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Story: Isaac, Wilfrid Nelson

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Isaac, Wilfrid Nelson


Jeweller, enameller, metalworker, art school director

This biography, written by Justine Olsen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Nelson Isaac designed and made some of the most important publicly commissioned silver in New Zealand during the mid twentieth century. He was born Wilfrid Nelson Isaac in Kyneton, Victoria, Australia, on 30 March 1893, the son of Martha Amy Pine and her husband, Edmund Charles Isaac, a Congregational minister and an accomplished amateur craftsman. In 1896 the family emigrated to Nelson, New Zealand, where Edmund practised as a minister and tutored in art at Nelson College. His appointment in 1901 as inspector of technical education and manual training brought the family to Wellington, where in 1907 Nelson began attending Wellington Technical College. Taught by George R. Pitkethly, he excelled at metalwork, jewellery and enamelling. In the British examinations he won book prizes and commendations from the national competition, London, and gained first- and second-class passes from the Board of Education, South Kensington.

As a student Isaac exhibited metalwork and paintings at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. In 1912 he won first place for a copper and enamel belt buckle at the first exhibition of the Auckland Arts and Crafts Club, and gained the first-class diploma for enamelling and jewellery from the Canterbury Society of Arts. After leaving Wellington Technical College in 1913, he taught at the Dunedin School of Art and Design until 1915, when he joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and served in Egypt, then France. He was a corporal in the New Zealand Medical Corps and the New Zealand Field Ambulance.

From 1919 to 1922 a New Zealand Expeditionary Force scholarship enabled Isaac to study at the Royal College of Art, London. He was elected an associate of the college in 1923. Returning to New Zealand in early 1922, he taught at Elam School of Art, Auckland, and Southland Technical College before his appointment in early 1925 as instructor in applied art and design at Wellington Technical College. By the end of the year he was head of the art school.

Isaac specialised in jewellery, enamelling and art metalwork. His father, a practising metalworker, carver and clockmaker, probably influenced his career choice, and Nelson's style grew out of the Arts and Crafts movement favoured by the British-trained teachers at Wellington Technical College and the Royal College of Art. Drawing on historical styles and techniques, particularly from medieval times, he designed his work using silver in preference to gold. The decoration of important works included enamelling and the use of semi-precious stones. He frequently chose New Zealand plants or birds, or Maori motifs when designing a work or determining the shape of a small piece of jewellery.

During his tenure at Wellington Technical College Isaac worked on several important New Zealand commissions. The Anglican primatial cross, created for Archbishop A. W. Averill and his successors in 1926, can be considered his finest work. Executed in silver with enamel decoration and Maori motifs, the orb of the cross is inset with greenstone and Australian opals. Two silver trophies were designed at the invitation of the governor general, Lord Bledisloe: the Bledisloe Cup for rugby was presented in 1931 and the Ahuwhenua Trophy in 1933. Both have distinctive New Zealand features.

Nelson Isaac maintained a strong interest in painting, exhibiting on a local and national level. About 1925 he published Auckland: a sketch-book. He was a member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts council from 1928 to 1935, and in 1934 he assisted the academy in its first arts and crafts exhibition.

On 28 August 1939, at Auckland, Nelson Isaac, at the age of 46, married 38-year-old Gwendoline Mary Peacock, an early aviator who had flown Gypsy Moths and performed aerobatic stunts. They were to have one child. That year Nelson resigned as head of the art school, but continued to produce jewellery and ecclesiastical commissions, including several pectoral crosses. One of these was gold, inset with greenstone and was made for Archdeacon E. J. Rich when he was appointed assistant bishop to the primate of New Zealand in 1952. Nelson Isaac retired from the college in 1954. The design for a gold chalice and paten for St Benedict's Church, Auckland, in 1969 was his last public commission. He died in Auckland on 15 June 1972, survived by his wife and daughter.

How to cite this page:

Justine Olsen. 'Isaac, Wilfrid Nelson', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4i2/isaac-wilfrid-nelson (accessed 8 December 2023)