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Story: Wiseman, Hilda Alexandra

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Wiseman, Hilda Alexandra


Bookplate designer, artist, calligrapher

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

Hilda Alexandra Wiseman was born in Mooroopna, Victoria, Australia, on 7 April 1894, the eldest of seven children of Alexander Wiseman, a music teacher, and his wife, Harriot Amanda Coombes. Her parents were both from Auckland, New Zealand, and returned with their family in 1904.

Her father, an architect, now resumed his profession. In 1909 he designed a house for his family in Ranfurly Road, Epsom, where Hilda was to live for the rest of her life. She was educated at Mount Eden College, a private girls' school run by May Bews. There she began receiving her art education from Vera Jacobsen, with whom she studied after leaving school.

The question of a career for Hilda became urgent after the death of her father in 1915, despite the support of the Wiseman family, who owned the warehouse business J. Wiseman and Sons. She went to work at the advertising firm Chandler and Company, doing commercial art.

In 1917, while still working at Chandlers, she enrolled at the Elam School of Art, taking lessons from Robert Procter. In 1923–24 she learned lettering and illuminating from John Ash at Seddon Memorial Technical College. By 1925, when she designed and printed her first linocut bookplate, she had found her artistic medium. An exhibition of her bookplate collection at the Auckland Art Gallery in April 1930 provided the impetus for the founding of the New Zealand Ex Libris Society. Wiseman was secretary of its Auckland branch from November 1930 until June 1967.

Hilda Wiseman designed over 100 bookplates, most of them linocuts meticulously printed on her own small handpress. The designs represented the interests and personalities of the owners, although her favourite themes of New Zealand birds and flowers also appear. Some of her designs for institutions anticipate the modern logo. International recognition came with awards for two of her bookplates at the Los Angeles international exhibitions of bookplates in 1931 and 1934.

At Ranfurly Road from 1931 she operated out of her Selwyn Studio, so called after its windows, which she had salvaged from the demolished St Stephen's School, founded by Bishop G. A. Selwyn in Parnell. She also designed and sold Christmas cards, taught art to private pupils and did some commercial work. Her long association with the Auckland Society of Arts had begun in 1912 when she exhibited her first watercolour. She continued to paint watercolours on commission, and for exhibition and sale at the society. Her landscapes resulted from painting expeditions with her artist friends Ida Eise and Connie and Olive Lloyd; her flower studies reflected her keen love of gardening.

In 1944 her only book was published, a children's story called Minna Mantis gives a party, with illustrations and hand-lettered text. Lettering also featured in her illuminated addresses, which she produced for shipping companies, royal visits and special occasions. Because of her interest in heraldry, she won two competitions to design coats of arms: for Howick Borough Council in 1953 and Manukau City Council in 1967. However, she is best known for her linocuts, especially her bookplates, which are small in scale, yet strongly dramatic.

When Hilda Wiseman died in Auckland on 28 April 1982, she had already donated her bookplate collection to the Auckland Public Library. Formal and reserved in her relationships with others, she had never married; she left the family home to the Christian Care Centre Trust Board and her studio to the Auckland Historical Society.

How to cite this page:

Georgia Prince. 'Wiseman, Hilda Alexandra', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4w22/wiseman-hilda-alexandra (accessed 17 June 2024)