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In search of the missing murals of E Mervyn Taylor

E Mervyn Taylor carving the Broadcasting House panel circa 1963: strongly bicultural visual language.

One woman’s search for the missing murals and works of leading artist E Mervyn Taylor has drawn attention to the loss of some of New Zealand’s artistic wealth and cultural heritage.

In the dead of night in June 1997, two people broke into the Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre at Lake Waikaremoana and stole Colin McMahon’s Urewera Mural. Reaction was fast and loud. There was a police hunt, a roadblock, a media frenzy and, the following year, the equally high-profile return of the work.

Three years later, an hour’s drive south of the now-demolished visitor centre, another mural disappeared. This one – a 3.5m x 3.1m painted partition wall in the Wairoa Centennial Library by wood engraver, illustrator, sculptor, muralist and designer E Mervyn Taylor – barely got a mention.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

In 2016, artist and self-described “art detective” Bronwyn Holloway-Smith put up a wanted poster for the mural in a cafe in the small Hawke’s Bay town. Late last year, she received a phone call from someone who had the mural: it had been safely stored in the garage for 15 years. The caller didn’t want the $5000 reward, and Holloway-Smith could come and photograph the work so long as the request for anonymity was respected.

So, there it is, on page 241 of her new book, Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E Mervyn Taylor, a stack of wooden panels depicting a stylised standoff between a group of settlers and a Māori rangatira, a frozen moment in the troubled history of Te Urewera.

The story to date tells of a visitor to the library who was shocked to see the mural had been removed for building renovations. Stern words were had with the librarian; sterner words with the mayor. It seems, says Holloway-Smith, that person was allowed to take the mural. There are no records, no consignment notes, no freight details. But there is the mural, safe and intact.

The Te Ika-A-Māui mural marked the completion of a transtasman telephone cable.

Holloway-Smith’s interest in Taylor’s missing mural dates back to 2014, when she was researching the cultural aspects of the transpacific Southern Cross telecommunications cable. A colleague in the US contacted her to ask if she had seen the ceramic-tile mural in the now-defunct Commonwealth Pacific Cable terminal in Auckland. Her inquiries led her to the disused terminal building in Northcote where she and the station manager found the tiles stashed in three dusty cardboard boxes.

Commissioned to mark the 1962 completion of the Tasman leg of the Commonwealth Pacific Cable (Compac), Te Ika-A-Māui is a startlingly bold, graphic depiction of Māui fishing up the North Island – an analogy, Taylor later explained, for the new cable drawing New Zealand “out of the Pacific into the telephone systems of the world”.

With permission from Spark, the tiles were shipped to Wellington, where they were cleaned, photographed and conserved. A photographic record of the mural was exhibited at advertising agency JWT in Auckland as part of a commission through public art group Letting Space. But the project didn’t stop there. As a student at the Massey University College of Creative Arts, where Taylor himself studied in the days when it was Wellington Technical College, Holloway-Smith was aware of the college’s forthcoming 130th anniversary. By then, she and Taylor’s granddaughter Sarah Taylor had a plan to find his other public murals. Massey Pro Vice-Chancellor Claire Robinson came on board and the E. Mervyn Taylor Mural Search & Recovery Project was launched. Beginning with a record of public works from Bryan James’s 2006 biography of the artist, they whittled down an initial list of 15 wanted murals to “a tidy dozen”.

Kia Kitea Te Waewae Tangata, now painted over, was in the foyer of the NZ Soil Bureau, Lower Hutt.

For Holloway-Smith, this was new territory. As an art student, she had never come across Taylor’s work. Even those familiar with his name tend to admire him for his many smaller wood engravings and illustrations published in the School Journal, where he was employed as the first art editor and illustrator, and in several books from the 1940s until his death in 1964.

His finely detailed woodcuts drew on the British Arts and Crafts tradition of the 1920s. But Taylor was also part of a post-war generation of artists seeking to forge a national identity through the arts, and he insisted on a strongly bicultural visual language. His many prints and illustrations are rich with New Zealand flora and fauna and scenes of Māori life and mythology. He was a member of the Ngāti Pōneke Māori Club, he carved, studied te reo and mentored young Māori artists Cliff Whiting and Para Matchitt.

As historian JC Beaglehole wrote after Taylor’s death, “He was very much a New Zealander, consciously, not self-consciously. He felt in touch with things, large and small, that grew in New Zealand, its birds, its snails, its trees, its flowers, its mushrooms. In the 1950s, he fell in love with its landscape and its old buildings, the country things. And at the same time his feeling for the Māori came uppermost.”

Design for the Otaki War Memorial Hall window, c1956.

In his work with Wellington’s Architectural Centre, Taylor also advocated for more public art in new architecture. He became a go-to muralist for a new generation of architects, including progressive Government Architect Gordon Wilson. This forgotten legacy is explored in the 12 essays in Wanted.

