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Peter Simpson

Invaluable Places:
The role of libraries in the life and work of Colin McCahon

Researching the life and work of New Zealand’s greatest twentieth century painter, Colin McCahon (1919-87), for a recent two-volume study of the artist,[1] I was continually struck by the multiple importance that libraries had in his career. This importance is of three distinct kinds:

     As a source of knowledge and learning, especially about art history
     As a venue for the exhibition of his art
     As a repository for paintings and archives (including letters) relating
to his work.

McCahon’s enthusiasm for libraries began early in life. In the 1930s his family (parents and two siblings) set aside an evening each week for visiting Dunedin Public Library to browse and borrow books. Archie Dunningham (1907-1996), the librarian from 1933, had built one of the best collections in the country; it was particularly strong in art books, thanks partly to grants from the Carnegie Foundation. McCahon remembered these visits all his life. Asked in 1976 about influences on his work in a radio interview with Ray Thorburn, he replied:

You start from the tradition that you find by using the library extensively. This is one of the things in Dunedin while we were there. Dunedin Public Library had the first collection of art books. It was all very useful. No other library seemed to have it at the time.[2]

In particular McCahon valued the Phaidon books which raised the stand- ard of art publishing in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the large format books devoted to single artists with high quality plates that began appearing in 1936. Titles which especially mattered to him were those on Van Gogh (1936), Titian (1936), Cézanne (1937), Michelangelo (1940) and Bellini (1945).

Another book first discovered on the shelves of the Dunedin library but originating closer to home was Charles Cotton’s Geomorphology.[3] Ron O’Reilly (1914-82), a librarian friend, asked McCahon where and how he had first encountered Cotton; he replied:

You will remember Pat Hayman.[4]...I talked to him about Cotton whose Geomorphology I’d met up with in the Dunedin Public Library – that invaluable place – Cotton, Cezanne, Bellini, Gauguin. Pat got us ‘Geomorphology’ as a wedding present . A most unusual gift & I’ve used it solidly for landscape information...[5]

He further explained:

I loved his drawings for the way they told about things. I have since then constantly referred to Cotton to explain what it is I have actually seen... Nobody told me about Cotton I just found him on a book shelf.[6]

It was the spare, explanatory drawings of Cotton which enabled the giant step forward McCahon made in Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill (1939), with its radically simplified landforms largely stripped of surface detail (roads, houses) to expose the geomorphological structure of the land.

McCahon’s first solo exhibition took place at the French Maid Coffee House in Wellington in 1945; his next two solo shows were both held at public libraries in 1948: at Wellington Public Library in February (later shown at the Lower Hutt Library) and at Dunedin Public Library in September.

McCahon first heard about the possibility of exhibiting at Wellington Public Library in 1946 from his friend Ron O’Reilly who was then attending Library School before beginning his distinguished career. He told McCahon:

Colin: the Wgtn Public Library is now making available the walls of the passage outside the reference room (at the head of the stairs) for one man exhibitions, free...

The wall space is ample for a pretty good display including big pictures. What about availing yourself of it?[7]

McCahon wrote to the librarian, Stuart Perry (1908-1982), whose initiative this was, and eventually secured an exhibition for February 1948. O’Reilly, who was by then working at Lower Hutt Public Library, was heavily involved in organising the exhibition (assembling, cataloguing, hanging) because McCahon was living not in Wellington but in Tahunanui near Nelson. The exhibition was dominated by works from 1947-48 (29 of 42), a prolific period which encompassed McCahon’s first figurative biblical paintings such as The Angel of the Annunciation, The King of the Jews and several Crucifixions. The show was sharply controversial and caused a flurry of (mostly hostile) correspondence in newspapers and magazines. It made McCahon’s name as a painter.

