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: 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: 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: Masterton Post Office, Early Settlers

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Early Settlers
Medium: Ceramic tiles, adhered to a concrete wall
Dimensions: 4400 x 4400 mm
Date: 1962
Original location: Masterton Post Office, 122 Queen St, Masterton 5810.
Architect: Gray, Young, Morton & Calder
Current location: In the former Masterton Post Office, 122 Queen St, Masterton 5810. Now privately owned.
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.

E. Mervyn Taylor’s mural ‘Early Settlers’ was unveiled along with Masterton’s new Chief Post Office in 1962. Commissioned by the Ministry of Works, with Gordon Wilson as Government Architect, the mural features a depiction of the first Masterton Post Office showing how important it was as both a social gathering place and a communications link to the world beyond the mountains. A newspaper article from the Times-Age in 1962 describes this mural in terms of the struggle of settlers, ‘burning down the dense bush and planting thousands of acres of lush grazing grasses’.

Two people feature in the foreground. One man stares out across the landscape from under his wide-brim hat. Smoke billows out across the sky and jagged tree stumps line the hills. There’s an air of accomplishment in his pose; the trees are felled, the buildings erected, and people gather together around the post office. Both the man and his axe are at rest, their work for the moment complete. The other man stands closely behind him holding a taiaha. This man is not a settler and neither he nor his taiaha are at rest. Directly behind the man is a stand of trees—not yet felled by the axe or by fire—perhaps this is why the man’s taiaha is raised, he has the remains of a forest to protect.

During the period that Early Settlers depicts—the mid- to late 1800s—the clearing of bush was a highly celebrated activity and those who undertook it were considered heroes. It’s hard to imagine, in our time of climate consciousness, that such little regard would be had for conservation. Māori, having witnessed the loss of bird species over time, had established systems of rāhui that gave both species and soil periods of rest for rejuvenation. Our European ancestors, on the other hand, saw the forest as a beast that needed to be beaten into submission, ‘a wilderness that needed to be tamed, ordered, legally defined, made economically viable, and “civilised” through European settlement’. Later, when many of the forests were gone, concerns were raised about how this might affect the process of transpiration, which could lead to a much drier climate in the Wairarapa.

Members of Wairarapa whānau and hapū (from the Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa iwi) were rendered virtually landless as a result of the rapid acquisition of land by the Crown. Te Tapere Nui a Whātonga (also known as Seventy Mile Bush) was a large inland forest which stretched from the north of Masterton up past Norsewood towards Hawke’s Bay. In 1871 the majority of Te Tapere Nui a Whātonga came into Crown ownership. By the early 1900s, the Scandinavian settlers who were brought in to clear the forest had almost completely eradicated it. The only remaining area of Te Tapere Nui a Whātonga was 945 hectares at Pūkaha Mount Bruce. It seems symbolic, then, that the two men appear before the remaining stand of forest with birds swooping above it. Pūkaha Mount Bruce officially became a national bird sanctuary in 1962, the year that Early Settlers was unveiled.

So how did the publicly commissioned Taylor mural come to be covered by a wall? After New Zealand Post vacated the building, Paper Plus took over the lease for a number of years, shifting its purpose from state-run enterprise to private business. When the lease came up again in 2009, concerns were raised that the historical significance of the mural could be forgotten and that it might become damaged or neglected. Up until this point even New Zealand Post had been guilty of obscuring the mural, with a large cabinet of bright red post office boxes. Further, the area surrounding the mural, originally outdoors, had been enclosed to extend the retail area of the adjacent space, so the mural underwent a shift — from full street access to being visible only to those who entered the new space.

In 2013 the space housing the mural was leased out, becoming a clothing store called Legal Theft. The tenants wanted to make use of the mural-wall for retail display, so organised for it to be covered over. Because of the historic significance of the mural, the wall was built with care, so as not to damage it. The building is currently (at the time of writing) for sale and has been declared an earthquake risk. When sold, it will either undergo extensive renovations or face demolition. Initially purchased with public money for a state-owned building, the mural has now fallen into private hands, which control access. The question of how to relocate and restore the mural is currently under negotiation with the current owner, who has inadvertently become the guardian of this historic Wairarapa artefact.*

It is important that we don’t hide our history—we need it to help us understand our present, while also guiding us into the future. Looking at Early Settlers through a contemporary lens, the imagery can be seen as a significant illustration of these issues on a local level. If we imagine that the stand of forest with birds swooping above is the Pūkaha Mount Bruce bird reserve, then Early Settlers could be indicative of the partnerships between Iwi and Settlers that are needed to navigate these issues. Given this context, Early Settlers remains a relevant and important part of Wairarapa history which warrants the removal of that carefully built wall.*

* Note: the mural was finally uncovered in 2018 by the building’s new owner.

Text adapted from Terri Te Tau’s essay “The Taiaha and the Axe” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).

E. Mervyn Taylor: New Zealand Meat Board Director’s Room, Untitled

Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: Untitled
Medium: Incised tōtara panel
Dimensions: Approx. H1380mm x W1210mm
Date: 1958
Original location: New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board boardroom. Massey House, 126-132 Lambton Quay, Wellington.
Architect: Plischke & Firth
Current location: Unknown
Heritage status: No known protection

Help us find it. Please contact us with any leads…

In 1958, E. Mervyn Taylor delved into the iconography of the New Zealand vernacular to create a wall panel for the Meat Producers Board in Wellington’s most glamorous new building, Massey House, designed by Viennese expatriate architect Ernst Plischke (1903–92). Meat was money in 1950s New Zealand, and in his choice of imagery Taylor emphasised the prosperity that meat exports were bringing to New Zealand.

Surviving photographs of the panel, and pencil rubbings that Taylor took from it, show that he was able to experiment skillfully with multiple scenes in the same composition while satisfying the client’s demands for a coherent narrative. Resplendent in its nationalism (and sanitised in its view of meat processing), Taylor’s panel was intended to take pride of place in the Plischke-designed interior scheme for the seventh floor of Massey House on Lambton Quay.

According to an Evening Post article, the mural ‘was commissioned by the Meat Producers’ Export Board through the architectural practice of Plishke [sic] and Firth’, and completed by Mervyn Taylor for installation in April 1958, six months after Massey House was finished.

After many sales and refurbishments of Massey House over the past sixty years, the Massey House mural is now considered one of Taylor’s missing works. The artwork’s characteristics are best understood from the negative in the Evening Post archives which shows the finished panel upright on the floor, leaning against a workbench in an attic. Cropped to eliminate the extraneous background details, the Evening Post reproduced this photograph to accompany a story on the Massey House commission. In it the writer describes the panel’s content and style: ‘The finished work resembles a large woodcut, and fine technique has been used. The incised lines have been coloured off-white to contrast with the rich polished surface of totara.’

Bryan James reports that Taylor took two months to produce a preliminary sketch for Massey House, and then a further two months to complete the piece for installation, being rewarded with a payment of £200 (a third of his income for the year) for the work.

Taylor’s Massey House mural is a bucolic, prosperous and busy artwork designed using recognisable elements of the New Zealand vernacular to promote nationalistic pride: mountains, cabbage trees, colonial buildings, sheep and cattle. His work as art editor and illustrator for the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education and his concomitant involvement in wood engraving developed his style and incising technique. However, the composite of scenes in this design and their vertical orientation are unique in his oeuvre, and represent a singular response to the story of selling New Zealand’s meat successfully to the world.

Text adapted from Linda Tyler’s essay “From Paddock to Port” in Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (Massey Press, 2018).