The search for Taylor’s murals found some still intact. War and Peace, a ceramic-tile mural juxtaposing images of peace (a dove, an olive branch) and war (guns, a wounded soldier), still graces the wall of Masterton’s War Memorial Stadium Hall of Memories. In New Plymouth, a large sandblasted-glass window in Puke Ariki pulls together images of the Taranaki landscape, Māori and settler history, agricultural endeavour and wartime activity in a “somewhat overloaded” design, writes James, symptomatic perhaps of the heavy hand of council subcommittee processes.

Some had been rescued from imminent destruction. A large carved kauri panel, a startling configuration of celestial bodies and zodiac signs made for Wellington’s new Broadcasting House in 1963, would have been lost when the building was controversially demolished in 1997 had not the Radio New Zealand chief executive at the time, Sharon Crosbie, ensured the work was saved. It still hangs in the boardroom of Radio New Zealand House on The Terrace.

When Taylor’s first work for a public building, a large sandblasted-glass window in the Otaki War Memorial Hall, was smashed by two youths in 2006, the community rallied to have a replica made.

Mural in the Masterton War Memorial Stadium Hall of Memories.

Five years later, a glass panel in Taylor’s 1959 window design in the Khandallah Presbyterian Church, which depicted the Ascension of Christ, a memorial to Leslie Hayes who died of leukaemia at the age of 30, was shattered by a thrown beer bottle. Hayes’s sister, Patricia Parsons, ensured the mural was properly repaired.

Some of his works remain hidden, however. In Masterton, a painted wall in the former Post Office, showing a potentially tense 19th-century scene of early settlement, is now hidden behind a wall added in 2013 after the building’s lease went into private hands.

The vivid painting of a rangatira digging a kumara plot, designed for the foyer of the Soil Bureau in Lower Hutt in 1962, has since been painted over. Photographs and Taylor’s sketches show a strong, stylised portrayal of traditional knowledge within the contemporary world of the soil scientist. As Massey horticulture lecturer Nick Roskruge writes, this visual expression of Māori culture presented in a science institution “adds mana to the whole concept, from its inception in the mind of the artist to its expression on the wall”.

The design for the National Mutual Life Assurance building, circa 1963.

The fate of other works remains a mystery. A large carved totara panel, designed for the Meat Producers Board in the new Massey House on Lambton Quay in 1958, tells a complete “paddock-to-port story” of New Zealand meat. The only known photograph, writes curator Linda Tyler, suggests “a bucolic, prosperous and busy artwork designed using recognisable elements of the New Zealand vernacular to promote nationalistic pride”. Its whereabouts is unknown.

A massive 7m x 2m mural painted in the new National Mutual Life Assurance building in Wellington’s Featherston St in 1963 has similarly disappeared. Somewhere in the mix of several rounds of renovation – it is now the Ibis Hotel – the mural was repainted, built over, probably destroyed.

“There’s always the hope somebody took the panels off the wall and it is out there somewhere,” says Holloway-Smith. “But I suspect it was covered over, people didn’t know it was there, then the wall was knocked down.”

Taylor’s last and probably least-known mural was installed in the new Cable Price Downer House on The Terrace in 1964. A black and white photograph shows a stark stencil-like ceramic-tile illustration of construction and engineering, a graphic nod to the Russian constructivism that informed much of his earlier work.

Its disappearance, following a mid-1980s refit, is a tragic loss, writes exhibition designer and curator Gregory J Smith: “A loss to this country’s artistic wealth, heritage culture and imagination. A loss brought about by a lack of attention to what is valuable or of real worth in our community.”

In bringing together all of Taylor’s known murals for the first time, Wanted remedies that lack of attention. As Sarah Taylor writes in her preface, “Mervyn would have been chuffed.”

Te Ika-A-Māui will be exhibited as part of City Gallery Wellington’s This Is New Zealand exhibition, and Holloway-Smith says the Spark Trust and Auckland Council are looking for a public site on the North Shore where it can be installed permanently. “That was really important to me. This was commissioned by public money, it was originally accessible and it needs to go back into public space as a reminder of that history.”

But the book is also a call for action to prevent further losses of our public art heritage. Following its work in tracking down Taylor’s murals, the project has now started the New Zealand Mural Heritage Register, currently listing more than 160 works. The next step, says Holloway-Smith, is to set up a national advocacy group for public art and a formal New Zealand public art register, similar to that recently established by British conservation group Historic England to identify and protect public sculptures.

Public art, says Holloway-Smith, is an important part of our cultural history, giving a rare insight into what the commissioning bodies of the day saw as important, what the public considered valuable “and how these places wanted to present themselves”. As she ends her book, “Watch this space.”

WANTED: THE SEARCH FOR THE MODERNIST MURALS OF E MERVYN TAYLOR, by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith (Massey University Press, $79.99)

This Is New Zealand, City Gallery Wellington, to July 15.

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.