E. Mervyn Taylor: Masterton Post Office, Early Settlers

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Early Settlers
Medium: Ceramic tiles, adhered to a concrete wall
Dimensions: 4400 x 4400 mm
Date: 1962
Original location: Masterton Post Office, 122 Queen St, Masterton 5810.
Architect: Gray, Young, Morton & Calder
Current location: In the former Masterton Post Office, 122 Queen St, Masterton 5810. Now privately owned.
Heritage status: The mural is on the Masterton District Council’s heritage list. Prior to any change to the mural’s status a resource consent would be required. In the case of demolition, the council would require the owner to remove the mural in such a way that it could be reinstated.

E. Mervyn Taylor’s mural ‘Early Settlers’ was unveiled along with Masterton’s new Chief Post Office in 1962. Commissioned by the Ministry of Works, with Gordon Wilson as Government Architect, the mural features a depiction of the first Masterton Post Office showing how important it was as both a social gathering place and a communications link to the world beyond the mountains. A newspaper article from the Times-Age in 1962 describes this mural in terms of the struggle of settlers, ‘burning down the dense bush and planting thousands of acres of lush grazing grasses’.

Two people feature in the foreground. One man stares out across the landscape from under his wide-brim hat. Smoke billows out across the sky and jagged tree stumps line the hills. There’s an air of accomplishment in his pose; the trees are felled, the buildings erected, and people gather together around the post office. Both the man and his axe are at rest, their work for the moment complete. The other man stands closely behind him holding a taiaha. This man is not a settler and neither he nor his taiaha are at rest. Directly behind the man is a stand of trees—not yet felled by the axe or by fire—perhaps this is why the man’s taiaha is raised, he has the remains of a forest to protect.

During the period that Early Settlers depicts—the mid- to late 1800s—the clearing of bush was a highly celebrated activity and those who undertook it were considered heroes. It’s hard to imagine, in our time of climate consciousness, that such little regard would be had for conservation. Māori, having witnessed the loss of bird species over time, had established systems of rāhui that gave both species and soil periods of rest for rejuvenation. Our European ancestors, on the other hand, saw the forest as a beast that needed to be beaten into submission, ‘a wilderness that needed to be tamed, ordered, legally defined, made economically viable, and “civilised” through European settlement’. Later, when many of the forests were gone, concerns were raised about how this might affect the process of transpiration, which could lead to a much drier climate in the Wairarapa.

Members of Wairarapa whānau and hapū (from the Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa iwi) were rendered virtually landless as a result of the rapid acquisition of land by the Crown. Te Tapere Nui a Whātonga (also known as Seventy Mile Bush) was a large inland forest which stretched from the north of Masterton up past Norsewood towards Hawke’s Bay. In 1871 the majority of Te Tapere Nui a Whātonga came into Crown ownership. By the early 1900s, the Scandinavian settlers who were brought in to clear the forest had almost completely eradicated it. The only remaining area of Te Tapere Nui a Whātonga was 945 hectares at Pūkaha Mount Bruce. It seems symbolic, then, that the two men appear before the remaining stand of forest with birds swooping above it. Pūkaha Mount Bruce officially became a national bird sanctuary in 1962, the year that Early Settlers was unveiled.

So how did the publicly commissioned Taylor mural come to be covered by a wall? After New Zealand Post vacated the building, Paper Plus took over the lease for a number of years, shifting its purpose from state-run enterprise to private business. When the lease came up again in 2009, concerns were raised that the historical significance of the mural could be forgotten and that it might become damaged or neglected. Up until this point even New Zealand Post had been guilty of obscuring the mural, with a large cabinet of bright red post office boxes. Further, the area surrounding the mural, originally outdoors, had been enclosed to extend the retail area of the adjacent space, so the mural underwent a shift — from full street access to being visible only to those who entered the new space.

In 2013 the space housing the mural was leased out, becoming a clothing store called Legal Theft. The tenants wanted to make use of the mural-wall for retail display, so organised for it to be covered over. Because of the historic significance of the mural, the wall was built with care, so as not to damage it. The building is currently (at the time of writing) for sale and has been declared an earthquake risk. When sold, it will either undergo extensive renovations or face demolition. Initially purchased with public money for a state-owned building, the mural has now fallen into private hands, which control access. The question of how to relocate and restore the mural is currently under negotiation with the current owner, who has inadvertently become the guardian of this historic Wairarapa artefact.*

It is important that we don’t hide our history—we need it to help us understand our present, while also guiding us into the future. Looking at Early Settlers through a contemporary lens, the imagery can be seen as a significant illustration of these issues on a local level. If we imagine that the stand of forest with birds swooping above is the Pūkaha Mount Bruce bird reserve, then Early Settlers could be indicative of the partnerships between Iwi and Settlers that are needed to navigate these issues. Given this context, Early Settlers remains a relevant and important part of Wairarapa history which warrants the removal of that carefully built wall.*

* Note: the mural was finally uncovered in 2018 by the building’s new owner.

Text adapted from Terri Te Tau’s essay “The Taiaha and the Axe” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).