The Wairoa Centennial Library Mural’s next chapter

A mural, commissioned for the Wairoa Centennial Library in 1962 and painted by E. Mervyn Taylor, is set to be auctioned this week, but it is unlikely that proceeds will go to the flood-ravaged community. Dr Bronwyn Holloway-Smith reports.

Wairoa is a small town halfway between Ahuriri Napier and Tairāwhiti Gisborne in Te Matau-a-Māui Hawke’s Bay. In February 2023 it was hit heavily by Cyclone Gabrielle, resulting in widespread flooding and the town being cut off from the rest of the country. The Wairoa River, which passes through the centre of the town, burst its banks, flooding the homes of roughly half of Wairoa’s residents and damaging crucial infrastructure, leaving the town isolated, with a limited supply of food and drinking water for months. With the burden of rebuilding placed on the shoulders of such a small population, the prognosis may have felt insurmountable for the people of Wairoa. But, in such a situation, the only way out is forwards, and community spirit has prevailed. 

On the 13 July 1961 the banks of the Wairoa river were far from being a site of devastation.  The community had come together for their ‘Big Day’: the opening of the new Wairoa Centennial Library, built to commemorate the district’s centenary. Officially launched  by then-Minister of Internal Affairs, Mr Gotz, the new amenity was celebrated as a source of local pride.

Art was also part of the package. Former mayor Jack Livingston wished to donate a mural to the library, an initiative backed by former-chairman of the Wairoa County Council Turi Carrol. Council records show that a sum of £200.00 was spent on the artwork’s commissioning.[1] The artist E. Mervyn Taylor was contacted by the project architects Porter & Martin to complete a mural at short notice. He provided a design, which was approved, and then travelled up to Wairoa from Wellington with his son Terence to paint it by hand. Bryan James included an anecdote about the creation of this mural in his book, E. Mervyn Taylor: Artist, Craftsman:

When he was working Taylor had little concept of time and would often continue through the night if things were going well. He and his son were painting one Sunday afternoon when the local police constable, evidently a stickler for the rules, saw them and ordered them to cease work. No ‘manufacturing’ could take place on Sundays, the law said, and in his opinion painting a mural was ‘manufacturing’. At the suggestion of the constable, Taylor pasted paper in the library windows lest the citizens of Wairoa witness them working on the Sabbath. Then he and Terence got on with it.[2]

The mural was signed: “E. Mervyn Taylor & Son.”

The official opening of the Wairoa Centennial Library, as documented by the Gisborne Photo News

By all accounts, Livingston was a generous character, concerned for the cultural life of Wairoa. He was also behind the purchase of a Steinway piano for the community, and was known for his hospitality, inviting people to his home for meals and accommodation. He was bestowed with the honour of opening the library doors on the Big Day, after which the first book was issued to a long-time subscriber, and the second to the nine-year-old daughter of the Mayor and Mayoress: the youngest new subscriber.[3]

The mural was a major feature of the new facility, and a reflection of the region’s history, featuring figures who symbolised the wheat, whaling and flax industries, and meetings between Māori and settlers. A cabbage tree in the lower left of the picture was said to be the cabbage tree under which Sir James Carroll was born. 

At the time, the new library was a fine example of clean modernist architecture but, as time went on, the library became in need of renovation. A staircase, concealed cleverly behind the mural’s wall, didn’t meet twenty-first century building code standards, and in the early 2000s it—and the mural—had to be removed. The mural panels were carefully taken down and put in storage at the old Wairoa Fire Station, with the hope that it would find a new home somewhere else soon.

Wairoa Centennial Library, c1962. Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Photo: Duncan Winder
Wairoa Centennial Library Interior, c1962. Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Photo: Duncan Winder

Over a decade later, in 2015, I was researching the murals of E. Mervyn Taylor. I contacted the library enquiring about the artwork, only to find it was no longer there. Library staff recalled a woman, claiming to be a family member, visiting the library during the renovations and becoming distressed at the mural’s disappearance. If it was not going to be cared for and displayed, she demanded the work should be returned to the family. I spoke with the Taylor family, but they didn’t know anything about the work’s disappearance. 

The mayor’s PA at the time remembered being contacted by an upset woman. She had directed the woman to the mayor, and supported the mural’s return to the family, but had nothing further to do with it. No council records could be found documenting the exchange and, despite several leads, no-one could be found who knew what had happened to it. The mayor at the time had since passed away, and there was certainly no public consultation over the matter.

