IN CONTRAST TO the expansive approach at Sutton, is the strategically slim model at the Rita Angus Cottage. Angus loved her 1870s timber-framed cottage in Thorndon, Wellington. Moving north from Christchurch at age 47, she made Wellington her home from 1955 until her death in 1970. Being from an affluent family, Angus would have been able to afford a larger home, but the modesty of her Sydney Street West cottage, which she named Fernbank Studio, resonated with her own humble sensibility. It was close to the city where she could walk to galleries, but a winding pathway and sprawling garden afforded her welcome degrees of privacy and seclusion. Marti Friedlander visited Fernbank Studio in 1969 and took distinctive images of Angus there, which wonderfully captured the way that her few rooms, sparsely furnished, served as a perfect haven.
Following Angus’ death, there was concern that the artist’s cottage would be lost. A number of her contemporaries: Michael Smither, Juliet Peter, Colin McCahon, John Drawbridge, and Toss Wollaston, wrote in support of its preservation. Drawbridge suggested the house be used as a museum of modern New Zealand painting, while McCahon encouraged people to think about other activities on the property beyond preserving the cottage, noting that ‘you must look well ahead when the bulk of the houses finally do decay and fall down … more than Rita’s cottage, I remember the magnolia tree… it’s a better memorial than the cottage. I envisage, finally, a park—a nice place for the bees from the beehive to collect some real honey.’
Today, Fernbank Studio is still standing, and doing better than the magnolia tree. It is recognised as an important heritage place within Wellington, primarily for its association to Rita Angus rather than its 1870s construction. Since the 1980s, it has hosted artist residencies with a range of different institutional partners. Between residencies, the cottage is rented out privately as an ongoing source of income for conserving the building. It remains very much a house, and very much not a museum. Yet, there is enduring public interest in visiting Angus’ cottage. The property opens its gate on select days each year, and can host visits by appointment. However, the constraint of having tenants living at Fernbank Studio has presented an unusual opportunity. Instead of opening up the cottage, visitors are welcome to wander through Rita’s garden, sit, and sketch what they see. It's a necessary and pragmatic means of challenging what a heritage experience can be—allowing visitors to do what Rita did, activating the garden once again as a source of cultural production. The appeal of a visit is not to see the old cottage, but to see what Rita saw: her flowers, the view of Thorndon, and the magnolia. Rita Angus was a private person, and so it is quite appropriate to not allow visitors to treat her cottage as an open home. Neighbour and friend of Angus, Frederick Page, once reflected about Fernbank Studio: ‘There was a touch of magic about it, mystery even, as though one day you could go and it wouldn’t be there’.