To mark the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth, a weekend of events in August included a bus ride to experience ‘McCahon’s Auckland’ and an ‘open home’ at the McCahon House Museum. Paula Morris takes the trip. Buckle up.
The first bus to Titirangi leaves at nine AM on Saturday and there’s a certain giggly excitement among the clipboard-bearing volunteers outside the Art Gallery and the passengers wandering up. We’re on a school trip, wearing mufti: that’s how it feels. Someone is late and holds up the bus. I already feel hungry, but have no packed lunch – a mistake, I soon realise, as my ticket for a bus back isn’t until 1:30.
The bus itself is small. Most of us look over 50 apart from two children who have been lured or coerced into coming, the way my brother and I were taken to Palmers with the promise of a playground and/or a sausage sizzle. One of the passengers may be Graeme Burgess, the heritage architect who worked on the conservation plan for the Colin McCahon House Museum and Artist Residency. My husband, Tom Moody, is hustled into the front seat so he can take photos. I sit near the back in a single-seat, wondering if I can just hide there for the day. I often like drives more than destinations.
I grew up in West Auckland, and had piano lessons on Saturday mornings in Titirangi. In the 70s my mother liked to drag us all there to visit artist studios and look at brown pottery or copper plaques. (I inherited the copper plaque.) These days I go there en route to Karekare, or to have coffee at Deco, or to spend a weekend at Going West. But I’ve never caught a bus there in my life.
We’re on a bus because that’s how Colin McCahon travelled home for seven years, starting in 1953. He was working at the Auckland City Art Gallery and living in Titirangi. The bus ride then took almost an hour and a half, followed by a two kilometre walk down unlit gravel roads to the small house near French Bay, the first home that he and his wife ever owned.
It’s Colin McCahon’s centenary, which feels implausible: was he really born just after World War I? He grew up in the South Island and attended art school in Dunedin in the 30s, where he met fellow artist Anne Hamblett. She was four years older than him, and one of the ‘superior’ girls, as he said. After graduating Anne set up a studio with other artists, including McCahon. Her parents sent her to teaching college but she skipped classes. She refused multiple offers of marriage from McCahon, but he persisted, giving her a second-hand bracelet set with moonstones instead of an engagement ring.
They married in 1942, when he was 23; he’d been rejected for military service, and worked in factories, as a fruitpicker, as a labourer, or harvesting tobacco. Their wedding picture looks wartime and low-key, Anne in a dark suit and flat shoes. The 40s were beyond austere for them – four children, seasonal work, lots of moving around and forced separations. McCahon’s artistic career burgeoned but Anne stepped away from hers: she had children to feed and clothe. Anne could make a little money from illustration work for the School Journal, but she exhibited a painting for the last time in 1945.
They moved north to Auckland in 1953 because McCahon thought he had a job at the Auckland City Art Gallery. He did not. He worked there as a cleaner and then a temporary attendant until securing a permanent job, organising exhibitions and writing catalogue essays the following year. Titirangi in those days was the ‘sylvan slum’, said historian E. H. McCormick. The McCahons bought 67 Otitori Bay Road because it was cheap – a small bach at the bottom of a steep path, cloistered by bush, with an outside toilet.
The house was dank, its rooms tiny. But at last McCahon had a job and a house, and despite the full-time work in the city, long commutes and endless building and gardening projects at home, the Titirangi years were intensely productive for him. Peter Simpson has written a book called Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years on precisely this subject. Our copy is signed to ‘Tom and Rachel’, because Peter sometimes forgets my name.
Our guides on the ‘McCahon’s Auckland’ bus trip are curator Ron Brownson, who tells us art-related things, and former mayor Sir Bob Harvey, King of the West, who tells us history and gossip. Sir Bob asks us to imagine it’s a Friday night in April 1956, in a ‘dreary kind of Auckland’. Luxford is our mayor; Holland is prime minister. We must pretend that the bus rattles; that it has a wooden floor; that the male passengers are smoking; that everyone is wearing a hat. Auckland has no motorways. The American army had built a concrete road past Western Springs, where they had a camp in World War II, but their offer to extend it was refused by the New Zealand government. In 1956, all street lights in Auckland are turned off at midnight.
Colin McCahon would be sitting with his TEAL bag at his feet (he’d had a commission from them in 1952, but the airline didn’t like the painting: later they sawed it up and made it into a crate.) In his bag: cheap sherry. The West was dry, and the last grog shop was on K Road. McCahon drank a lot. He would have stayed in the city, says Sir Bob, until the pubs shut at six PM, so it might be eight before he arrived home, much later if the gallery had an event. There were no street lights at all on his road in Titirangi.
I’m glad we’re in a non-smoking bus, and not obliged to wear hats. I’m also absorbed by the commentary, traded between Ron and Sir Bob, sharing one mic and passing around laminated prints of McCahon paintings. In all the decades I’ve sped past St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Grey Lynn, I’ve never spotted the stained-glass windows by Milan Mrkusich. Now I want to visit the church to see them and his murals up close. I want to take another look at the brick police station in New Lynn, and the brick sculptures by Peter Lange.
Sir Bob knows the layers of places, the names of old theatres and roads, the locations of long-gone cage lifts and market gardens. He tells us about the criminal activities of his uncle and John Banks’ father, and about his own youthful plan – unsuccessful – to break into the zoo and ride a llama. He tells us about the mysterious grave of a ‘Danish princess’ in St Ninian’s churchyard, opposite the Hollywood cinema in Avondale – another place I want to visit again – and, more controversially, claims that Lynn Mall is the world’s oldest shopping mall, and that the Portage Road link between the Whau River and the Manukau is the narrowest part of New Zealand. (When we pass election hoardings, he gives his opinions on the candidates – ‘wonderful fellow’, ‘evil devil’, and ‘dull, but he’ll probably win’.)
