Book Review: Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Meryvn Taylor, by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith

Available in bookshops nationwide.
Shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham Book Awards.  

cv_wantedThis beautifully produced book is both a delight and a cause for a bit of national soul-searching.

If you do a quick Google search on ‘forgotten public art’ it’s clear to see that NZ has a poor track record of maintaining and caring for its public art works, never mind keeping a registry of what we have.

The title should give you a clue. What happened to them? The large murals which Taylor produced as commissioned work were partly his own idea, as shown in this quote by Kennedy Warne from NZ Geographic October 2007: ‘Taylor came to regard architecture as “the mother of the arts”, recalled one of his friends, the eminent Wellington architect Maurice Patience. “[He] loved our profession, and one could guarantee that if he were in architectural company discussion would soon turn to the artist’s role in buildings.” Every contract for a major new building, Taylor argued, should include a sum of money allocated to a commissioned work of art to be associated with the building. There was a degree of self-interest here, of course: Taylor hoped he would be one of the commissionees.’

In 1945, Taylor was appointed as art editor for the New Zealand School Journal. Many of us will recognise and remember his brilliant woodcut illustrations. Bryan James in his excellent book about Taylor says ‘Above all, he wanted his art to be accessible to the everyday New Zealander. He believed art should be for the common man as well as the cultured elite.’

As with nature, Taylor felt it was his role as an artist to make Māori culture accessible to his countrymen. He saw himself as an artist-craftsman or artist-designer, writes James, someone rooted in the community and whose duty was to improve the lot of his fellow man. ‘He had little time for art that did not have a direct function of purpose, that could not be part of everyday living.’

By the early 1960s, murals were Taylor’s major form of work, produced in ceramic tiles, carved in wood or painted. James notes of Taylor’s work in this period that a distinguishing feature was his incorporation of Māori elements. ‘It was something he consciously set out to do, because he saw Māori as an essential part of the natural order of life in New Zealand, who could no more be excluded from his art than could the bush, the landscape, or the individual creatures he featured.’ Few other non-Māori artists of the time cared to feature Māori culture so prominently in their work.

So, back to the book itself. Bronwyn Holloway-Smith chanced upon some of Taylor’s work in three dusty boxes in storage in Auckland. This began her passionate journey to find out what happened to the eleven other murals and I think she’s probably in line for a National Treasure award!

The very first pages are photos of the original works, with single word titles: Found, Missing, Hidden, Lost. 7 have been found. 2 are missing, 2 are hidden, one is lost. Holloway-Smith’s work in locating and documenting these murals has been a massive undertaking, and this wonderful book is the culmination of that work.

Each mural has an essay written by someone with an interest in, or connection to, the work or the place in which it was originally installed, and they are accordingly very different and intriguing to read.

The generous illustrations throughout, and the quality of this book make it a real treasure.

Let’s hope that public art work in Aotearoa, from now on, is more carefully documented and preserved so that we never again lose work by artists of such high calibre and brilliance.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Meryvn Taylor
by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994141552

You can see a sample here on the Massey University Press website. 

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