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Peter Entwisle - ODT Obituary - Peter Entwisle Historian

Dunedin historian Peter Entwisle strongly raised awareness of Dunedin’s built heritage and incisively promoted its protection and the creative reuse of heritage buildings. He died recently at his city home, aged 69.

Mr Entwisle had worked, including as a curator, at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery from 1980-2000, when he lost his job in a controversial restructuring. But he continued to take a high profile role, including through his long running Otago Daily Times “Art Beat” column, as a built heritage champion.

He was also a lively and knowledgeable commentator on many topics, including the visual arts and art history, and had earlier been a Star art critic.

Southern Heritage Trust founder Ann Barsby said Mr Entwisle had helped the city “turn the corner” towards much greater community awareness and stronger and better co-ordinated protection and creative reuse of build heritage. He has worked “unceasingly” and was “one of the main players” in promoting a more positive approach to heritage buildings.

“For Dunedin he was a very, very special person”. “We all had huge respect for him and his capacity as a heritage researcher, and always as someone to go to for the right information,” she said.

In 1988, Mr Entwisle took his campaign to save Dunedin’s colonial architecture to the journal Art New Zealand, through an article titled “The Battle for Old Dunedin: Review of changing attitudes to Dunedin’s Victorian and Edwardian architecture”.

The demolition of old Dunedin is the destruction of New Zealand’s biggest surviving work of art {the colonial period} in this country” and had been proceeding apace, he warned “Old Dunedin, once New Zealand’s most beautiful colonial city is a thing of shreds and tatters now”.

He also deplored proposed changed to the municipal chambers clocktower. Dunedin writer Meg Davidson said the municipal chambers saga eventually “turned out well” and, at that stage, the tide towards scientific conservation was already starting to turn.

Heritage New Zealand also recently paid tribute to Mr Entwisle as a “notable Dunedin historian, writer and an incisive built-heritage advocate”. He was also a “strong defender of our art and architectural inheritance”.

Through his influential column, he showed the “wealth of his knowledge and insight”. His nominations for buildings to enter on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero, like all his work, were meticulously research, the tribute said.

He published on art and social history, including The Otago Peninsular; William Mathew Hodgkins & his circle; Behold the Moon: The European occupation of the Dunedin district 1770-1848; contributions to the Dictionary of Otago-Southland biography; exhibition catalogues, and articles showing his long-standing interest in Dunedin’s architecture, Heritage New Zealand said.

Speaking at his wake at the Dunedin Gasworks Museum, Heritage New Zealand Otago-Southland area manager Jonathan Howard said Mr Entwisle had done an “incredible job” in protecting and promoting heritage.

ODT art critic and poet James Dignan also praised Mr Entwisle’s help, particularly showing him “how to read paintings”. Dunedin architectural historian David Murray said Mr Entwisle had contributed to built heritage through both advocacy and awareness raising “bringing to notice themes and specific places – which would otherwise be overlooked”.

His original research – publications, building reports and other writings – “had contributed immensely to record knowledge and understanding”.

“His Lawson catalogue was hugely impressive and important, and something for which he did not get the recognition that he deserved,” Dr Murray said.

Mr Entwisle’s father, Arnold Entwisle, was a Cheshire-born Fabian socialist from a working class Liverpool family.

While working in London as a buyer for a bookshop, he met Peter’s mother, Mary Enwisle (nee Crabb), and they married in 1936. Her work for Leonard Woolf and novelist Virginia Wolf at Hogarth Press in Bloomsbury had included chauffeuring Mrs Woolf around London.

After World War 2, as a returned serviceman, Arnolg Entwisle got a scholarship to study at Oxford University, gaining a history degree.

Peter Entwisle, the third of four children and the only boy, was born in Newmarket, in Suffolk, in September 1948, and remained in England until 1952. The family then shifted to Kuala Lumpur, where Arnold’s job at the British Colonial Service included organising literacy campaigns in Malaya.

