a dozen English town youths were sent out to learn farming on Wanaka station; the idea was to develop character as well as skills. This muscular approach to life was evident in the Sargoods' enthusiasm for golf and horse-riding. Percy was also a keen angler and owned one of the first private motor cars in Dunedin.
Percy Sargood died at Dunedin on 5 November 1940, survived by Lucy and two daughters. His funeral, although conducted by the Anglican dean of Dunedin, was not held in a church; religion was of less importance to him than philanthropy. He had been knighted for his business and philanthropic activities in 1935. The residue of his estate (sworn under £200,000) was left in a charitable trust, and was still funding cultural activities over 40 years later. Lucy Sargood subsequently retired to Hawke's Bay and continued to donate large sums of money to the arts in Dunedin, endowing another wing for the art gallery in 1952. She died in Napier in September 1953.