Milan Mrkusich: Chelsea House, 1960

Artist: Milan Mrkusich
Medium: Glass mosaic
Date: 1960
Original location: Chelsea House, 85 Fort Street, Auckland
Current location: In its original location
Heritage status: None at present however there is an information plaque located next to the work

Milan Mrkusich was commissioned to design a mural for the lobby of Fort Street’s Chelsea Sugar Refinery Building, known as Chelsea House. In 1960, as a response he created a large-scale mosaic mural. Mrkusich’s dynamic mural features an abstract arrangement of blocks of brightly coloured glass mosaic tiles. The full-height mural follows the undulating curve of the interior wall.

The mural was later covered up by an internal false wall. In 2016 Chelsea House was redeveloped and the mural was uncovered. It is now prominently displayed in the building’s foyer and visible from the footpath. The owner has also installed a plaque with information about the artwork and artist in the foyer.

E. Mervyn Taylor: COMPAC terminal, Te Ika-a-Maui

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Te Ika-a-Maui
Medium: Ceramic tiles
Dimensions: H2625mm x W3430mm
Date: 1962
Original location: Commonwealth Pacific Cable Terminal, 1 Akoranga Drive, Northcote, Auckland
Architect: F. G. F. Sheppard, Government Architect
Current location: Research Library, Level One, Takapuna Library, 9 The Strand, Takapuna, Auckland. Property of Spark NZ
Heritage status: On loan to Auckland Council, registered as a “considered item”

In 1961, E. Mervyn Taylor was commissioned by the New Zealand Post Office to develop a mural for the new Commonwealth Pacific Cable terminal in Northcote, Auckland. The terminal was to house the major new COMPAC telephone cable system that provided New Zealand with a much-needed reliable international telephone connectivity.

Taylor responded to the idea of the cable with a metaphor distinct to Aotearoa: the traditional Māori creation story of the demi-god Māui fishing up the North Island, also known as Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui). A press release about the mural at the time stated, “there was an analogy, [Taylor] thought, between the ‘fishing up’ of New Zealand by Maui and its modern counterpart where the new cable again draws New Zealand out of the Pacific into the telephone systems of the world.”[1]

Created in ceramic tiles, visitors to the terminal could experience Māui and his brothers in close quarters as the mural occupied a full wall within a relatively small foyer area. Over time tiles began falling off the wall and the mural was removed and stored in cardboard boxes in an adjacent office.

In 2014 Taylor’s mural was rediscovered in boxes by artist Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, during a commission for public art platform Letting Space with marketing agency JWT. The resulting project, Te Ika-a-Akoranga, included the restoration, digitisation, and photographic reconstruction of the mural in JWT’s Queen Street Auckland offices.

Following this, the Spark Foundation arranged further restoration work on the mural. Replica tiles were created to fill the gaps left by sixteen missing tiles, and the fully-restored work was exhibited at City Gallery Wellington in 2018 as part of Holloway-Smith’s project The Southern Cross Cable: A Tour.

Five years after its initial rediscovery it resumed its intended status as a public artwork when it was installed in Takapuna Library in March 2019. It remains there for the foreseeable future.

[1] “New Zealand Murals,” Daily News, July 9, 1962.

Further reading:

E. Mervyn Taylor: Masterton War Memorial, Lest We Forget

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Lest We Forget
Medium: Ceramic tiles
Dimensions: H1995 x W3685mm
Date: 1963 / 1966
Original location: War Memorial Stadium Hall of Memories, 2 Dixon St, North Masterton 5810
Architect: Daniell & Wevers
Current location: Intact, in its original location
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.

Following the end of World War II Masterton resolved to create a series of ‘Living Memorial’ projects including the construction of a large community hall or stadium. Funding was approved in March 1960 and the project’s architects, Daniell & Wevers, recommended a decorative feature on the southern wall of the War Memorial Stadium’s Hall of Memories. E. Mervyn Taylor got the job, proposing a glass mosaic mural made from tiles sourced by Smith & Smith from an Italian factory.

Almost from the start things started to go wrong. Muranite produced the tiles in Venice and shipped them to England, where they were found to be water damaged. One year later the repaired/replaced tiles arrived from Italy and were installed in the Hall of Memories. Taylor, Daniell & Wevers, and a representative from Smith & Smith inspected the mural finding a series of faults: 5 colour variations; 4 variations from the original design; outlines of shapes not clean enough; and joints between tiles haphazard and not tight enough. Taylor himself wrote to the architects requesting that the mural be covered up so the public could not see it.

The NZ agent for Muranite, dismissed the criticism as ‘exaggerated’, but conceded that the toning down of some of the colours, combined with some lines not being as well defined as they should have been, had reduced the desired clean impression. Daniell & Wevers were not prepared to accept a ‘patched up’ mural, saying a complete replacement was the only sensible option. A stand-off ensued. The council’s solicitor became involved. Finally, by March 1964, Smith & Smith, Taylor and the Council had resolved to replace the mosaic with ceramic tiles mural manufactured by Carter & Co. of England. Tragically, Taylor died in June 1964. His wife, Teddy, arranged a revised design for the mural based on Taylor’s existing drawings. The tiles were finally installed in March 1966 just prior to being unveiled on Anzac Day, nearly 21 years after the end of the war they memorialised.

Text adapted from Gareth Winter’s essay “Lest We Forget: The Battle for the Mural” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).