Later that year (in September 1948) McCahon held an exhibition at the Dunedin Public Library, organised by Archie Dunningham assisted by McCahon’s Dunedin friends, Rodney Kennedy and Charles Brasch.[8] O’Reilly wrote to McCahon in June: ‘Charles [Brasch] mentioned that he is trying to persuade you to have an exhibition in Archie [Dunningham’s] new lecture hall. I hope you will accede’.[9] McCahon reported to O’Reilly:

The Dunedin exhibition started on Thursday...On Wed[nesday] hung the pictures & made up the catalogue. Thursday more hanging–that is a very difficult room to hang in...The final effect was pretty good though no tso good as Wellington.[10]

Later he was less enthusiastic, telling O’Reilly: ‘The show was really a flop. Very few people went & it all seemed very flat. The opening was the only busy time’.[11]

There were 27 items included (mostly paintings, some drawings), made between July 1947 and September 1948. In a hand-written note on a copy of the simple catalogue (with a brief essay by Brasch) McCahon informed O’Reilly: ‘Quite a lot of new work and even some of the old ones have been repainted.’[12] Into this latter category came The Promised Land, The Family, Dear Wee June, Ligar Bay and Triple T akaka (previously Monday Morning near T akaka); these had all been shown in February and were later repainted in Christchurch where McCahon had moved in March 1948. Among new paintings from Christchurch were Hail Mary and Takaka: night and day. Nothing sold; apparently Dunedin people thought the prices were too high – they ranged for paintings from 8 to 50 guineas (for Takaka: night and day).

A decade later, in April 1958, McCahon again showed at Dunedin Public Library, once more with assistance from Dunningham, Brasch and Kennedy. In the intervening years he had exhibited his work largely at Group Shows in Christchurch and in solo or two-person shows (with Toss Woollaston) at private galleries in Wellington (1949) and Auckland (1949, 1957). In 1953 McCahon moved with his family to Titirangi in West Auckland to become a curator at Auckland City Art Gallery. The 39 paintings shown were largely landscapes of kauri forest at Titirangi, French Bay and Manukau Harbour painted between 1954 and 1957, partly under the influence of Cubism, which he had studied in Melbourne in 1951. At the opening Brasch said:

The Auckland paintings seem an entirely new departure. The colour and light of Auckland are different from those of the rest of N. Z...All of them tell us something new about the look of N.Z. They couldn’t have been painted anywhere in the world except Auckland; but they could only have been painted by someone who had absorbed what painters in other countries are doing today.[13]

By the time the 1958 Dunedin exhibition opened McCahon was in the United States on a four-month visit sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and Auckland City Art Gallery. He criss-crossed the continent from west coast to east coast visiting scores of public galleries, museums and dealer galleries. Back in New Zealand his work changed radically – in scale (much larger), materials (inks and commercial enamels, not oil paints), supports (hardboard and unstretched canvas), and in other respects, such as more gestural paint application, frequent use of words, increasing abstraction and working in series. One of the first works completed on his return was the 16-panel The Wake, on large unstretched canvases and incorporating a nine-part poem by John Caselberg about the death of his dog, Thor.

The Wake was first shown at Canterbury Public Library, where O’Reilly had been librarian since 1951. McCahon first mentioned the panels to O’Reilly in November 1958, predicting that they would ‘cause much of the same stir that the 194[8] exhibition did in Wellington’.[14] He wrote again in
March 1959:

The “Wake” panels of John [Caselberg’s] & mine are now available at any time you want them. It seems they will fit into the room – only just & unfortunately with gaps. This is really one large painting so the order of the panels is important and also the continuity... for John’s sake as well as mine I want the maximum effect. They are an attempt to create a new environment and a quite new visual experience.[15]

This was the only exhibition of McCahon’s works at Canterbury Public Library, though O’Reilly also purchased several for the loan collection he started in 1955. These included Kauri landscape (1955), Red and black landscape (1959) and several Northland drawings (1959).

The indefatigable O’Reilly was instrumental in organizing several later exhibitions of McCahon’s work: at the Canterbury Society of Arts Gallery in 1962 (the Gate series) and 1963 (the Woollaston/McCahon R etrospective). Years later, O’Reilly organised McCahon’s “Necessary Protection” (1977) at Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth, where he became director after retiring from his position as head of the Library School in Wellington.


As McCahon’s career advanced and interest in his work among artists, critics, scholars, collectors and art aficionados expanded, libraries became increasingly important as repositories for materials such as inward and out- ward correspondence, documentation associated with exhibitions and in some cases, notably at Hocken Collections, for art works.