In mid-2016, my colleague Sue Elliott and I were discussing the project with an arts patron and collector of Taylor’s work. This person generously offered a reward of $5000 for information leading to the re-discovery of the work. We created a custom ‘Wanted’ poster (with provisions for anonymous tips) and distributed it to local councillors, media and art-world contacts, online and through social media, and we waited, for days, weeks, months …

Finally, in late 2017, I received a phone call: “I’m phoning about the mural you’re looking for … we’ve got it.”

The ‘Wanted’ poster at Wairoa’s East End Cafe, 2017. Photo: Shaun Waugh

The Wairoa Centennial Library Mural had turned up. The person who found it declined the reward money and asked to remain anonymous, which we honoured, and they allowed us to visit to photograph and measure the panels. They had been stored in blankets in a garage and, other than a bit of fading and minor, rectifiable damage, they looked to be in good shape. We went to the local stationery store and purchased bubble wrap and tape to package the panels properly.

We were relieved that the work was safe, but its future remained uncertain. Now its future is looking clearer: it is set to be auctioned by Art + Object on Tuesday 21 November 2023. With an estimated sale value between $80,000–$120,000, the custodians of this work stand to make a tidy profit, but I can’t help but think of what those funds could do for the people of Wairoa and, indeed, what Jack Livingston would make of all this.

At Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand, we’ve come across a number of works that have, for one reason or another, been moved, hidden or lost. This is perhaps unsurprising. Public artworks exist in built and natural environments which are, of course, subject to change. Sometimes public artworks no longer fit the vision of those who have control of a site, but it is important not to view such a work as mere decor, a piece of property or an asset to be disposed of as one wishes. Public artworks are more than simply objects, they are unique, tangible records of our precious social histories—treasures that are a part of the lives of those who live around them. They are the signifiers of those who came before us and what makes communities distinct and unique. For those involved in their creation, they can also give a sense of belonging. Viewed through the mātauranga Māori concept of taonga, these works have a wairua or life force, and they encapsulate the spirit of a community.

Livingston donated the funds for the mural to the people of Wairoa with the intention that it would be a treasure specifically for that community. The fact that this taonga was relinquished without the constituency’s consultation, or even that of the Taylor family,  is bad practice; negligent at best and, at worst, verging on a form of public theft. At Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand, we’re in the process of building a national register of twentieth-century public art (the first batch of works can be seen on our website), and we are also looking to establish the Aotearoa Public Art Forum, for sharing resources around best practice for public art custodians. The Taylor mural is likely to be sold, but perhaps those who sell and buy it could spare a moment to think of Wairoa, and the purpose for which the mural was created. When the community came together in 1961 to celebrate the new library, there was hope and a sense of local pride. Perhaps some of the profits from the mural’s sale could go towards another such initiative, at a time when Wairoa may need it most. There are many ways that this could be done: perhaps a donation towards the commissioning of a new work for the library and community? Or the funding of a scholarship in Livingston’s memory that enables a Wairoa student to study art?

And perhaps the mural itself could be returned to a public site in Wairoa somewhere, as a long-term loan? At Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand, we’d be happy to advise.

DR BRONWYN HOLLOWAY-SMITH is Co-Director of Public Art Heritage Aotearoa New Zealand, a research initiative that is compiling a national register of twentieth century public art.

More on E. Mervyn Taylor’s mural can be found here

Header image: E. Mervyn Taylor, Wairoa Centennial (preparatory sketch), 1961, gouache on paper on card, 28.5 × 38.1 cm. Courtesy of Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand 

[1] £200.00 equates to roughly $10,500 in today’s currency, according to the Reserve Bank’s Inflation Calculator.
[2] Bryan James, E. Mervyn Taylor: Artist, Craftsman (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2006): 127.
[3] Daily Telegraph, 8 June 1961.

N.B. A previous version of this text misstated that Jack Livingston had donated a Steinway piano to the Wairoa community. He was the mayor at the time of its acquisition, but the money was paid jointly by the borough and county councils. It also stated that he donated £200 towards the commissioning of the mural. Records show that Livingston desired to donate a mural for the new library and that he would make the funds available to cover the costs. The £200 mentioned is recorded in a statement of building funds. It is assumed this amount was donated by Livingston, and this assumption was echoed by the family in an interview, however the records are unclear where exactly the amount came from. Thanks to the Wairoa District Council Archivist for their support in these clarifications. 

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