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From the archives: An invitation to a showcase of the King George VI needlepoint chairs

Some of the most popular items in Government House Wellington are the needlepoint chairs surrounding the dining table in the Norrie room. Each chair represents some of the major towns in New Zealand, with the four main cities represented on carver chairs.

Needlepoint chairs Government House Wellington
The project that led to their creation was one of the many plans initiated in 1951 by Lady Barbara Freyberg, wife of Governor-General Lt Gen Bernard Freyberg, to celebrate the upcoming Royal visit of King George VI. Together with esteemed Wellington tapestry worker Mrs A. L. B. Nairn, Lady Freyberg sent letters to Mayoresses of 38 major New Zealand towns and cities asking each to find experts to contribute to a needlepoint design of their respective location’s coat of arms.

The completed chairs were to take pride of place in the Norrie room as a way to not only involve many New Zealanders in the upcoming Royal visit, but also to remind King George VI of some of the places in New Zealand he might not get to visit in what was planned to be a short tour.

The request for contributions from expert needlepoint practitioners was a huge success, with each group working to strict instructions to ensure uniformity of the designs. The designs were stitched on canvasses created by the Ministry of Works, who also provided the wool. In total the whole project took around five months to complete. The majority of the work was done by women but there were some men who took up the challenge to contribute as well.

Lady Freyberg invitation Government House Wellington

Unfortunately, due to the King’s rapidly declining health the planned Royal visit was cancelled. A short time later in February 1952, King George VI died. Still wishing to thank the many New Zealanders who answered the call to contribute to the needlepoint chairs, on Friday 30th May 1952 Lady Freyberg hosted an afternoon tea to showcase the end result. It was attended by 200 representatives from the respective cities and towns that had helped with the project. Pictured is a copy of the invitation that was sent to those who had contributed to the needlepoint chairs, almost all of whom gladly accepted.

At the reception, Lady Freyberg gave particular thanks to Miss Dorothy Wills from the Ministry of Works who assembled the necessary materials to create the needlework, Miss Margaret Nairn who drew the charts for the designs and Miss Hilary Newton who painted the designs on the canvasses. Lady Freyberg reserved the highest praise for Mrs A. L. B. Nairn, who not only supervised working parties at Government House, but also voluntarily travelled to almost each town and city to offer guidance to the groups working on their respective pieces. The completed chairs were arranged in the ballroom and were lit up with spotlights to accentuate the work of the attendees.

Although the chairs were never seen by King George VI, they were in Government House when Queen Elizabeth II arrived for her first Royal visit (also the first in New Zealand from a reigning monarch) in December 1953. They have remained in the Norrie dining room ever since and are used for the many formal dinners and luncheons held there each year. The frames of the chairs were replaced by David Kirkland in the early 90s, but the original needlepoint inserts still remain.  

1952 newspaper article about the reception at Government House Wellington




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