Ceramic tile mural, Cable Price Downer House, Wellington, photograph: John J. Gray, 1964. Courtesy Orchiston Architects Ltd.

E. Mervyn Taylor, Cable Price Downer House, 1964

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Industry
Medium: Ceramic tiles
Dimensions: Approx. H3005 x W3005m
Date: 1964
Original location: Cable Price Downer House, 108 The Terrace (also referred to as 106-110), Wellington. CPD House is now known as BERL House.
Architect: Orchiston, Power & Associates
Current location: Unknown
Heritage status: No known protection

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Now missing, E. Mervyn Taylor’s final mural was created for Cable Price Downer House, Wellington, in 1964. Taylor may have never seen the completed mural, as he passed away suddenly in June before the opening of the building in July of 1964. Aesthetically, it seems to sit at the very cusp of what might have been a new era in Taylor’s oeuvre. Constructivist and pop art influences are apparent, possibly inspired by Taylor’s visits to both New York and Moscow in 1958. In a curious bookend to his public art practice, Taylor ended up working with the same architect for both his first and final murals: Bruce Orchiston, who had also commissioned Taylor to create the windows for the Ōtaki War Memorial Hall in 1955.

The final mural design was made in ceramic tiles by Taylor’s close friend Roy Cowan in the home kiln at his and Juliet Peter’s house in Ngaio, where many an architectural tile had been produced (‘tons of tiles’ remarked Cowan in an Evening Post article). It had become evident during the Masterton Hall of Memories work that the artist needed to retain control over the final product, and, with Cowan and the kiln only a few miles from Karori, Taylor would thus be able to check progress and colour consistency quickly.

It is likely the mural disappeared during a refit of the building in the mid-1980s. It may have been destroyed, or perhaps still exists somewhere—dismantled and packed in cardboard boxes in a storage area, or even on a wall in a Hong Kong office, where some members of Downer (after being asset-stripped by Brierley Investments) operated from in the early 1990s. What remains is a tragic loss.

Text adapted from Gregory J. Smith’s essay “A Renaissance Interrupted” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).

E. Mervyn Taylor: Wairoa Centennial Library, Untitled

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Untitled
Medium: Painted wall partition
Dimensions: H3500mm x W3160mm
Date: 1961
Original location: Centennial Library, 212 Marine Parade, Wairoa, Hawkes Bay
Architect: Porter & Martin (A.A.)
Current location: Found. Currently at an undisclosed location.
Heritage status: No known protection

The Wairoa Centennial Library was opened in July 1961. Photographs of the opening convey the mid-century optimism of a town at its peak and detail the building’s bright modern lines. Taylor’s mural, adorning a two-storey central wall, is the centrepiece. Ladies in hats and furs bely a provincial conservatism that was confirmed by Taylor’s son, who remembered being reprimanded by a local policeman for working on a Sunday while helping his father complete the mural.

E. Mervyn Taylor’s Wairoa library mural does not function at all as a picture of the town (missing, after all, is Wairoa’s eponymous river), but rather presents a stylised textural quilt of the journey inland toward the bush. Notes written on Taylor’s initial designs for the library mural confirm this interpretation of the mural as a journey both inland and toward the past: ‘Red Heads,1 Early Maori, Whalers,2 cattle and sheep, country mostly hilly, heavy bush, big trees, Moa, cabbage tree, flax, travel on horseback, early fruit centre, wattle & daub huts, wheat, timber.’ The layering is both spatial and temporal.

There is an ancient, primordial quality to that inner landscape that exerts a powerful attraction. The very fact that something older and wilder persists in this place, despite the overwhelming economic pressures of modern agriculture on the New Zealand landscape, is a direct result of local Māori leaders’ concerted resistance to land cessions and confiscations in the 1860s and 1870s. Taylor seems to gesture at this tension in his mural, which was commissioned, along with the building that housed it, to mark the centennial of the establishment of Wairoa township, at the height of colonial confiscations and escalating conflict.

