• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Artist Martin Law's race to archive New Zealand's architectural heritage

Artist Martin Law looks through a serving hatch in his late 1880s villa into the room where he staged his Paintings of Mt Eden exhibition.

Martin Law’s ambitious “Painter of Paradise” project could become New Zealand’s largest collection of architectural paintings by a single artist. But, he tells Joanna Wane, he’s in a race against time before paradise is lost.

It’s a genteel strip of mature leafy trees and tasteful renovations now, but Prospect Terrace was once known as Mt Eden’s “street of fear”.

In the mid-1970s, when members of the Highway 61 bikie gang moved in, rumours flew that it was part of a plot by unscrupulous property developers to drive down values and scare home owners into selling up cheaply.

Artist Martin Law lives across the road from the old gang hangout where, in 1975, a 19-year-old man was fatally shot – or clubbed to death, depending on which newspaper report you read.

His glorious kauri villa was one of the first houses built on the street in the late 1800s, and the man he bought it from, Arthur Wood, was a bit of a local hero. According to one of the stories told, he stood up to the bikies even when they threatened to burn down his home. Wood apparently took precautions by laying out a ring of fire hoses, but held his ground. And eventually, his troublesome neighbours moved out.

Wood stayed put for another 35 years. When he finally sold in 2010, the old campaigner – who died a couple of years ago at the age of 91 – passed on the keys to someone he knew would treasure the house and its heritage as much as he did. And while Law is no activist in the traditional sense of the word, he’s quietly taken up the fight in the best way he knows how.

Law works on a painting of the Grand Hotel in Whanganui for his exhibition at the city’s WHMilbank Gallery .

“I don’t know if I’m that person who can badger the council, and write to this and that MP, but perhaps I can do it by putting a painting on the wall. And instead of saving one building, by activism, I can cover a massive area and encourage people to stop and look at these incredible buildings before they’re bulldozed and inspire them to care – and perhaps to be a bit proactive themselves.”

Law’s vision is enormously ambitious in both breadth and scale: to produce 1500 paintings to create a detailed archive of New Zealand’s architectural heritage before its dwindling remnants are erased from the landscape. He’s called the project Painter of Paradise, “because New Zealand is paradise, isn’t it?” says the 50-year-old father of two, who married a Kiwi and moved here a decade ago from the UK, where he worked as a conceptual designer for clients including Eric Clapton and Saudi royalty. “I knew from my very first trip here that this was a pretty special land.”

A tall, wiry man who vibrates with energy, Law speaks and works at a furious pace. Painting for 12-14 hours a day in a studio at the back of his house, he juggles commercial commissions with the project that’s become his passion – and a race against time. His first solo exhibition last December, Paintings of Mt Eden, was inspired by the “tragedy of destruction” in his own backyard, from either redevelopment or neglect. His most recent show, Whanganui and Raetihi Paintings of Architecture in its Landscape, at the WHMilbank Gallery , on the River City and its languishing inland cousin is the second in what’s intended to become a nationwide series.

He describes a feeling of “tremendous joy” when he’s scouting locations and something takes his eye – whether it’s a dilapidated suburban streetscape or an abandoned fertiliser works. But Law’s art is also suffused with melancholy. One of his Raetihi paintings captures a row of terraced shopfronts on the town’s main street, with not a single functioning business among them.

Over the past few years, he’s watched a grand old Mt Eden landmark, the historic St James Church and Gothic-style hall, fall into disrepair because the predominantly Cook Islands Presbyterian congregation can’t afford the cost of earthquake strengthening and repairs. In September, the Auckland Council refused resource consent for the hall to be demolished, but that’s now being appealed by a developer with plans to covert the church into apartments.

“I feel utterly sad when I go past a building and see that it’s not there, and I haven’t had the opportunity to record it,” says Law. “If it’s just a smouldering load of rubble where a building has been destroyed or moved off or burnt or crushed, I find it very, very upsetting.

“There should be more weight and emphasis on saving, rebuilding, re-using these structures. Because there’s not a lot left. We’re getting so close to the end of what’s here, really down to the few last bits and pieces. The stocks are quite worryingly low. In a way, these paintings are my way of coming to terms with their inevitable loss.”

Law’s methods are meticulous and practised, with such precise brushwork he believes his paintings could be used as a building plan to recreate the original structure. Yet the realism of his style is softened by impressionistic flutters and dabs of colour, with layers of hidden images that slowly emerge from the canvas to tell their own story.

The son of a cropping farmer in the Cotswolds, Law graduated from the Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London and founded his own studio in 1992, specialising in conceptual design projects – from superyachts to the interiors of royal palaces in the Gulf states. He now sees his three decades in commercial design as an apprenticeship, a prelude to the work he’s doing now.

The inspiration for his paintings begins with rambling road trips that have taken him all over the North Island, in either his immaculately restored 1968 Triumph TR5 convertible or his Nissan 4WD, which he’s fitted out for longer trips with a mattress in the back.

It happens in a split second, Law says, when he catches sight of something in his peripheral vision and instinctively knows he wants to paint it.

First, he records the GPS co-ordinates at each site and takes a few digital photographs, noting down details (such as the building’s architectural heritage, how it fits within the landscape, its state of repair) before photographing it again, this time on 35mm film. Then, he draws a pencil sketch in his notebook, accurate in perspective and scale yet barely larger than a passport photo. Finally, he pulls out his acrylic paints to create a colour palette of the scene.

The canvases themselves are painted in his studio, with bFM or the Concert programme playing on the radio, and regular breaks to play the flute and relax his eyes. As the project evolves, detailed information on each image will be uploaded to his website. All his artwork is done freehand, with the computer used only for scanning.

Law aims to produce as many as 100 paintings a year, and sees a lifetime of work ahead of him: “I haven’t even touched the South Island yet!” And although it’s the architectural merits of a building that first draw him in, his paintings tell a human story, too.

Often, he says, people hear the thunderous roar of his Triumph and come over for a chat when he stops to take a closer look at something. Last year, he took a detour into the backcountry north of New Plymouth and came across a hillside littered with old farm machinery that stuck up in the grass like rusting tree trunks. Spotting him by the side of the road, the farmer came over for a yarn.

“It was just fascinating, we had a wonderful conversation,” Law says. “I’d imagine he was a bit of a legend in the valley; everyone would have known him. And there’ll be many, many more like that. Everyone has a story.”   

Law in his immaculately restored 1968 Triumph TR5, which he brought over with him from England. Behind him is the historic St James Church hall, near his Mt Eden home – a “precious diamond” that has fallen into disrepair and is now up for sale, along with the adjacent church. Law’s painting of the Gothic-style hall, which was built in 1885, is shown on the opening page, as well as his impression of how the interior may have once looked in better days. Closed in 2011 when it was deemed unsafe, the hall is now in a sorry state, with cracked walls, smashed windows and pigeon droppings coating the floor.
A notebook filled with the small, to-scale sketches Law makes of each site before putting paint to canvas.
The interior of a private home in London, finely illustrated in watercolour by Law during his “apprenticeship” as a conceptual designer.
A corner building in Whanganui.
A shopfront in Whanganui.
Ahome under renovation in Raetihi; and a grand old dame looks down on the River City.

This was published in the November 2017 issue of North & South.