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Peter McLeavey: 'I sell, therefore I am'

When Peter McLeavey began as an art dealer in 1966, he "thought I'd ring Toss and Colin and get them to send down a few paintings and see what happened".

Peter McLeavey. Photo/David White

Ahead of the release of Jill Trevelyan’s new biography, Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer, here is another chance to read our interview with McLeavey. This article was originally published Nov 28, 2009, issue #3629, p34.

Three years ago, Peter McLeavey took the bus to Waitara. He stopped for a cup of tea then walked up to the local high school, where, nearly 60 years earlier, he had sat at his third-form desk listening to the sound of cows chewing the grass outside the window.

"It was a warm day. It was the first period in the afternoon and we had a teacher called Mrs Palmer."

McLeavey sits back in his chair, puts his hands together (fingertip to fingertip), and stares a wide-open blue-eyed stare into middle distance.

"She came into the classroom and said, 'Today we're going to talk about Mesopotamia and the Italian Renaissance - two very old civilisations', and as she talked the horizon line shifted. Even now, all these years later, I can still feel her expressive-ness, her power. My imagination took hold. The boy that entered that room in the first period that afternoon - when he left, he left as an art dealer. For some reason, something came together on that warm autumn day when the cows chewed the grass."

It is the day after the opening of a new exhibition by Robin White at the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Cuba St, Wellington. It was a busy day, a late night: viewers to greet, bottles to open, glasses to fill, works on the wall to discuss and discuss and discuss again.

It is close on McLeavey's 500th exhibition but still his enthusiasm is palpable.

"The day after the opening is a very special day. One's body and mind are in a state of relief and pleasure. The exhibition has been hung; like a child it has been released to the world. For four weeks it lives in the world. It will never be seen like that again."

McLeavey is an allegorist, a storyteller, a myth-maker with a taste for parody.

"But essentially I'm a salesman. I love selling. I live from selling. I sell, therefore I am."

Photo/David White

Since his first sale - a landscape by Toss Woollaston, sold for 60 guineas from his flat on The Terrace, Wellington, in 1966 - McLeavey has negotiated that often difficult path between the artist and the viewer, nurturing and encouraging the former, supporting and informing the latter. His name is synonymous with the canon of early New Zealand modernist art - Woollaston, Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters, Milan Mrkusich, Michael Illingworth, Pat Hanly, Don Binney, Michael Smither. Today, he throws his support behind a new generation of artists: Peter Robinson, Bill Hammond, Mark Braunias, Ava Seymour, Andrew McLeod, Brendon Wilkinson, Matt Hunt and Yvonne Todd among others.

He cultivates the interest of collectors; he gives confidence to other, younger art dealers. He will stand faithfully by those artists he trusts and in whom he believes. He will quit a relationship if he sees fit.

"I'm selling my dream of New Zealand. I have my reading of New Zealand culture and I frame everything I sell within that."

Which is? "I prefer to pass over that in silence."

There is a theatricality to McLeavey's manner. At 73, he remains politely unconventional, an uncommon businessman with a good suit and a flax kete and a simmering sense of delight in the gallery he has created with the support of his wife, Hilary. She is there now, minding the shop while we talk in the dining room of their large Thorndon home.

He is also self-effacing, a little embarrassed by the attention drawn by Luit Bieringa's sensitive tribute to him, The Man in the Hat, filmed by award-winning cinematographer Leon Narbey and a hit at this year's International Film Festival. "I am happy the film's been done, they've done a lovely job, but ... my wife persuaded me to do it, as a historical thing. I don't really like the attention."

He prefers the anonymity - and the -security - of the two-roomed gallery where, every week, he stands alongside works of art he has selected, arranged and hung, and, he says with confidence, will sell.

"The gallery is my mistress, it's my companion, it's my playground. Each exhibition is a work of art that I've created. The artist's paintings become the clay from which I express myself. The gallery is a room where I exercise my deepest creative impulses. It's an extension of me."

His childhood was peripatetic, his family following his father's work from one railway settlement to another: Ohakune, Levin, Napier, Feilding, New Plymouth, Waitara, Lower Hutt. Always the new kid, always on the outside.

He points to a work by American photo-grapher Robert Frank, a view over the rooftops of suburban Montana. "That's my life, coming to a new town and looking out of the first-floor window of the boarding house at the town where we were going to make our future for the next couple of years."

Was there excitement, dread, weariness? "All the above."

He points to another photograph on the wall, one of Ralph Eugene Meatyard's wild Lucybelle Crater series of portraits behind grotesque masks.

"There are my parents, [he points to another] that's my brother and my sister. I think in my heart there's a powerful feeling about being attracted to the marginalised, the forgotten, the people on the edge of town. I'm always looking for things that don't quite fit, that are maybe ahead of their time or in some ways behind the time. It's that outsider thing."

In 1959, he left his home, his secure bank job, setting sail for what was, for a young man steeped in the rituals of Irish Catholicism and the art of Fra Angelico, Caravaggio, Michelangelo and Raphael, the most logical destination.

"Maybe it was the culture I was born into or the parents I had, but I was very aware of Europe. In a sense, the Catholic Church was a gigantic multinational and the culture that shaped it, and the culture it in turn shaped, was something of great fascination to me. The music, the literature, the art - it was all the one thing."

The boat to England stopped over in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Egypt, then went on to Europe. In Naples, he saw his first great example of Western art - Giovanni Bellini's The Transfiguration.

