Mural search finds missing E Mervyn Taylor work

How the mural looked on display in the Wairoa Centennial Library before its disappearance and eventual rediscovery by a project team led by Massey University PhD candidate Bronwyn Holloway-Smith (below).

One of several missing murals made by renowned New Zealand artist, craftsman and designer, E Mervyn Taylor, has been found.

The search for 12 murals crafted between 1956 and 1964 was launched three years ago by Massey University PhD candidate Bronwyn Holloway-Smith who has edited a book honouring the work of Taylor, who studied at Wellington Polytechnic – a forerunner institution to Massey’s College of Creative Arts.

Ms Holloway-Smith, who is director of the E Mervyn Taylor Mural Search and Recovery Project, says the discovery was the “most exciting and dramatic” within the whole search project, and “we were thrilled to find it safe and sound after all this time”.

Days away from the book going to print the Project team received a phone call to say the mural by E. Mervyn Taylor commissioned for the Wairoa Centennial Library had been found at an undisclosed location.

The discovery was made in time for a photo of the work to be included in the book WANTED The Search For The Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor, which is launched today at City Gallery, Wellington as part of the opening programme for the exhibition:  This is New Zealand. It will be widely available through bookstores from 12 March or through the Massey Press website.

A generous supporter of the project team had offered to fund a reward of $5000 for the first person who provided information leading to the rediscovery of the mural.

It was through searching for online information on E Mervyn Taylor that the party noticed the publicity surrounding the search and immediately came forward. They have declined the reward money.

“The family who have the mural in their possession wish to remain anonymous, and as part of the conditions around a reward the project offered for its discovery [including its place of discovery], we need to honour this request,” Ms Holloway-Smith says.

Taylor, best known for his wood engravings, created the mural and other public works of art at the end of his career and in the vanguard of the New Zealand modernist movement. He worked with a number of materials including tiles, carved wood panels, sandblasted glass windows and paint to create these distinctive works in a truly original New Zealand language.

The Wairoa Centennial Library mural, painted in 1961, depicts a scene featuring Māori tangata whenua and colonial settlers in the Wairoa landscape. It was last seen during a library renovation in 2001 when it was successfully removed and stored. Library staff recollected a female family member visiting Wairoa and requesting the return of the work – but the artist’s family turned out to be unaware of this request.

“On discovery we can report that the painting covers nine large panels each just over a metre square and, while faded and with minor deterioration around the edges, it is in good shape,” Ms Holloway-Smith says.

“During the search process we have also discovered drawings that Taylor did for this Wairoa work, images of which are also included in the book.

The project team also made other discoveries over the past 12 months including revisiting the former Taita Soil Bureau to discover with the help of the conservators from Te Papa, that the mural paint was still beneath the layers of paint within the foyer.

Studying for her PhD at Massey University, and with the support of its Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor Claire Robinson, the search led by Ms Holloway Smith and resulting book became a special project to mark the 130th anniversary of the founding of Massey’s College of Creative Arts.

The search was inspired by the earlier discovery in 2015 of one of Taylor’s few surviving murals, Te Ika-a-Māui, the story of Maui fishing up the North Island, stored in cardboard boxes in a disused cable station.

Ms Holloway-Smith made that discovery while researching the history of the Southern Cross Cable.

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