Geoffrey's cover image

Geoffrey HANNAH OAM

Year of Award: 1980 Award State: New South Wales Trades > Furniture
To study the hand crafted furniture marquetry and woodcarving of British and French Master craftsmen between the years 1635 and 1850 - UK, France
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Geoff Hannah was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 1980, travelling to the United Kingdom and France to explore handcrafted furniture marquetry and wood-carving of British and French master craftsmen between 1635 and 1850.

For a man who knows and loves wood as much as Geoff Hannah does, behind the scenes at the Victoria and Albert, the Louvre and Versailles was heaven. He was able to study gold leafing, inlay banding, lacquer work and mother-of-pearl, as well as the restoration of marquetry panels. He put these skills and aesthetics to astonishing use in his future work – for example in the Hannah Cabinet, the culmination of six years of labour and dedicated to his family.
Bungendore Wood Gallery director David MacLaren told me that one man had viewed the Hannah Cabinet at the exhibition opening there, then turned to Geoff Hannah, standing nearby with David, and the man had opened his mouth to talk but could not speak, clearly so moved by the work. He had tears in his eyes.

Many Canberrans head for the coast on weekends and the first country town en route is Bungendore. On a weekend in March 2013, I was passing through and the Bungendore Wood Gallery was exhibiting Geoff Hannah’s work. I too stood in awe before the Hannah Cabinet where vibrant scenes in inlaid wood depicted white magnolias and birds of prey, and the leaves of the trees were fashioned so realistically from French-polished wood that they seemed to be moving in a summer breeze. I could easily understand how that man had wept with the beauty and wonder of it.
Made in traditional European style, the Hannah Cabinet has eighteen decorated doors and 140 exquisitely crafted drawers, many of which are hidden within other drawers. Geoff draws images of Australian animals and birds, leaves and flowers, then cuts from veneer and assembles the pieces. He used thirty-four different types of timber and veneers on the Hannah Cabinet, as well as four kinds of shell and seventeen varieties of precious stone, with extensive marquetry inlays on the doors and drawers.

The Hannah Cabinet, which won the National Woodwork Exhibition Award in 1991, is more than 2.4 metres high and the last of a series of four, the first being the Bicentenary Cabinet, unveiled in 1988 and displayed at Sydney’s Opera House, and now retained by Geoff. Three years later, he made the Yarralumla Cabinet, which stands in the private entrance hall of Government House in Yarralumla, Canberra. The 2013 Churchill Fellows, Churchill House staff and I were lucky enough to see this cabinet at a reception hosted by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, on 22 July of that year.

The Australiana Cabinet was completed in 1993 and bought by a private collector for $500,000. It is now in Antwerp, Belgium, but Geoff said that it is in good hands, belonging to someone who appreciates it and looks after it.
The cabinets put new meaning into the word ‘ambitious’. But the smaller pieces of furniture have their own unique grace and simplicity. In the Bungendore Wood Gallery, I stood in front of a small yew table which breathed elegance and beauty. Ivy stems were inlaid with myrtle, the leaves in Queensland walnut, flowers in thorny yellowwood. Geoff
had depicted light falling on the upper side of the ivy leaves by making that side of lighter coloured wood, giving a brilliant illusion of three-dimensionality. To slide the narrow drawer out was effortlessly smooth and silent, like satin on skin.

David MacLaren spoke of Geoff’s work as ‘all that imagination and toil’. Geoff laughed that off, although admitting to the toil. ‘There’s no mystery’, he said. ‘It’s just time; it’s hours.’ This recalled Winston Churchill’s heartening opinion that ‘[c]ontinuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential’.

Geoff has always lived surrounded by wood. His father worked in the timber industry and Geoff had an apprenticeship in 1963 at fifteen as a cabinetmaker at Brown & Jolly, in New South Wales. In 1973 he set up his own business. Geoff told me a little about how he methodically makes each piece. He keeps this workspace neat and tidy, he said, ‘or my head gets mucked up’. He is in the workshop every day of the week at 7.30 a.m. He does not usually estimate how long a project will take. ‘It will be finished when it’s finished’, he said. 

Excerpt from “Inspiring Australians” written by Penny Hanley (2015)

Awards and Honours

  • 2018 awarded Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the visual arts through the production of furniture and marquetry.
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