The bus passes the McCahon house to do a U-turn at French Bay, where the tide is in and water looks glossy and serene. The road by the house itself is narrow, a muddy bank high on the opposite side, engorged with tree roots. A shed-like garage perches at street level, currently housing about ten chairs (I forget to count) where a ten-minute film on McCahon screens. McCahon painted here as well as inside the house. The family had no car.
In town it was sunny but here in Titirangi it’s drizzling. Large umbrellas are propped against the side of the shed. The winding path down is slippery. The house – red boards, tin roof – looks like a shanty that’s rolled down the hill and settled in a gully of bush. I think about Anne, with four children and no car, trudging up an unsealed road to get to the nearest place that sold groceries. Peter Simpson says the house is a ‘few minutes’ walk from Titirangi village; McCahon said it was about ten minutes’ walk. He must have been talking about downhill. It’d be closer to half an hour uphill with small children in tow. Not that there was much money for groceries. “For the first month,” McCahon wrote, “we lived almost entirely on a diet of potatoes, parsley, and bags of rock-cakes given by a kind and ancient aunt”. Anne was resourceful, a good cook and sewer. A lot of friends visited – Charles Brasch, John Caselberg, Pat Hanly – to talk to her and McCahon, hanging out on their non-code wooden deck. She cooked for them all.
McCahon made many improvements and additions to the house, including a bathroom downstairs, but it remained Spartan and miniature in scale. Some tour-goers are horrified by the sleeping arrangements for the children, under the deck – wooden bunks open to the elements – and talk about little else. Forget the McCahon paintings on display in the house: have you seen the bunk beds? Things were different then, someone says. New Zealanders were hardier, their children less spoiled. Everyone was still worried about the polio epidemic. Sleeping in the fresh air was seen as healthy. In the winter, a volunteer says, they hung up a blanket to keep the rain out. In the summer, I presume, they were all savaged by mosquitoes. Later the two boys moved into the small room under McCahon’s garage studio. It had a clay floor.
The artist residency studio sprawls to the left of the property, a high-ceilinged living area, with two bedrooms and (flash) bathrooms. The studio itself is big, and this weekend works by past residents are displayed on one wall. There we can have a glass of sherry and pick a rock cake from a tin. The high ceilings of the residency and its studio are nothing like the house: it’s a cathedral built next to an old chapel. It must have been cold and damp in that chapel.
We’re there for hours. There’s much to see hidden behind sliding compartments in the house – photos, letters, context – but more than five people make any room feel crowded. The paintings get bumped. There are four on loan for this special weekend only. We’ve already seen them in laminated form on the bus; we’ve also seen them (again, laminated) on the nature walk. Tom and I take the first walk of the day, at ten, borrowing one of the big umbrellas. Because of the rāhui in the Waitakere ranges right now, our walk can’t go far, but we can look at the harbour (see: Manukau 3, 1954), squint at the trees (see: Titirangi, 1956/57), and cradle kauri seeds and cones (see: Kauri, 1953). On the bus trip home that afternoon, Sir Bob brandishes a laminated Towards Auckland (1953) when we crest the ridge, exhorting us to see the distant city as McCahon did.
One of the walk guides asks me about my first encounter with a McCahon painting. It was 1982, my first year at the University of Auckland. One lunchtime my friend Hamish Coney and I walked through Albert Park to the Art Gallery. I’d been to the gallery before, but not often. Our family was more into the Museum, where there was a mummy, a moa, and a stuffed elephant. Hamish wanted to show me something by McCahon, and I think it was Here I Give Thanks to Mondrian, painted in 1961, not long after he and Anne moved the family into central Auckland, to Partridge Street in Arch Hill.
Hamish leapt about, enthusing, as he still does. I liked the scrawl of words, the depth and intensity of the shapes. Back then, in callow youth, I don’t think I would have responded to the tree paintings, or the stark landscapes, say, in the same way. We no doubt wandered the whole exhibition, but this is the painting I remember. McCahon was the first New Zealand artist to infiltrate my idiot teenage consciousness. I didn’t know he was almost at the end of his painting life, about to be overtaken by dementia. His funeral, in 1987, was held at St Joseph’s Church in Grey Lynn.
We watch the ten-minute film twice, and then loll in the residency’s living area, scrounging a muffin from a kind volunteer, and eavesdropping. Victoria, one of the McCahon’s children, calls in: she is no-nonsense, reminding people that 50 years ago the bush around the house wasn’t so tall and overwhelming. It wasn’t that dark, she says.
The bus trip home is more subdued. The driver is worried that every bus out was full, but our return bus has empty seats: this means the next and final bus back will be over-subscribed, sure to be overwhelmed by passengers desperate to escape Otitori Bay Road before dark. “They can catch an Uber,” someone says, and we’re off. Our tour guides, worn out with all the back-and-forths into town, make sporadic commentary. We don’t stick to the Great North Road this time, but sneak onto the motorway – at least, I think so, because I doze off somewhere around the Bunnings in New Lynn. When I wake I think of what Sir Bob said about how quiet the city was in the 50s, because there was much less traffic. When a kauri dam broke in the ranges, he said, you could hear it downtown.
We’re asked to complete feedback forms, to help make a case for more Art Bus trips. In my view, it should run and run: tourists should be dragged off the double-decker that takes them to One Tree Hill and St Luke’s Shopping Mall and hustled onto the Art Bus. Even if there are no McCahon paintings in situ at the house, they could be shown the bunk beds, and the trees, and see how great things can come from very small places.
Note: Ron Brownson is the co-curator of A Place to Paint: Colin McCahon in Auckland currently showing at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki until the end of January 2020.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.