The Mackelvie book bequest at Auckland Libraries

The book bequests from James Tannock Mackelvie are jewels in the Library’s Heritage Collections. Scottish-born James Mackelvie was already an experienced businessman when he arrived in Auckland in 1865 to take up a junior partnership and fifth share in the firm of Brown, Campbell & Company. Six years later he left New Zealand a wealthy man, and spent his life selecting works to send back to Auckland for the “cultural education of the young and the enjoyment of Aucklanders”. These well-chosen gifts continue to attract interest and scholarship at Auckland Libraries.

Image: James D. Richardson.  Portrait of James Tannock Mackelvie.  Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 4-1343.

The books include five works featured in Real Gold: treasures of Auckland City Libraries. These items can be found in the online exhibition based on this book on the library website.

Since the publication of Real Gold in 2007 we have developed the Kura Tūturu Real Gold case in the Library’s Reading Room. This allows us to showcase the works in the book – a new treasure each month – to let visitors see the originals up close. As part of this programme we record a podcast talk with library experts to hear more about the works. This is in line with James Mackelvie’s wish that the collection be a teaching collection. We are learning more about these works as we share them more widely through displays, podcasts and research opportunities.

In 2020 we also welcome Mary Kisler as the Auckland Library Heritage Trust Scholar. Mary is currently working through the original letters to and from James Tannock Mackelvie held in Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. Mary’s research will result in a long-awaited monograph on JT Mackelvie as well as transcriptions, which the Library will add to our catalogue records to enhance the records we hold. Mary has already made some notable discoveries about some of the bequests gifted to Auckland and about JT Mackelvie and his family through the extensive correspondence.

Image: Mary Kisler in the reading room.


Hear about the Tapa Book. This was printed for Alexander Shaw in London in 1787 and three centuries later it has been the focus of new research, with a seminar – Tapa Talks - held at the Central City Library and much interest in the thirty-nine specimens of barkcloth which make this a unique work.


You can view every page of this extraordinary book on Kura Heritage Collections Online, and hear Daren Kamali, Pacific Heritage Advisor discuss it here:




You can also hear Georgia Prince, Principal Curator Rare Books talk about one of her favourites, Auguste Racinet’s book, Polychromatic Ornament, and see it in the Real Gold online exhibition.


Listen to the track here.

The complete title of this work, translated from the French gives a sense of the contents:

Polychromatic ornament : one hundred plates in gold, silver, and colours, comprising upwards of two thousand specimens of the various styles of ancient, oriental, and mediæval art, and including the renaissance and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries / the subjects selected and arranged, in historical order and in a form suitable for practical use, by A. Racinet; with explanatory text, and a general introduction

Image: Auguste Racinet. Polychromatic Ornament, 1877. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

And it should be noted that this volume is described as ‘elephant’ in terms of size.


Alongside Racinet’s work on design Auckland visitors can also see Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament thanks to James Mackelvie’s bequest. Published two decades earlier than the Polychromatic Ornament, in 1856, this seminal work with 100 plates is still in print. Read more in the Real Gold online exhibition

Image: Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, London 1856. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.


And James Mackelvie made sure that New Zealand works were part of his bequest from the outset. This exceptional work with fold-out plates depicting the New Zealand landscape and newly arrived Company settlers was published in London in 1845. Read more about Edward Jerningham Wakefield and Adventure in New Zealand in the Real Gold online exhibition

One of the most admired of all New Zealand books, Walter Buller’s A history of the birds of New Zealand, first published in 1873, was gifted to Auckland by James Mackelvie. Only 500 copies of the hand-finished coloured plates were produced.

When the Mackelvie Society was formed in 2019 to support the work started with James Mackelvie’s bequest and the work of the Mackelvie Trust, the Library was delighted to support this initiative. Along with the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Auckland Art Gallery, who also have significant works thanks to James Mackelvie, the Library invites you to enjoy these books – in person and online.

Author: Jane Wild, Manager Heritage Collections


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