The McCahon Years

The McCahon Years

Diana Miller, Colin and Anne McCahon, Peter Tennant, Pat Hanly and Connie Larson on the deck of the bach.  Photographer Barry Millar Oct. 1957

The House when the McCahon family arrived

The house was  a basic bach set on a steeply sloping site densely covered with kauri and other trees. There was a small garage at road level which was later converted into a studio. From the road there was a steep path down to the house. A tiny kitchen doubled as the entrance lobby. A small lean-to area served as laundry, bathroom and dining area. On the other side of the kitchen was a living room with an alcoved porch off it beside a fireplace. Colin painted a large mural for the dining room wall.

The house had electricity and town supply water, but the outside toilet facilities were very primitive. Initially the children slept in the lean-to area of the living room; Colin & Anne slept in the tiny porc


Colin McCahon made some necessary alterations—he spoke positively to his friends about their new home. His enthusiasm for the Auckland and Titirangi environment and his intense involvement in making alterations to the new house and establishing a garden are evident in extracts from letters to his Christchurch friend, the writer John Caselberg:

14 July 1954:
Am in a rush, trying to catch up with letters & such things—I seem to be spending nearly all my time doing carpentry around the house. And I want to start on some painting—sometime but must get things working at home first of all. Have ordered some timber on the strength of your money [for a painting Caselberg had bought]. We always seem to strike places without shelves—or possibly we need lots more than most people.

20 July 1954:
Spent Sat & Sun in the garden—did quite some digging—for vegetables—& some fancy work for my soul. Planted beans & some silver beet & cabbages & about 200 ferns of various sorts in the kauri patch—am planning drifts of ferns in places & drifts of a very softly yellow green small shrub that grows here—a native—it could be a myrtle and a gradual removal of all the wrong things to a safer distance from the native stuff…Have planted 3 clumps of toe-toe to look at themselves in the pond—this tonight—was down there in the dark—in rain & mud it was gently lovely and sweet and so quiet after Barbour St. And this—all this here changing my painting—not that I’ve yet really started painting but am planning—and sorting out the layers—and now lean towards the direction of the ‘bridges’ rather than abstracts [a reference to On Building Bridges (1952), completed in Christchurch]. And feel the need for warmth—felt here in the whole Auckland confusion & people as not in Chch [sic]. This has been a most necessary move. Its good to feel at home and not a foreigner.

In 1955 a new bathroom was constructed in an area dug out beneath the lean-to area of the living room where a bunkroom for the children was also constructed. Entry was through a kind of trap-door in the floor with a steep stair which Colin constructed. Colin was assisted in the building by Peter Webb (then a colleague at the Gallery) and other friends. The basement area was later expanded to form sleeping bays for the children—open-sided rooms with bunk beds and shelves. The roof of this area was used as a deck—wooden boards covered with black malthoid cloth (it was concreted after the McCahon era)—where much of the social activity of the house went on in warmer and dry weather.

In 1958 McCahon built a bedroom for the boys underneath the garage/studio where he did most of his painting. He wrote in 1972:

1958 was a good year.  I built an extra bedroom under the quite extraordinary garage, my studio, we had on the top of our domestic cliff—the boys were moved into that. It had bunks and a clay floor and lovely sliding windows, sliding on coloured glass marbles. The floorboards upstairs were rather far apart and Molly Ryburn [a colleague at the Gallery] supplied a carpet (which I still have in my present studio) to make it more comfortable—the boys had clay and I had carpet. (a survey, p. 26)

An Inspirational place

One childhood friend of the family remembers the house as an inspirational place—vital, full of conversation and music and the smells of studio and domestic life—with a tremendous sense of ‘home’. The artist Pat Hanly who visited in October 1957, en route to Europe, with the photographer Barry Millar, found the McCahon place refreshingly ‘modern’ in style (after Colin’s idiosyncratic alterations), and an antidote to the stuffiness of most New Zealand houses of the period, especially in Christchurch where he had been studying at art school. 


End of an era

The growing size of the children was probably a main reason the McCahons decided to move to the city in 1960. It is possible, too, that they were unsettled by their visit to America for several months in 1958. 

"We came to Auckland in 1953 and lived in Titirangi in a tiny house at French Bay. It rained almost solidly during May, June, July and August. For the first month we lived almost entirely on a diet of potatoes, parsley, and bags of rock-cakes given by a kind and ancient aunt".
(Colin McCahon a survey, 1972, p. 22)

..."We went home to the bush of Titirangi. It was cold and dripping and shut in—-and I had seen deserts and tumbleweed in fences and the Salt Lake Flats, and the Faulkner country with magnolias in bloom, cities—-taller by far than kauri trees. My lovely kauris became too much for me. I fled north in memory and painted the Northland panels..." (Colin McCahon a survey, 1972)