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Levien, J. M. (1811-1871)

Levien, Johann Martin

Prussia, New Zealand and London; cabinet maker and upholsterer (b.1811-d.1871)

Johann Martin Levien was born in 1811 in Barth, a small seaside town in the Prussian province of Pomerania. He trained as a cabinet maker before travelling to Brazil in 1837 in the hopes of finding success marketing and using local woods in his trade. However, he soon moved to New Zealand having found the professional opportunities in South America limited. By 1840 he had built a thriving cabinet-making firm in Wellington that specialised in creating furniture from locally grown New Zealand woods and is credited with establishing the first professional cabinet-making business in the colony.

In 1841 he married an English woman named Jane Whittaker and in 1843 they travelled to London, bringing with them a selection of over 300 specimens of New Zealand woods for future use. Aided financially by the New Zealand Company (a London based group of investors) he setup a workshop and showroom on Broad Street. Jane Whittaker died in 1846 and in 1848 Levien was remarried to Mary Ann Willson.

Having achieved a degree of professional success, Levien moved his cabinet-making and upholstery business to 10 Davies Street, Grosvenor Square [1856 London Trades Directory] where he created objects for several clients, including members of the royal family and show pieces for World’s Fairs and Exhibitions. Throughout his career he made objects in a variety of styles, many featuring neoclassical details which had been fashionable in the Prussia of his youth.

In 1861 he published a pamphlet entitled, The Woods of New Zealand and their Adaptability to Art Furniture, which lauds the beauty and durability of local New Zealand timbers and includes nine engravings of objects Levien made for International Exhibitions or important clients. Names and uses of twenty-two native New Zealand woods are included, as are positive reviews of Levien’s work quoted from British and New Zealand newspapers spanning the period 1843-1861.

Although Levien’s use of exoticized New Zealand woods were frequently mentioned in his newspaper coverage, a highly detailed 1864 invoice in the London Rothschild Family Archives indicates that Levien’s firm also provided a great deal of routine furniture construction and furniture repair services using woods from Europe and the Americas. The personalised letterhead on Levien’s invoice includes images of a Fine Arts Medal from 1846, a medal from the Exhibition 1851, and a Prize Medal from the Paris Exhibition in 1853 (probably a misprint 1855). To the left of Levien’s business name and address stands the royal insignia with the date 1846 and the words, “By Special Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen” referencing the year he completed a project for Queen Victoria. To the right of the text is the Prussian royal insignia with the words 'And His Majesty The King of Prussia' and the year 1848, referencing the year King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia awarded Levien the title of master craftsman.

A document found in the Prussian State Archives confirms that Levien, born in Barth, Pomerania and currently living in London was awarded the Distinction of Tischlermeister in 1848. The words, “Funerals Performed in Town or Country” printed on the bottom line of the letterhead indicate that Levien’s workshop not only made and sold coffins, but also that he deemed this service so important to his business that it be included alongside his royal references.

Levien sold his business in 1868. He died in London in 1871, leaving his estate to his widow, his five children, and his siblings; the 1871 census recording him as a ‘late upholsterer to Her Majesty’, 204 Great Eastern Road, Teddington.


Royal Family: A Louis XV style Jewel Cabinet dated 1846 with porcelain plaques and constructed of woods from Europe and the Americas is found in the Royal Collection. The cabinet is believed to have been ordered by Queen Victoria as a gift for Prince Albert (cost £25 4s), constructed in a French taste that they both admired. It is the only example of a Levien piece of furniture created after a French style with a known location, and it provides further evidence that Levien was willing to create objects to specific client directed specifications.

Jewel cabinet
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Royal Collection Trust
Tulip and kingwood jewel cabinet on stand in Louis XV style mounted with porcelain plaques, 1846 [RCIN 169]. © Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

Prussian Royal Family and Embassy, London: In a letter dated July 17th, 1854, his Excellency the Chevalier Bunsen, Ambassador of his Majesty the King of Prussia at the Court of St. James thanked Levien for the 'elegance and excellence of your works' in providing parquet floors for the Prussian Embassy as well as creating pieces of furniture for the Ambassador’s private family use. The building that housed the Prussian Embassy in 1854, 9 Carlton House Terrace, is currently occupied by the Royal Society. Decorative parquet floors remain, and a wood eagle carved in the Prussian taste was discovered during renovations in 2002, but neither has yet been definitively attributed to Levien.

