Glory Filters through Your Fingers

Linda Tyler reviews a new book on architect James Hackshaw’s collaborations with artists Colin McCahon and Paul Dibble for the Catholic Church.

A key member of the Group, modernist architect James Hackshaw (1923–99) has been described as temperamental, with a career-limiting dislike for committees. In her carefully researched and written book, The Architect and the Artists: Hackshaw, McCahon, Dibble: The Collaborative Projects 1965–1979, his daughter Bridget Hackshaw sets out to document fourteen crucial years of his work, focusing primarily on his work for the Catholic Church.

A dispute over a typewriter is rumoured to have caused Hackshaw to split from fellow Group architects Bill Wilson and Ivan Juriss, and set up in private practice in 1958. The high profile of the Titirangi house he built for Len and Ruth Castle ensured a steady flow of domestic commissions, but it was liturgical reform, combined with the post-war baby boom, that created the circumstances for him to become the Auckland Catholic diocese’s favourite architect.

Like the Dominican friar Pierre Charles Marie Couturier, who commissioned Le Corbusier and later advised Dominique de Menil on her art collecting, Hackshaw had an enlightened patron in his second cousin, Reginald Delargey, who was consecrated as auxiliary bishop (or coadjutor) to the older, more conservative Bishop James Liston in 1958. Although he did not become Bishop of Auckland himself until Liston retired aged ninety in 1970, Delargey was the first New Zealander to be appointed to a post in Rome, which meant he could participate in all four sessions of Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council (1962–5). Vatican II dumped the elitist Latin Mass (conducted by priests with their backs to the congregation) in favour of using local vernacular languages (so the congregation could understand the words and participate in the sacrament), requiring the redesign of Catholic churches worldwide. Thrown into the winds of change, New Zealand Catholicism enjoyed an exponential increase in adherence. Eighty new parishes came into being, many needing new churches.

Following the examples of Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Venice (1951) and Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp (1955), Hackshaw engaged the services of painter Colin McCahon to integrate coloured light into each commission for a religious building. McCahon, in turn, recruited young Elam sculpture student Paul Dibble to make the three-dimensional objects, like tabernacles and candlesticks. As Dibble explains in his interview with filmmaker Christopher Dudman in this book, unlike McCahon he had no knowledge of Catholicism. He quickly learned that the tabernacle had to contain the consecrated host (a small, unleavened wafer of bread) and that candlesticks were necessary (as a candle burns when the host is in situ).

As architectural historian Julia Gatley explains in her chapter, Hackshaw’s contribution to the Group Architects’ aesthetic is his characteristic attention to natural lighting and the penetration of sunlight into interiors. Over a pint at the Kiwi Tavern in Symonds Street in 1964, Hackshaw commissioned McCahon to paint imagery on the windows of the Chapel of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, in Upland Road, Remuera. For McCahon—who had contemplated conversion to Catholicism and taken instruction from 1959 to 1962—this was an opportunity to deploy his love of Christian symbolism. A cross, candle, open book, chalice, bunch of grapes, ear of wheat, crown of thorns, three nails, and a golden host combine with Greek and Latin text in the suite of windows. Some of these symbols had already appeared in McCahon’s paintings, but this work for the Catholic church endorsed McCahon’s participation in the exhibition Christian Art at New Vision Gallery three years later in 1967.

Using a combination of primary archival sources, including letters and historical photographs, combined with a delightful narrative from Sr Maria Park, who was part of the community at Upland Road, Bridget Hackshaw has carefully reconstructed the reception of the combination of art and architecture in the Upland Road chapel that paved the way for later commissions. She also details the learning processes involved in working with this new material. Although his imagery was well received, McCahon was ill advised to apply black paint to clear architectural glass, which received high levels of ultraviolet light, and whose painted surfaces began deteriorating almost immediately. His restored windows formed the basis for Auckland Art Gallery’s 2020 exhibition, documented in detail here.

Colin McCahon, clerestory windows, St Patrick's Church, Te Puke. Photo: Bridget Hackshaw, 2020

For McCahon expert Peter Simpson, who toured the Hackshaw churches with the author, experiencing the breadth and range of the artist’s work with stained glass was a revelation. His essay on the significance of windows for McCahon is a scholarly addendum to his magisterial two-volume study of the artist’s work. Simpson points out how working with Hackshaw on glass projects (which McCahon nearly always completed during his long summer break from Elam) led to changes in both the iconography and the format of his paintings, and renewed his interest in Catholic symbolism.

Conceived as a publication to accompany a film forthcoming in 2023, the book’s design, by Inhouse, Auckland, complements its modernist contents while seeming utterly contemporary. The book is ordered into two sections. Five essays at the front set the context for the twelve projects completed over thirteen years—including four churches in Auckland and one in Te Puke—that make up the rest of the book. Highlights include pages with images of McCahon’s left-handed writing used in letters lifted directly from the archive, which are only occasionally misinterpreted in the Courier-typeface transcription alongside. Bridget Hackshaw’s own photographs show the richness of McCahon’s use of stained glass for creating atmospheric interiors. As he wrote: ‘Good glass holds your hands up high and a certain glory filters through your fingers.’

Documenting her father’s work has been a labour of love for Bridget Hackshaw, and her book appears not a moment too soon. Luckily, she was on hand to save the five remaining McCahon windows when the convent chapel built in 1966 for the fifteen Franciscan nuns teaching at Ōtara was demolished in December 2020. Already long-listed for the illustrated non-fiction category of the Ockham Book Awards, this fascinating study not only brings her father’s work into focus, it also illuminates neglected aspects of the artistic careers of McCahon and Dibble. It is evident now that Hackshaw’s architectural work and collaboration with artists has created a unique legacy worthy of preservation and celebration.

Bridget Hackshaw, The Architect and the Artists: Hackshaw, McCahon, Dibble: The Collaborative Projects 1965–1979 (Auckland: Massey University Press, 2021).

Header image: Liston College Chapel, Auckland. Photo: Bridget Hackshaw, 2020

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