"Which I found overwhelming. In those days, you could stand right close to the paintings - there were no security guards; just the sound of someone coughing in the next room - and you could see the man who painted the thing. You could see the brush strokes, the bits of hair from the paintbrush. For the first time, I realised art was made by someone, by a human being."

London was a room in Tottenham Court Rd, a job in a bank, the Royal Festival Hall, Covent Garden, opera, ballet, art. And, surprisingly, the faraway country of his birth. Immersed in all things English, he began to read books and journals from New Zealand: Landfall, the Free Lance, the Auckland Weekly, the Listener.

"I'd gone to Europe to find out where I came from but the home that had nurtured me, the country that had shaped me - it had a civilisation, too, albeit small and growing. I wanted to help that culture."

Back in New Zealand, the dealer gallery scene was taking its first faltering steps. Auckland had seen Peter Webb's short-lived Argus House Gallery (1957-58), followed by The Gallery (later called the Ikon Gallery). Gallery 91 had opened, briefly, in Christchurch, as had the Rosslyn Gallery in Dunedin. In Wellington, Helen Hitchings had run her Bond St gallery from 1949-1951 and the Architectural Centre Gallery (later the Centre Gallery) was a progressive alternative to the more sedate National Art Gallery.

In 1963, Auckland City Art Gallery's retrospective exhibition of works by Woollaston and McCahon reached Wellington. Not long back from England, the young McLeavey was enthralled.

"I'd started to read the history of New Zealand, the literature, the poetry. I was interested in art, but when I saw that exhibition - it was an epiphany of some sort. I was knocked over."

He went south to visit Woollaston, north to see McCahon. He was, he says, just an admirer, "a fan, I suppose", and for 30 guineas you could buy a beautiful painting.

Setting up a small gallery in his flat on The Terrace in 1966 was a logical next step. As he tells the camera in Bieringa's documentary, he wanted to "feed the culture, and to expose the culture to people who didn't know about it".

"That's what I had to do," he says now. "I was single, I had no responsibilities, I had my flat. I thought I'd ring Toss and Colin and get them to send down a few paintings and see what happened."

Two years later, he moved into his present location at 147 Cuba St: white walls (first painted by Gordon Walters), green chaise longue (he calls it a couch), an anonymous graffitied doorway, a still- trusted typewriter and an exhibition programme that reads like a birth notice for New Zealand modernist art.

"It was like walking down a country road and I passed an orchard. And I looked over the fence of that orchard and there was a McCahon tree, a Woollaston tree, a Smither tree, an Illingworth tree, a Mrkusich tree. They all flowered and I crept over the fence ... it was a different time. There weren't lots of galleries and if I wanted to take some fruit from the Mrkusich tree or McCahon tree, I could do that. It was all an exciting adventure, really."

He recites his own words from Gregory O'Brien's We Set Out One Morning: The BNZ Art Collection: "It was almost the pre-Christian era, just before the David Lange government. It was as if we set out one morning, saddled up the horses, and sped off across the paddocks up the rise and on to the high country on a voyage of discovery."

Pre-Christian? "It seems so far away now. Like the world of the Zoroastrian empire. So long ago. But I was confident that the works I was selling were representative of the best art produced in that time in this ?culture."

It was, he says, a heroic age. A new generation of artists was giving shape to their vision of New Zealand, a vision that was raw (like the work of the early Italian painters, he says), vibrant and distinctive. To these artists, McLeavey offered friendship, loyalty, often vital encouragement (even when critics and the public were less enthusiastic), and sales, including that of McCahon's Northland panels to the National Art Gallery in 1978 for a then-lofty $25,000.

In the 1960s, however, the market was still in its infancy, with few galleries and limited interest by public institutions. The artist was, says McLeavey, marginalised by the culture, "but that gave them an enormous sense of freedom. They could do anything they wanted. Now they are embraced by the culture, the market plays an important part - that's another battle that artists have to fight."

McLeavey's voice is tired but his enthusiasm is undimmed. His schedule for next year is almost complete but he is still keen to make new discoveries. And, of course, new sales.

"When you're a dealer, you're a salesman, a businessman, a psychotherapist; you're a priest, a marriage guidance counsellor, a family guidance counsellor, a friend, a colleague, a lover even - not in a sexual sense but you love the works.

"When people come into the room, I leave them on their own. I don't hang around. I leave the painting to work its magic on them, to reveal its mysteries to them. The viewer is being seduced by the object and I'm there to accompany the viewer, to be there when they make their mind up. I get a great thrill from that. It doesn't matter what the value of the object is, it's the actual act of selling, of helping the client come to a decision."

McLeavey still wants to visit Yemen (he has a passion for Islamic art and architecture). He hopes, too, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by German artist Matthias Grünewald in Colmar, France. But for now, he just wants to go to his gallery and sell art.

"I just want to get on with what I've got to do, which is to go there every day, to stand alongside the exhibition, to do my best to sell it - to frame the work, be kind to the work, welcome people, talk to people, strive, fail, strive harder. That's a voyage. Every day's a new voyage. My body is old but I still have imagination and in that imagination the same drive and ambition, the same hunger to survive and to do my best for the artist."

This is the story he told the class of Year 11 pupils in Waitara three years ago: the story of an inspired teacher, of a white-walled gallery in Cuba St, of working alongside other small shopkeepers "like myself, trying to make a living, to put some marmalade on their toast".

How did the class respond? "They clapped. Then I left the building."