E. Mervyn Taylor: New Plymouth War Memorial Hall, Museum & Library, Untitled

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Untitled
Medium: Sand-blasted glass window
Dimensions: H1800mm x W3300mm
Date: 1960
Original location: War Memorial Hall, Museum and Library, 1 Ariki St, New Plymouth
Architect: Taylor & Syme and Associates (with Edgar Collins)
Current location: In its original location, now Puke Ariki
Heritage status: No known protection

In the years immediately following the end of World War II, the New Zealand government offered towns and cities subsidies on locally raised funds to build war memorials. Communities were encouraged to build ‘living memorials’ — facilities such as halls, libraries and regional museums — in contrast to the familiar concrete or marble monuments that were built throughout the country after World War I.

In the early 1950s the town of New Plymouth decided to use this opportunity to build a war memorial hall and library — replacing the existing ones — and add a regional museum. The local firm of Taylor and Syme won the job of designing the building.

Edgar Collins, the architect in charge, wanted a feature wall to be the focus of the actual war memorial, and planned for this to be located where it would be seen by the most people: on the return of the main staircase leading into the hall from the building’s entrance off Ariki Street. Collins allowed space for a mural measuring 3.3 metres wide by 1.8 metres high, surrounded by a dark-green breccia and limestone feature with bronzed lettering above. The location presented a challenge, for the scheme of the mural would have to make sense to the eye from two potentially distorting perspectives as people walked up and down the staircase.

By late 1958, the two-year construction process was sufficiently advanced for Collins to select an artist. He chose E. Mervyn Taylor. Furthermore, he realised Taylor’s technique of rendering the design in sand-blasted plate glass would allow the image to be back-lit as a kind of ‘eternal flame’.

As a memorial feature, Taylor’s brief required a commemoration of those who had left Taranaki for overseas war service in World War II and did not return, but in the context of historical Taranaki the design had to refer to both the physical place and its interracial past. Furthermore, the final approval would not be Collins’s but the city council sub-committee’s. This was likely to be a difficult business, he wrote to Taylor, for each of the councillors would be bound to have their own opinions as to what constituted art and what ought to form part of the design. ‘New Plymouth is, conservatively speaking, quite lacking in open minds but we have piloted a number of ideas in this building which are to locals revolutionary, and elsewhere would not appear so startling,’ wrote Collins. Taylor was sufficiently troubled by the location of the proposed commission, and the possibility of official local opposition to his preliminary sketches, to travel to New Plymouth in 1959 and meet with the architect to view the site. He was able to submit his final design by the end of the year.

The sub-committee approved the design and it was created using the technique of sand-blasted heavy panels of plate glass. Once installed, the mural was back-lit with a salmon-pink light — an effect created by white fluorescent bulbs shining on a coloured recess behind the glass.

Text adapted from Bryan James’ essay “An Eternal Flame to Provincialism” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).

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).

E. Mervyn Taylor: Otaki War Memorial Hall, Untitled

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Untitled
Medium: Sand-blasted glass window
Dimensions: H2610mm x W2440mm
Date: 1956
Original location: Ōtaki War Memorial Hall, 69 Main St, Ōtaki
Architect: Bruce E. Orchiston
Current location: Original work was damaged. A replica has been put in its place.
Heritage status: Unknown

E. Mervyn Taylor’s etched glass windows for the Ōtaki War Memorial Hall were initiated in 1955. In his composition, Taylor was promulgating a greater sense of cohesion between the diverse cultures of a small town in a largely agricultural region dedicated mainly to the primary industries. Rangiātea Church is also a well-recognised local image, pertinent to the times: perhaps Taylor included an image of the church in the window as an act of conciliation to the largely bicultural communities’ sensibility. When the Ōtaki War Memorial Hall windows were first revealed to the Ōtaki community, Taylor’s efforts could be interpreted as a celebration of, or a hope for, a unified Ōtaki where brighter, prosperous futures might emerge from the destabilisation of World War II and the reverberating grief for those servicemen and women lost from the coastal town. Due to his commitment to understanding Māori cultural context, Taylor heightened a sense of mutual respect for cultural difference as a means of community cohesion.

On an unassuming Saturday night, 18 November 2006, the glass mural which faced the street and had greeted communities for more than fifty years was reduced to shards in seconds by blows inflicted by two youths with metal baseball bats. The two culprits also smashed the windows of the town’s library, the Ōtaki Primary School (which had to close for Monday classes), and a range of other businesses on Mill Road. Destructive events like that night of broken glass in 2006 are not lost on a compact, peri-urban and coastal community like Ōtaki. Some years earlier, in 1995, regional iwi, hapū and residents alike were left shocked and heartbroken when deliberately lit fires by self-acclaimed activists destroyed the historic Rangiātea Church. When iwi leaders, the church vestry and the community rallied to replace Rangiātea Church, a replica was rebuilt within eight years and rededicated in November 2003. After repeated appeals, the only surviving perpetrator was finally found guilty by association and jailed for his actions in September 2008.

A similar work of community learning and collaboration took place after the 2006 vandalism. Once again the Ōtaki community rallied to restore a local treasure, combining their respective efforts and agreed that the windows would be recreated. The original glass plans and designs were found, and heritage glass restoration experts were employed to recreate the windows, funded by insurance monies with a top-up from the council. Finally, the windows were protectively blessed and rededicated: the revitalised E. Mervyn Taylor mural (produced by Chris Wilson of Artrix Glass) was unveiled at an emotional ceremony of reconciliation, forgiveness and unity on Anzac Day in 2007.

The shattered pieces of Taylor’s original glass mural are now kept as relics within the neighbouring Ōtaki Museum. They are important vestiges of Taylor’s original laminated glass material imported from England, and testament to his signature sand-blasted designs.

A film, “The Otaki War Memorial Hall windows and the art of E. Mervyn Taylor” about this incident and the creation of the new windows was made by Errol Maffey in 2010.

A NZ Academy of Fine Arts 1967 catalogue also mentions “library panels”.

Text adapted from Huhana Smith’s essay “Waiting for Revelations” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).