In 1955, the family came to Dunedin, where Arnold had been appointed a lecturer at the University of Otago’s university extension department, and later founded the long-running annual university Foreign Policy School.

Mr Entwisle attended George St Normal, Dunedin North Intermediate and Otago Boys’ High School.

It was challenging for Peter and his family to adjust to life in a conservative Antipodean city.

Among the important influences on his life were his parents’ intellectual friends, the poet Charles Brasch opened his eyes to Dunedin’s built heritage and introduced him to the Otago Peninsula and its history.

Peter Entwisle started university at 19 and cut a noticeable figure on campus. A controversial moment came in early 1972 when police called at his address to ask him about a human skull. He produced a polished skull and explained that it had previously been given to him by a friend at a party. He was later charged in the Magistrate’s Court with improperly interfering with the human remains of William James Mudie Larnach, which had earlier been interred at Larnach’s Tomb in the Northern Cemetery.

Mr Entwisle was initially convicted, but the identity of the skull was unclear, the conviction was set aside and the charge dismissed.

In 1972 he moved from a Union St flat to a more settled existence in a large villa in Elder St, with his wife Rosemary and daughter Rebecca.

Mr Entwisle undertook BA (Hons) studies in philosophy (1968-71) at Otago and completed a MLitt with distinction in 1975.

Ms Davidson said he had wanted to become an academic philosopher, but the seeds for his later career as a historian of early Otago were sown when, while waiting for his thesis to be assessed, he wrote a prize winning essay about the Weller brothers’ 1830s whaling station, near present-day Otakou.

Four years in London (1976-1980) did not lead to postgraduate study of philosophy but “inflamed his passion for, and knowledge of, European art”. Shortly after returning to Dunedin, he was employed at the art gallery, becoming its deputy director within a few months. He went on to become a busy built – heritage consultant for the Dunedin City Council, undertaking assessments of hundreds of buildings and playing a big behind the scenes role in the city’s built heritage revival.

The community also benefited from his heritage advocacy and his work as a freelance writer, art critic and historian. He also continued to research the history of paintings, long-case clocks and Dunedin buildings, often charging little or nothing for his meticulously detailed work.

He also campaigned to save various Dunedin buildings and features, including unsuccessfully, the former Otago Daily Times building, and successfully advocated retaining the St David St footbridge across the Water of Leith.

He also argued against several developments, such as a glass extension to the Town Hall that would have blocked the view down Harrop St, a proposed $100 million waterfront hotel, and the proposed Filleul St hotel.

In 1980, he stood for mayor against Cliff Skeggs in opposition to the proposed Aramoana aluminium smelter. He also served as a member of the Stop the Stadium committee. Mr Entwisle often felt himself a European with a special attachment to Italy but also loved Dunedin.

A colourful, complex and demanding person, he marched to his own drum, but was also generous in spirit and willingly gave his time to help others, including mentoring others in the heritage field.

Ms Davidson, a close friend, said at the wake that Mr Entiwsle had opened her eyes to the “wonders of Dunedin’s heritage and architecture” and helped her to develop as a writer, researcher and heritage lobbyist. “If he did and saw things differently, that was just the way he was”.

He lived in the central city all his adult life and, in his final illness, chose to remain at his Cargill St home, from which many of Dunedin’s best Victorian buildings could be seen. Later after he had died, the room was dark “and the Dunedin he loved was glittering beyond the window”.

The Room was lit with two table lamps and Peter’s fantastical collection of art and his long-case clock looked myseterious and magical.

“The funeral directors came in and one of them said ‘Wow’”. It would be a long time before Dunedin saw Mr Entwisle’s like again she said.

Mr Entwisle is survived by two daughters, Rebecca Entwisle, of Santa Fe, in the United States, and Jennifer Dickinson of Christchurch; his sisters Sarah Kalmakoff of Dunedin, Susan Devereux of Auckland, and Jane Paul, of Slough, England; and his grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.