Several of McCahon’s Dunedin friends, notably Kennedy and Brasch, began gifting paintings and other materials to the Hocken from the mid-1950s. In 1955 Kennedy donated more than 20 landscape drawings preliminary
to McCahon’s panoramic depictions of Otago Peninsula in the 1940s.[16] In 1977 Kennedy also donated numerous drawings McCahon had given him associated with theatre productions McCahon had designed sets for such as Peer Gynt (1953) and The Glass Menagerie (1956). Brasch first donated paintings in 1963 (e.g. I Am, Maitai Valley, The Virgin and Child Compared), followed by another group in 1969 (including Manukau 3 and Titirangi Winter); further works and papers were included in a major bequest after Brasch’s death in 1973, such as Kauri Trees and Fifteen Drawings for Charles Brasch.

In that same year 1973, after the death of McCahon’s mother, some 25 works his parents owned, especially from early in his career, were given to the Hocken as the John & Ethel McCahon Bequest (including Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill).

McCahon himself began donating important works to Hocken in the 1970s, including The Song of the Shining Cuckoo in 1977, The Wake, Dear Wee June and Northland triptych in 1978, and John in Canterbury in 1980. In 1981 the McCahon family deposited a large collection of inwards correspondence and other archival materials in the Hocken; this was followed by another large gift of papers after McCahon’s death in 1987. The Library was also the recipient of papers by other writers and artists such as Caselberg, Brasch and Patricia France which included important McCahon materials, including letters. This accumulation of McCahon materials led eventually to the inclu- sion of the Colin and Anne McCahon Papers at Hocken Collections in the UNESCO Memory of the World Aotearoa New Zealand Register in 2020.

Many other libraries in New Zealand have acquired valuable McCahon papers and archives; these include Alexander Turnbull Library (e.g. the McCahon-Peter McLeavey correspondence), Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand (McCahon’s letters to Toss Woollaston), and the E.H. McCormick Research Library at Auckland Art Gallery which has an exten- sive McCahon archive including letters, photographs, and files of ephemera and exhibition reviews.

The first recourse of anyone wishing to research some aspect of McCahon’s life and career is to the archival resources of New Zealand’s libraries, those invaluable places.


1 Peter Simpson, Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction, Vol. 1, 1919-1960 (Auckland University Press, 2019); Peter Simpson, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol. 2, 1960-1987 (AUP, 2020).
2 Radio interview with Ray Thorburn, 1976 (E.H. McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki).
3 Charles Cotton, Geomorphology, first published in 1922; the third edition (Whitcombe & Tombs, 1942), was the one which McCahon owned.
4 Patrick Hayman (1915-88) was an English painter who lived in New Zealand 1936- 1947 and became a close friend of Colin McCahon and his circle.
5 CM to Ron O’Reilly, 31 August 1972; McCahon’s letters quoted with the kind permission of the McCahon family and Matthew O’Reilly.
6 Ibid.
7 Ron O’Reilly to Colin McCahon 30 March 1946; quotations from O’Reilly’s letters with the kind permission of the O’Reilly estate and Hocken Collections.
8 Rodney Kennedy (1909-89), artist, critic, theatre director; Charles Brasch (1909- 73), poet, patron, collector, editor of Landfall 1947-66.
9 Ron O’Reilly to Colin McCahon, 27 June, 1948.
10 CM to Ron O’Reilly, 20 September 1948.
11 CM to Ron O’Reilly, [25 October], 1948.
12 CM to Ron O’Reilly, [September] 1948.
13 Charles Brasch, talk at opening of Recent Paintings, Dunedin Public Library Exhibition Hall, April 1958, Hocken Library MS-996 Brasch 2/226.
14 McCahon to O’Reilly 11 November 1958
15 McCahon to O’Reilly, 11 March 1959. The Wake was partly influenced by ‘environments’ created by Alan Kaprow McCahon had seen in New York.
16 Otago Peninsula (1946, Te Papa Tongarewa); Otago Peninsula (1946-49); the latter work, painted for Kennedy, was given by him to Dunedin Public Library.

Peter Simpson (born Takaka, 1942) has written or edited many books on New Zealand literature, art and cultural history. He ran the Holloway Press (1993-2013). He received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2017 has an honorary doctorate.