Guy Ngan: Naenae Post Office, 1959

Artist: Guy Ngan
Title: Untitled
Medium: Linoleum
Dimensions: Approx. H5400mm x W6400mm
Date: 1959
Original location: Naenae Post Office, Hillary Court, Naenae, Lower Hutt
Architect: Walter Frederic Charles Vine, with Gordon Wilson (Supervising Architect), Ministry of Works and Development
Current location: Presumed destroyed
Heritage status: No known protection

Mid-century New Zealand was marked by the end of both the depression and WWII. An urgent need for housing struck the country and inspired the government to implement a plan to construct thousands of houses. Lower Hutt was one beneficiary of the plan and several suburbs—and their respective community centres—sprung up including those of Epuni, Taita, and Naenae.

Designed by Viennese émigré architect Ernst Plischke, Naenae’s Hillary Court opened in 1954, with the Naenae Post Office as the centrepiece of what may have been New Zealand’s first pedestrianised shopping mall.

The design of the Post Office building was handled by architect Walter Frederic Charles Vine, under the supervision of Government Architect Gordon Wilson. During this time Guy Ngan was employed full-time at the Ministry of Works Architectural Division as a design consultant. In this capacity he was invited to to create a site-specific work for the main public-facing area. Hon Michael Mocham, Post Master General, laid the foundation and opening plaques. The contractor was J M Construction, and the building was officially opened on 4 December 1959.

This artwork is unique in Ngan’s oeuvre as it is the only known linoleum work he completed (most of his public murals and sculptures were constructed from concrete, aluminium, and tile); it is a colourful work (also rare for his public artworks); and it is the only known two-dimensional public artwork that Ngan made for the Hutt Valley. Linoleum was a popular mid-century flooring product, created primarily from linseed oil, albeit with traces of lead. Highly durable, it was applied in a range of commercial and domestic settings. Renowned as a thrifty creative, it is possible that Ngan made this mural from offcuts of linoleum.

The Naenae branch of the Post Office closed in 2016, however the mural had already disappeared by this time, possibly when additions, alterations, and general “redecoration throughout” occurred to the building in 1984.

Image: Guy Ngan, courtesy of the Ngan family

James Turkington: New Plymouth Post Office, Untitled

Artist: James Turkington
Title: Untitled (Māui ensnaring the sun)
Medium: Sand-blasted/acid-etched glass ceiling panels
Dimensions: Unknown (estimated at up to 8000 x 8000 mm)
Date: 1959
Original location: Chief Post Office, Cnr Gill and Currie Sts, New Plymouth 4310.
Architect: Taylor & Syme and Associates (R. W. Syme)
Commissioning Body: New Zealand Post Office
Current location: In situ, but partially covered and difficult to view.
Heritage status: No known protection

Originally commissioned by Architect R W Syme, Turkington’s acid-etched and sand-blasted lay-light ceiling mural was once the centrepiece of New Plymouth’s new Post Office building. Inspired by the Māori legend of Māui and his brothers harnessing the sun, Turkington’s subject matter was likely to have been inspired by its site at the base of a light well that illuminated the main office and public counters of the building. Supervised by Turkington, the glass was sand-blasted in Auckland before being shipped to New Plymouth where it was installed under a perspex covering which gave protection against the weather while allowing ample light into the ground floor.

It is possible to imagine that the effect of natural sunlight filtering through the panels would have added a power and glory to the exquisitely rendered image. Indeed, Director-General of the Post Office C.A. McFarlane wrote to Turkington in 1959 speculating that “the panels are likely to arouse considerable interest when the building is opened,” and, as one local recalled, gazing up at the image as a child filled them with a sense of awe.

Almost destroyed completely in 1996, the work was saved by the efforts of the New Plymouth Heritage Protection Group and others after the eminent painter and sculptor, Don Driver, expressed his concern. The building’s new owners, the ANZ Banking Group, were refurbishing the interior and had planned to cover the ceiling, but public feeling persuaded them to preserve the work. Despite being saved, the mural now sits awkwardly in a new context. The sun no longer shines through the panes of glass, which now have a floor built above them, and a false-ceilinged office space below precludes the mural from being seen in its entirety.

Thought for many years to be the work of E. Mervyn Taylor, this work was re-discovered to be that of James Turkington by Sue Elliott in 2017 while undertaking research for the E. Mervyn Taylor Mural Search & Recovery Project. Six illustrated panels on the front of the building are also potentially Turkington’s.

Details of the mural can be seen in a 2010 documentary “The Art of Mervyn Taylor” by Kapiti Coast film maker Errol Wright.

E. Mervyn Taylor: Khandallah Presbyterian Church, The Ascension

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: The Ascension of Christ
Medium: Sand-blasted glass window
Dimensions: H4810mm x W3370mm
Date: 1959
Original location: Khandallah Presbyterian Church, 27 Ganges Rd, Khandallah, Wellington
Architect: Haughton, Son & Mair
Current location: Intact, in its original location
Heritage status: Unknown

The sand-blasted mural The Ascension of Christ by E. Mervyn Taylor was the only conventionally religious subject the artist produced on this scale, and the only mural he produced for a church.

During 1958, Taylor was contacted by the minister of Khandallah Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Graeme McKenzie, on behalf of his parishioner Mrs Florence Hayes. Mrs Hayes wanted to donate a window to the new church to be built on Ganges Road as a memorial to her only son Leslie John Hayes, who had died of leukaemia at the age of thirty after suffering for fifteen years. Originally Mrs Hayes wanted a stained-glass window, but Taylor suggested — as the church was a modern one with clean, crisp lines — that a plainer, sand-blasted window would be more appropriate and much less expensive.

Taylor made an astute choice in suggesting the plain sand-blasted glass window. The neutrality of the sand-blasted glass integrated well with the undecorated concrete, brick and wooden components which comprise the fabric of the church building. The design of the new church was influenced by functional modernist architecture in which art was often included.

As with all his murals and wood engravings, Taylor showed his great skill as a designer. In this mural he had the complications of the struts supporting the glass panels as well as the shape of the window itself. These necessary supports would be major intrusions in the creation of the image. Taylor also had to consider the fact that the mural would be viewed from both the inside and the outside of the church. The design of the composition had to function for both front and back viewing of the figure of Christ. It is significant that Taylor planned the design by drawing on a piece of transparent architectural paper which he could view from both sides.

Faithful guardianship of the mural is presently the task of Leslie Hayes’s sister Mrs Patricia Parsons, who is a parishioner of the church. Mrs Parsons was instrumental in ensuring that the mural was suitably repaired when a lower glass panel was broken by a beer bottle in September 2011. Given the fate of other of Taylor’s murals it is very encouraging to have this level of protection for such a significant and important part of New Zealand’s art and architectural history.

Text adapted from Tony Mackle’s essay “The Ascension of Christ” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).