James (Jim) Turkington (1895-1979) was one of NZ’s most prolific mural artists. Born in Ireland, he came to New Zealand with his parents in 1897 where the family settled near Gore. From 1912-1913 he attended Wellington Technical College where he studied under Linley Richardson before joining the army, where he served as a lead gun driver. Returning from war, he received further art training at Auckland’s Elam School of Art before going on to work with Chandler & Co, a signwriting and advertising company where he worked on large-scale billboards and cinema facades.
In 1925 he began teaching at Elam as a part-time Lettering and Design tutor, eventually leaving in 1938 as a Senior Lecturer. His teaching career also included positions at Auckland University College’s School of Architecture, and the Auckland Society of Arts, where he was a member, exhibitor, and active and regular contributor, including as a Board Member and President from 1959 to 1963.
Mural work became a large part of his life outside the regular academic job up until the late 1960s. Notably, he was active during the turbulent years of the Great Depression. During the Queen St Riot of April 1932 Turkington was painting the interior of a shop and could hear the windows breaking outside.
By the early 1940’s Turkington’s murals encompassed a range of different techniques, including low and mid-relief scenes carved into materials like soft-board and stone. The works would be painted to add depth or further highlights to the textured areas. In the mid-1940’s Turkington was often employed by Freddie Maeder to design and paint interiors for his expanding hair salon business, initially through New Zealand and then in Australia during the 50’s and 60’s. Another long-term client was liquor entrepreneur Henry Kelliher. As the Kelliher empire expanded, Turkington was often employed to design and paint large scale works for their hotels throughout the country, and to design details right down to the menu cards. From 1960-61 he worked for Formica as Senior Artist in Art Division, despite being old enough to collect a pension. Here he teamed up with Formica to pioneer a new process that aimed to increase the lifespan of murals and make them more portable. Described as ‘Building Progress’, it was derived from experiments with layered Formica.
Sadly, although Turkington created hundreds of works in almost every town in New Zealand, many murals have been destroyed, or plastered and painted over, while others may still exist, hidden behind walls. Remaining public works include those at the Parnell Pools, Auckland (1957), glass works at the Devonport Naval Base (1958), the “Wahine” work now at Wellington Museum, and a mural for the Rotorua Land Court building (circa 1963).
The following is a list of artworks that have been reported to the register. More research is required to identify their status and other details.
1919-20 Rimmers Coffee House
1938 DSIR interior mural, Cunningham building
1939 1ZB building interior mural in stairway, Durham Lane
1939-40 Petone (Settlers Museum) Wellington Provincial Centennial Memorial, Lower Hutt
1944 Trocadero Dance Club
1945 Avondale College, Auckland
1957 Parnell Pools, Auckland
1959 Devonport Naval Base, Auckland
1959 Hotel DeBrett dining room
1963 St Mary’s Catholic Church, Northcote, Auckland
1963 Royal International Hotel
1965 Rotorua Airport
1966 Wahine (ship), Wellington
Date unknown Matakohe Kauri Museum
Date unknown ASB Bank, Devonport, Auckland
Date unknown Achilles Bay
Date unknown Cargen Hotel, Eden Crescent, Auckland CBD
Date unknown Government Print, Wellington