A Night With A Knight: In which we meet Sir James Wallace

June 15, 2013 in New Zealand, Oceania, Travelogue

I watched his virtuoso fingers, reflected in the deep midnight gloss of the Shigeru Kawai grand piano tucked into the corner of the drawing room at the base of the grand staircase. They poured over the keys like water over pebbles, seemingly releasing Hayden, Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky & Prokofiev, bodily, from the belly of the whale. The powerful chords of Beethoven ran through Naoki Toyumura’s body like electrical shocks, proof positive of the ability to music to run, live, like electricity, between generations, between hearts, between souls. It is, perhaps, the truest form of time travel.

How we found ourselves, one of a double handful of guests, seated on folding chairs in the acoustically excellent double story music room at Rannoch, the elegant home of Sir James Wallace, is a rather long story, but suffice it to say that serendipity is the mother of all sorts of beautiful interactions. It was a surreal moment to be floating in Hayden and drowning in a sea of art and to realize that it all happened because a guy in a funky hat stuck out his thumb outside Te Anau and we took a chance on him.

Sir James Wallace cut a striking figure in his cobalt blue velvet jacket and understated plaid pants. He welcomed us to his home with a casual graciousness that belied his station. We were invited to enjoy and support the efforts of the young musician, who turned out to be just nineteen years old, and bound for the number one music school in the world, having already won scholarships and international acclaim. I listened with my eyes wide open, exploring the visual feast of the house, which felt to me like a castle; fitting for a Knight of the Realm.

To say that Sir James is an art collector would be to sell him sorely short.

There was not a surface in his house that was not supporting a thing of beauty. The pedestrian entrance to his home is a long walk through a gallery room, leading up the stairs to a central staircase that puts most museums to shame.

To give you an idea of the scope and magnitude, consider this question: If you owned a Picasso, where would you hang it? Perhaps you would give it it’s own wall? Maybe you’d build on a special room for it? Sir James has one, perhaps he has more, I don’t know, but the one I saw was hung in approximately the same position of honor as my Dad has reserved for a desiccated fish head: over the door frame in his office. Of course Sir James’ library is a bit more upscale than my father’s but it’s clear they have the same organizational style. The Picasso was but the tip of the iceberg.

Even the bathroom was a treasure trove. Hannah came out, looking a bit disturbed. “Isn’t it cool?” I stage whispered to her. Her brow was furrowed. “Yeah, it was cool, but it was also creepy! I felt like I was in Chinua Achebe’s book and the village spirits were watching me!” She hissed back, referencing the masked figures in Things Fall Apart. I laughed out loud: the bathroom is hung, on every wall, with masks from every continent, some with human teeth imbedded in them. It was the only room we dared take a picture of!

Our knight is a patron of the arts on par with the great men of the Renaissance and a philanthropist of the highest degree. In addition, he opens his home to young artists and thinkers, expanding their paradigms and adding a depth and richness to their experience that they couldn’t get any other way. Our friend Richard is among the recipients of that grace, and I’m so thankful, on his behalf.

It was an honor to express our gratitude to our host in person, and a total shock when he knew who we were. Apparently, our reputation precedes us, on the same wind that blew our backpacking friend out of his tent on the Routeburn Track, where we left him, and into a world of art and culture that he never dreamed would find him on the road. It took all of my concentration to hide my surprise and be cool when we were invited back for dinner in a few nights.

All I can say is that life takes turns one never expects. All of the arguments against picking up hitchhikers rang hollow last night as we shook hands with a Knight. I realized that my path began, barefoot in a log cabin with no electricity and has walked me through worlds I could never have imagined.