The mural depicts two family groupings facing off: a Māori rangatira is armed only with a taiaha, while four Pākehā men bear two rifles, a whaling spear and an axe. In reality, the local conflict between Māori and Pākehā was far less asymmetrical than this image implies, with Māori embracing all the legal and technological tools of their time to wage a highly innovative and effective guerrilla campaign against the colonial forces. Almost 150 years ago the final chapter of New Zealand’s land wars played out largely in the Ruakituri Valley, inland from Wairoa, against the background of Te Urewera.
The events are more complex and polarising than can be done justice here.

Between 2001 and 2002, Taylor’s Wairoa mural disappeared, quietly and without fuss. How could an artwork that was two storeys high and built into the wall of a public library vanish without trace? During a 2001 renovation it was noted that the steep, narrow stairs that provided access to the library’s upper mezzanine were not up to current building code. Their replacement required the removal of the wall on which Taylor’s mural was painted. The panels were removed and put into storage at the old fire station in the hope that a replacement site in Wairoa would eventually be found.
Shortly thereafter, a woman claiming to be a family member came into the library looking for the mural and expressed her dismay at finding that it was no longer there. If the mural was no longer in use by the library, she asserted, it should be returned to the family. With no foreseeable future site for the mural, it appears that council staff honoured her request, either sending the mural to an address she provided or allowing her to take the work.

Fifteen years later it has been discovered that Taylor’s family know nothing of this incident. Those who might have been involved with returning the work to the ‘family’ have since passed away, and no records of the circumstances of its return have been found. In late 2016 a reward of $5000 was offered for information leading to the mural’s rediscovery and one year later, in late 2017, it turned up. The people who have it wish to remain anonymous — but it is found, and it is safe. Its story, however, resonates with a theme that has emerged across the journey of this project: that New Zealand’s historic public art is in need of serious attention.

Text adapted from Joyce Campbell’s essay “Layers Upon Layers” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).


E. Mervyn Taylor: Broadcasting House, Time and Space

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Time and Space
Medium: Carved kauri panel
Dimensions: H800mm x W1850mm
Date: 1963
Original location: Entrance foyer, Broadcasting House, 34 Bowen Street, Wellington
Architect: Gordon Wilson, Ministry of Works (Supervising Government Architect)
Current location: RNZ boardroom, Radio New Zealand House, 155 The Terrace, Wellington
Heritage status: No known protection

E. Mervyn Taylor’s “Time and Space” (1963) was originally commissioned for Broadcasting House, Wellington. Led by Government Architect Gordon Wilson, the new state-of-the-art building was, at the time, New Zealand’s most technologically advanced building. Wilson ‘argued for the employment of established artists for projects in new buildings, including schools’ and, walking the talk, many of his projects included commissioned artworks.

Through low relief carvings of the sun and moon surrounded by zodiac signs, Taylor imagined radio waves penetrating the ‘heavens’, alluding to some of his previous engravings particularly those concerning Māori myths and legends. Kauri was selected due to its warm sheen and colour, contrasting with the rimu timber paneling in the building’s foyer, and Taylor spent a total of 700 hours completing the work.

This significant piece was nearly lost after a National-led government made plans to demolish Broadcasting House and replace it with a new ministerial office building. A 196,000-signature petition and public pressure resulted in plans for the ‘Parliamentary Palace’ being shelved, but a new plan surfaced to move the Beehive building and complete the original Parliament Buildings. Broadcasting House was vacated in July 1997 and demolition commenced in mid-September. Two weeks later a mysterious fire broke out in the building. After an eight-hour battle by sixty firefighters this important part of New Zealand’s modern architectural and technological history was destroyed.

Thankfully Taylor’s work was saved due to the foresight of Sharon Crosbie, then Chief Executive of Radio New Zealand. Who ensured Time and Space was retrieved, conserved, and professionally hung in the boardroom of Radio New Zealand House, 155 The Terrace, where it now hangs more than twenty years later.

Text adapted from Ken Davis and Rose Evans’ essay “On The Politics of Time and Space” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).