Sutton house and garden classified as a category 1 heritage site

The old house The renowned artist’s studio in Canterbury is run by a Charitable Trust as an artist’s residence – the first of its kind in Christchurch. Other nationally renowned artist houses that also offer artist residencies include Rita Angus Cottage in Wellington and Colin McCahon Cottage and Brian Brake House in Auckland.

Bill Sutton (1917–2000) was a Christchurch-born artist who taught at Canterbury College School of Art from 1949 until his retirement in 1979. He is best known for his four-decade-long interpretation of the Canterbury landscape.

The report on the listing by Robyn Burgess, listing advisor at Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, reveals the cultural, architectural and historical significance of the site. Long before European dwellings were built on Templar Street, this site was a vital part of seasonal food gathering space for Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu. When Sutton purchased the site in 1963, the old colonial cottage had been demolished and the site was cleared.

Sutton asked his friend and colleague from the School of Art, Tom Taylor, to design his new home. Taylor initially studied architecture but never graduated as an architect as he switched to a fine arts degree in sculpture. Despite this, Taylor designed several homes, including a home in Governors Bay for Margaret Mahy and a home/studio for artist Doris Lusk on Gloucester Street.

Taylor and Sutton worked together on the design of the Sutton House – incorporating a tapa fabric rack into custom built-in shelving, designing windows and lighting for the studio, and including a greenhouse that protruded from the studio/living room for orchids and flowers. Sutton’s subtropical plants.

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga describes the architectural style of the house as a mix of colonial vernacular and modernist. It has a large studio/living room on the ground floor, occupying a third of the floor plan of the whole house, and a small private space upstairs with two bedrooms and a shower room.

The open studio gave Sutton the space to create larger landscape canvases, and the additional studio space allowed him to accept more formal portrait commissions. Sutton also installed an Albion press in an adjacent shop/workshop on which he printed as the Templar Press.

During construction, Sutton lived on site in a trailer and began planting trees and planning gardens. He wanted the house and the garden to be a continuation of each other. He planted 30 specimens of native and exotic trees. The garden had a brick courtyard, walkways, rocks and sculptures by Tom Taylor and Roy Cowan.

Burgess says the list has enormous cultural and social value as part of the history of Christchurch’s regional art movement from the 1960s. “The list also includes the unique garden which was designed and maintained by Sutton. It was wonderful to enter another modernist building on the List”.

The list also reflects the impact of the Canterbury earthquakes on East Christchurch and the city’s heritage, Burgess said. “The efforts of a few dedicated people who saved this building from demolition add to the remarkable history of this site.”

After Sutton’s death in 2000, the property was purchased by the Christchurch Art Gallery’s senior curator, Neil Roberts. Roberts had long believed that Christchurch would benefit from an artists’ residence – and he knew Sutton’s home would be suitable, having first visited it as an art student in 1968. Trustees of Bill’s estate Sutton and Roberts entered into a protective house and garden covenant in 2002 with Christchurch City Council. Roberts intended to eventually give the property in his will to the city.

The 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes caused the land around Templar Street to be classified as a ‘red zone’, but the Sutton House had solid foundations and was not badly damaged. While thefts and vandalism could not be prevented, Roberts and other heritage supporters continued to call on CERA, the local MP and Christchurch City Council to save the house. Thanks to their efforts and the 2002 protection pact, the house was not demolished. When Land Information New Zealand took over the property from CERA, it was discovered that a budget had been allocated to restore the property. Under LINZ ownership, the house underwent a major structural earthquake-strengthening renovation: removal of non-compliant aluminum insulation, addition of a wheelchair ramp, siding repair, and interior and exterior painting.

In 2020, Christchurch City Council took possession of Sutton House and Garden, which is now leased and managed by a charitable trust. The house has become an artists’ residence and has already hosted several notable artists.