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: 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).