Moving to Auckland

McCahon, his wife Anne and their four children moved to Auckland in 1953 so that Colin could take up a job at the Auckland City Art Gallery, at that time newly under the direction of Eric Westbrook, a dynamic young Englishman. 


Westbrook, who had met McCahon in Christchurch on a tour of the country, was engaged in turning the Gallery into the most go-ahead and modern art institution in the country. Previously, McCahon had worked at a variety of seasonal and casual jobs, including orchard work, carpentry, gardening and jewellery making, in order to put food on the table for his young family. At this time it was impossible for him to live from the sale of paintings; only a handful of close friends and supporters—such as Rodney Kennedy, Charles Brasch, Doris Lusk, Ron O’Reilly and John Caselberg—were purchasing his work. It wasn’t until the 1970s that he could afford to paint full-time.

A Painting for Uncle Frank

A Painting for Uncle Frank 

Date: 1980
Medium: acrylic
Dimensions: 2335mm x 2995mm
Collection: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

McCahon worked at the Auckland City Art Gallery for more than a decade, from 1953 to 1964, fulfilling a wide variety of roles including curating exhibitions, writing and editing catalogues, and contributing to the Gallery’s Bulletins. Eventually he was promoted to the position of ‘keeper’ or custodian, and deputy director to Peter Tomory who replaced Eric Westbrook in 1956. It was at Tomory’s initiative that McCahon visited the United States in 1958. McCahon also taught classes at the Gallery both at nights and at summer schools, many of his students becoming close friends, including Lois McIvor, Freda Simmonds, Margot Phillips, Buster Pihama, Tim Garrity and others.


During McCahon’s lifetime the artist and his family lived in various parts of Auckland, including Titirangi, Arch Hill, Grey Lynn and Muriwai.  Our present concern is with the first of these homes—the small house or bach at 67 Otitori Bay Road, Titirangi, which the McCahon House Trust has been created to preserve.  The steeply sloping, bush-clad site overlooks French Bay on the Manukau Harbour. The surrounding environment of kauri-forested hills and the bush-fringed bays of the Manukau Harbour occupied much of his painting throughout  the seven years he lived in French Bay, though from 1958 when he returned from America his work underwent a significant change of direction.


Wherever he lived, McCahon was always acutely responsive to his natural surroundings, although over the length of his career his work encompassed many different styles, forms and subjects, ranging from biblical narrative paintings to various kinds of abstraction and paintings centred on words or numbers.  Landscape, however, was the most continuous element in his work from the start of his career to the end, from Harbour Cone from Peggy’s Hill (1939)—his first major painting (see above)—to A painting for Uncle Frank (1980)—the last of his paintings to include a landscape reference.


It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the landscape and native vegetation of Titirangi at the eastern end of the forested Waitakere Ranges, skirting the northern edge of the large Manukau Harbour that opens in the west to the Tasman Sea, became a significant element in his work. The sub-tropical rain forest of the Waitakeres, dominated by regenerating kauri which had been heavily milled in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, formed a striking contrast to the cooler, barer South Island landscapes of plains, hills, valleys and mountains which had previously formed McCahon’s environment and was the focus of much of his art.


McCahon’s letters to his friends such as Charles Brasch, John Caselberg and Ron O’Reilly speak of his enthusiasm for his new environment; he particularly mentions the ‘warmth’ of Auckland as compared to Christchurch, a quality that involved more than climate. In fact it was winter when the McCahons first moved into their tiny house, and winters on the south-facing slopes of the Waitakeres were damp and chilly, but by November of that first year McCahon had begun painting again and was relishing the  northern climate. He wrote to his Christchurch friend Caselberg in July:

all this here changing my painting—not that I've yet really started painting but am planning—and sorting out the layers…And feel the need for warmth—felt here in the whole Auckland confusion & people as not in Chch. This has been a most necessary move. Its good to feel at home and not a foreigner. 

(Colin McCahon to John Caselberg, 20 July 1953 quoted in Peter Simpson, Answering Hark: Caselberg/McCahon: Poet/Painter (Nelson, Potton, 2001), p. 46)


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