By David Famularo, March 2016
Some years ago, I remember passing the former Post Office building on the corner of Queen and Lincoln Streets when the shop space was being renovated.
Tools were casually lying up against the Ernest Mervyn Taylor ceramic mural that had been installed when building was opened in the early 1960s.
I told the tradesperson there about the importance of the mural and asked if he could move the tools and be careful with the mural which he was happy to do.
It is this sort of casualness which has epitomised the fate of the 12 public murals Taylor is known to have completed, along with the fate of a great many other public art works in New Zealand.
As Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy pointed out in her address at the launch of the book Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor last Saturday at City Gallery in Wellington, public murals have an important cultural value as they represent a moment of significance or achievement for a community.
And because of their cost and importance, the artist commissioned to do the work has usually been an artist of some standing.
Of the 12 murals that Taylor created, only eight are known with certainty to exist – five paintings and three ceramic tiles.
This makes Masterton, which is the home of two of the ceramic murals, the most significant keeper of the public art of Taylor in New Zealand.
Lest We Forget is located in the War Memorial Stadium in Dixon Street. One of Taylor’s best works in my opinion, it was installed in 1963, and then reinstalled in 1966 after dissatisfaction with quality of the original tiles.
The brightly coloured mural depicts the different theatres of war where New Zealand’s armed forces served during World War II and features on the cover of Wanted.
The Settlers, depicting local Maori and European settlers in front of Masterton’s original post office building, was installed in the new Post Office building in 1962.
While not an ideal situation, we can be grateful that it was saved, as it could so easily been destroyed as part of the renovations, as has happened to so many other works of art.
Taylor is chiefly known for his engravings and woodcuts, and in particular for his work as the first art editor of the New Zealand School Journal.
Dame Patsy recalled that she was one of many New Zealanders who remember Taylor from the journals.
A figurative artist with a Modernist aesthetic, Taylor was part of the nationalist movement in New Zealand art which sought to capture the unique qualities of this country’s landscape and culture.
Taylor had a specially strong interest in Maori culture, and when awarded the Association of New Zealand Art Societies scholarship, he chose to remain in New Zealand and spent many months at Te Kaha on the East Coast studying Maori life.
Taylor’s grand-daughter Sarah Taylor spoke at the launch of an amiable, modest man who died suddenly in 1964 when at the peak of his creative powers.
Wanted is not only the story of the works and the artist, but also the search by the book’s editor Bronwyn Holloway-Smith to find as many murals as possible.
This search began when she discovered Taylor’s ceramic tile mural Te Ika-a-Maui stacked in cardboard boxes in Auckland when doing research for her art PhD on the connections between New Zealand national identity and the Southern Cross Cable.
Te Ika-a-Maui had been commissioned by the New Zealand government to celebrate the opening of the Commonwealth Pacific Cable in 1962. The mural is temporarily being exhibited at City Gallery as part of the book launch.
While the journey began with the discovery of Te Ika-a-Maui, it ended just days before the book was about to go to print, with the rediscovery of the Wairoa Centennial Library Mural.
This had disappeared in the early 2000s after it was dismantled as part of renovations in the library and later given to someone who falsely claimed to be a relative of Taylor’s.
A member of the public came forward with information as to its whereabouts in a garage after a “wanted” poster with a reward of $5000 was put out (the informant chose not to collect the reward).
This was not the only big “reveal” at the launch. Holloway-Smith said that the former Post Office in Masterton now has a new owner who is keen to see The Settlers mural saved.
Wanted contains essays of each of the 12 murals with Wairarapa historian Gareth Winters contributing one for Lest We Forget and Terri Te Tau who grew up in Masterton and is lecturer at the School of Arts at Massey University discussing The Settlers.
Wanted is about more than just the Taylor and his lost and found murals. Holloway-Smith’s research has shone a light on the tragic fate that has befallen many of New Zealand’s public works of art – removed, vandalised or destroyed.
The good news is that her research has spurred new interest in these, with members of the public telling her about other works in need of protection.
A New Zealand Mural Heritage Register has been established that already contains 160 entries and an even grander Heritage Register of New Zealand Public Art is now being talked about.
Wanted represents a dramatic turn-around in the fortunes of the murals of E Mervyn Taylor, but also provides hope for many others that remain in danger of being damaged and destroyed.
Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor, Editor Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, Massey University Press, $70
Top Image: Lest We Forget