E. Mervyn Taylor: National Mutual Life Assurance building, Untitled

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Untitled
Medium: Painting directly on wall
Dimensions: Approx. H2140mm x W7315mm
Date: 1963
Original location: Ground floor reception, National Mutual Life Assurance building, 153 Featherston St, Wellington
Architect: Gray Young, Morton, Calder & Fowler
Current location: Unknown, presumed destroyed
Heritage status: No known protection


Mervyn Taylor’s mural for the interior of the National Mutual Life Assurance building in Wellington, now presumed destroyed, was commissioned in 1963 by architectural firm Gray Young, Morton, Calder & Fowler. The mural reads as a collage: images of workers, all men, most likely Pākehā but possibly also Polynesian, performing a range of white- and blue-collar tasks in a smorgasbord of crisply illustrated environments — urban, rural, suburban and a very tidy ‘untamed’ wilderness. At the centre a woman looks down at a baby in her arms while a man looks up at her, holding a piece of paper in his hand—an insurance salesman, here either to make good on the woman’s dead husband’s policy, or to reassure her (but really to reassure her husband, whose earnings will pay for the policy) that should anything happen to said husband while he is busily keeping the country ticking over, there will be some compensation. Some life insurance.

Taylor’s mural was behind the reception desk in the downstairs lobby of the building, halfway down Featherston Street, in the CBD. I say the building ‘was’ there, but that’s not entirely accurate—it’s still there, sort of, its form mutated, its purpose significantly revised. In the 1980s, National Mutual moved to another building. In 2000 the Accor hotel group opened one of its Ibis hotels in the building. Renovation plans for the hotel indicate that the mural’s wall was destroyed, although the artwork may have already been painted over or covered up in some way before this.

Text adapted from Sarah Jane Parton’s essay “Assurance” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).

 

 

E. Mervyn Taylor: Soil Bureau, First Kumera Planting

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: First Kumera Planting / Kia Kitea Te Waewae Tangata
Medium: Painting directly on concrete wall, using a PVA matt latex paint from Resene
Dimensions: H1850mm x W2750mm
Date: 1962
Original location: Entrance foyer, New Zealand Soil Bureau, 182 Eastern Hutt Rd, Taita, Lower Hutt
Architect: F. G. F. Shepard, Government Architect
Current location: In its original location, hidden under layers of paint
Heritage status: No known protection

In the early 1960s Government Architect F. G. F Sheppard and the Director of the New Zealand Soil Bureau commissioned E. Mervyn Taylor to create a mural for a new modernist building they were developing for the park-like grounds of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research agency in Lower Hutt.

As his subject, Taylor chose the Māori kō ceremony associated with kūmara planting, and spent many hours familiarising himself with this ritual. The painting depicts a carved stone taumata-atua (stone representation, lit. ‘resting place of the gods’) placed at the head of the plot while a cloaked rangatira (chief, high-ranking individual) performs his early morning ceremony turning the first sod with his kō (wooden implement for digging). Lined up, waiting to carry on preparing the plot, are further diggers with their kō at the ready. Other workers use the timo (wooden grubber) to further break up the soil.

As Bryan James writes: ‘Ceremonies associated with [kūmara planting] were still being performed by Maori, and Taylor spent many hours familiarising himself with tribal life and ritual. […] Nothing like these murals, where Maori featured so prominently and were given equal status with European New Zealanders, was being created in New Zealand at this time; nor had they previously been sought for large public buildings. As a contemporary remarked, Taylor could if he had wished have chosen to depict a Pakeha farmer driving a Massey Ferguson tractor; such an image would have been far more widely accepted by Pākehā as typically New Zealand. […] His knowledge, already extensive, of Maori art and tradition continued to expand and he found his reputation and standing growing in both Maori and non-Maori communities.’

In its contemporary setting, Taylor’s intent for this mural was to connect two worlds: that of the Maori horticulturist, who knew the soil resource intimately, and that of the soil scientist, whose task was to extend learning and knowledge of the soil resource for the benefit of the people.

With the restructuring of Government departments in the early 1990s the Soil Bureau was rolled into a Crown Entity. The building was tenanted by a new group and at some stage the mural was painted over. This was confirmed when conservators from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa examined and tested paint samples from the wall in 2016. While removing the paint to uncover the mural was not possible at this point in time, technological advances may enable it to be uncovered in the future.

Pictorial Parade No. 128: Hutt Science – Patron of the arts, features footage of E. Mervyn Taylor at work on a mural (National Film Unit footage):

In April 2016 the E. Mervyn Taylor Mural Search & Recovery Project team visited the former site of the Taita Soil Bureau with paint conservators Linda Waters and Tijana Cvetkovic from Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand.

The conservators used infra-red technology to scan the wall on which Taylor’s mural was painted, hoping to find traces of the work. A paint sample was also taken, and later analysis has revealed promising signs that the mural is still there, hidden under layers of whitewash.

Callum Davies and Max Schleser made a short video of the visit. Callum is a former student, and Max a former Senior Lecturer, at Massey’s Te Rewa O Puanga – the School of Music and Creative Media Production. View the video below:

The team revisited the site in October 2016, and Lynn Freeman of Radio New Zealand National. The building is now home to The Learning Connexion Art School and TLC had kindly moved some large display cabinets to allow us to access the full wall where the mural was once visible.

Lynn Freeman recorded the experience: listen to it here.

Linda Waters has also written two blog posts giving detail around some of the techniques used in hunting for the mural. The second post explains that the mural is unlikely to be recoverable with present-day paint removal technologies:

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).