Newspaper records indicate that Levien created a large sideboard of New Zealand totara wood in 1861 for the King of Prussia. Its current location is unknown. Levien family archival records indicate that he gave an “elegant & tasteful piece of workmanship” to Victoria, Princess Royal on the occasion of her marriage to Frederick Wilhelm, Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858. The nature and current location of the item are unknown.

Rothschild family: A lengthy invoice totalling £546.15 paid in 1864 by a Baron de Rothschild includes charges for the construction of plain, utilitarian objects alongside fees for repairing worn furniture and retro-fitting desk drawers with strong locks and upholstered seat furniture. The only woods described on the invoice are mahogany and oak. The Baron de Rothschild who engaged Levien’s firm was presumably, though not conclusively, Nathan de Rothschild, and it is not known for which Rothschild family residence the furniture was intended.

Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Rothschild Archive
Letterheaded invoice, 1846. Reproduced with the permission of The Trustees of The Rothschild Archive

Other Private Clients: A jewel case was created for Russel Green, Esquire and an escritoire for Her Grace the Duchess of Sutherland. These objects were all illustrated in Levien’s 1861 publication. Unfortunately the current locations unknown.

  • Great Exhibition, London, 1851: The New Zealand delegation was eager to promote their colony as a fresh source of raw materials at Crystal Palace. Levien created several pieces of furniture made from New Zealand woods for the New Zealand exhibition space, including a highly decorative sideboard, two bookcases, a toilette table, a highly detailed marquetry tabletop, two upholstered chairs, a divan, and a console table (Exhibitor no. 203, objects illus. The Art Journal Exhibition Catalogue, p. 249). He received a medal at the Exhibition.
  • Dublin Exhibition, 1853: Levien exhibited an escritoire in the style of Louis XIV of tulip and kingwood inlaid and ornamented with ormolu, the interior consisting of velvet writing table and sliding recesses for papers etc; an occasional table inlaid with various woods and mounted in chased ormolu; inlaid work table of New Zealand woods [Sproule, Irish Industrial Exhibition, 1853, p. 413]
  • Paris International Exhibition, 1855: Levien exhibited a second table top inlaid with New Zealand woods; illus. The Art Journal Exhibition Catalogue, p. 12.  Although Levien’s letterhead shows a medal for a Paris Exhibition 1853 the image of the medal is very similar to that of 1855 at which Levien did exhibit.  
  • International Exhibition, London, 1862:  A Pompeiian Cabinet with exquisite neoclassical marquetry and four ionic columns was created by Levien’s London workshop in the 1860s and is now in the private collection of Patrick Soanes of New Zealand. Fourteen different woods were used to depict mer-horses, neoclassical foliate forms, and geometric patterns. A lyrical female figure of ivory inlay graces each of the two doors. Illus. Waring, Masterpieces of Industrial Art & Sculpture, 1862, pl. 120. 
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Patrick Soanes Collection
Pompeiian cabinet with neoclassical marquetry. Patrick Soanes Collection
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Patrick Soanes Collection
Detail of cabinet. Patrick Soanes Collection 

The two earliest known works attributed to Levien are a tilt-top table and a circular table with a triform base, both in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and date from Levien’s time living and working in New Zealand, 1840-1843. The circular table is made entirely of local New Zealand totara wood, and the tilt top table features totara veneers over a base of Brazilian mahogany and European pine.

Circular table
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
Museum of New Zealand
Circular table c. 1841-1843, [PF000009]. Museum of New Zealand CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (PF000009)

A massive secretaire with totara knot veneer c. 1855, a watercolor portrait of Levien in an armchair, Levien’s medal awarded by Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and two mirror frames topped with marquetry insignias, one of the Royal Family and the other with that of the Prussian royal family, and letters of thanks from representatives of Prince Albert and Victoria, Princess Royal of the United Kingdom, Crown Princess of Prussia, remain in the Levien family collection. 

By Serena Newmark  

Sources: Aslin, 19th Century English Furniture (1962); Symonds and Whineray, Victorian Furniture (1962); The Furniture of J. M. Levien, Connoisseur Magazine, January 1976, vol. 191, no. 767; Meyer, ‘Trollope and Sons – Makers and Exhibitors of Fine Furniture’, The Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present (2006); Meyer, Great Exhibitions. London, New York, Paris, Philadelphia, 1851-1900 (2006).