The many lives of E. Mervyn Taylor’s mural Te Ika-a-Maui
|Te Ika-a-Maui in Takakpuna Library.|
The NZ Post Office commissioned Te Ika-a-Maui in 1961 as part of a nationwide celebration of the new Commonwealth Pacific Telephone Cable (COMPAC) - which was going to triple the country’s capacity for international calls. A cable terminal was built in Akoranga Drive, Northcote. Te Ika-a-Maui was installed in the foyer and open for the public to view. A COMPAC press release stated “Being in ceramic tile, the mural which is one of Mervyn Taylor’s outstanding works, will be assured of the permanency it undoubtedly deserves.” The mural appeared in newspapers around the country, and in the souvenir booklet Voices Through The Deep, which noted it was the focal point of the terminal’s entrance vestibule. E. Mervyn Taylor felt there was an analogy between the ‘fishing up’ of the North Island by Māui, and its modern counterpart, this new cable that would draw New Zealand out of the Pacific into the telephone systems of the world.
However, the permanency forecast in the press release did not eventuate. In the late 1980s the Post Office was divided into three enterprises and a few years later one of these, Telecom, was sold to USA-based businesses Bell Atlantic and Ameritech. A high-security fence was installed around the Northcote terminal complex, sealing off public access to Te Ika-a-Maui. Over time, the ceramic tiles began falling off the wall. At some point in the 1980s the mural was taken down, stored in cardboard boxes, and forgotten for around 30 years.
|Cable Terminal, Northcote from SEACOM (1966), NZ Post Office. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.|
In 2014 Te Ika-a-Maui was itself fished up from those dusty cardboard boxes, and eventually rehomed in Takapuna Library, by artist Bronwyn Holloway-Smith. She had been researching the cultural aspects of the Southern Cross Cable (SX) as part of her PhD in Fine Arts, when a colleague mentioned once seeing the ceramic tile mural in Northcote. This led Holloway-Smith to the now-defunct cable building where she and the station manager found the tiles. She subsequently restored, digitised, and made a photographic reconstruction of Te Ika-a-Maui.
Holloway-Smith felt it was important for this major artwork, financed by public money, to be made available to the public again. The Spark Foundation worked with Auckland Council to find a suitable home for the work and chose Takapuna Library partly because it was on The Strand – and both the COMPAC and SX cables had been laid where The Strand reaches the beach. This has been a landing site for submarine cables since an early telegraph cable in 1912, and later COMPAC was laid there in 1962 – a technological advance that was also commemorated with Wedgewood plates, films, stamps and brochures, and a function at the Wellington Town Hall where 450 guests watched Her Majesty the Queen appear via the cable.
|Compac cable, map from Voices Through The Deep (1963), NZ Post Office. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.|
In 1983 the Post Office laid its replacement – the ANZCAN cable – in the same spot. This new cable had 20 times the capacity of COMPAC, and it took two weeks to lay it on Takapuna beach. Usually the haunt of swimmers and sunbathers, the beach was strewn with large drums holding the bright yellow cable and machinery, while Post Office staff dug a metre into the sand to lay the submarine cable out into the Hauraki Gulf – the land cable having already been laid from the Post Office yard in Akoranga Drive. Once again, the Queen officially opened the new network at a ceremony in London, televised live to a function at Parliament House.
|Installing the PacRim East cable on Takapuna Beach, North Shore Times Advertiser, 26 November 1992. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.|
The next cable to land at Takapuna was the PacRim East cable in 1992. Divers, bulldozers and truck-mounted winches brought it ashore from a specialist cable ship moored two kilometres away. This optical fibre cable created more than 30 times the call capacity of the previous network, allowing for up to 60,000 simultaneous phone calls.
Takapuna subsequently became one of the landing points for the Southern Cross Cable in 2000, a trans-Pacific network of telecommunications that is the main source of this country’s international internet traffic.
|Installing the ANZCAN cable on Takapuna Beach, North Shore Times Advertiser, 24 March 1983. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.|
E. Mervyn Taylor created twelve murals for major New Zealand buildings, but Te Ika-a-Maui is the only one he made for one in Tāmaki Makaurau. Some of his murals have been destroyed or presumed lost, and of the eight surviving ones only three are made of ceramic tiles. Te Ika-a-Maui has been on display in the Research North area on level one of Takapuna Library since 2019. It was unveiled by Taylor’s daughter Rebecca Jane Taylor at a special ceremony, also in attendance were Holloway-Smith, Taylor’s granddaughter Natasha Jane Smyser, and conservator Rose Evan who assisted with the restoration of the mural.
Taylor was one of the most celebrated Aotearoa artists of the 1930s-1960s. He was highly regarded as a wood engraver, painter, illustrator, sculptor and designer, and by the early 1960s murals had become a major part of his work. His biographer, Bryan James, has said that “The demand for murals, previously virtually non-existent in New Zealand, reflected greater prosperity and interest in art in public buildings, as well as an awareness of what was happening with public art in buildings overseas.”
James said that one feature which always distinguished Taylor’s work was his incorporation of Māori life and culture. “It was something he consciously set out to do, because he saw Māori as an essential part of the natural order of life in New Zealand, who could no more be excluded from his art than could the bush, the landscape, or the individual creatures he featured. His use of Māori legends was deliberate, he was inspired by them and could use them in context with the land imagery he employed.”
|Catalogue from the Exhibition of Works by E Mervyn Taylor 1967. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.|
Taylor died in 1964 and in 1967 an exhibition of his work was held in Wellington. This was the largest retrospective of a single artist ever held in Aotearoa at that time and included about 570 works. At the official opening, the Chief Justice Sir Richard Wild said “It was in the portrayal of Māori folklore and mythology, drawing his inspiration from his native countryside, that Mervyn Taylor was at once a pioneer and a great artist.”
If you can’t visit Takapuna Library to see the mural, you can view Bronwyn Holloway-Smith’s digitised version which can be explored tile by tile, in high-resolution, here. Holloway-Smith also created a photographic version of the mural which was exhibited at marketing agency JWT’s Queen Street office. In 2015 the mural was installed for one day at Massey University to launch the E. Mervyn Taylor Mural Search and Recovery Project. The Spark Foundation arranged for replica tiles to fill the gaps left by sixteen missing ones. The fully-restored work was exhibited in the City Gallery Wellington’s 2018 show This Is New Zealand as part of Holloway-Smith’s multi-platform installation The Southern Cross Cable: A Tour.
|Wanted The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor.|
Finding Te Ika-a-Maui was also the catalyst for Holloway-Smith to edit the beautiful book Wanted: The Search for the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor, which documents the journey Te Ika-a-Maui has taken from one public space to another, including its time gathering dust in cardboard boxes, and its careful restoration. This book also details the hunt for Taylor’s other murals, it is rich in scholarly essays and visual material from his sketches to his finished works, to photographs of Taylor in his studio, and playing with his children.
Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library
COMPAC (1963), NZ Post Office.
E. Mervyn Taylor Artist: Craftsman (2006), Bryan James.
Exhibition of works by E Mervyn Taylor (1967), New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts.
SEACOM (1966), NZ Post Office.
Voices Through The Deep (1963), NZ Post Office.
Wanted The Search For the Modernist Murals of E. Mervyn Taylor (2018), Ed. Bronwyn Holloway-Smith.
The Big Idea, 28 May 2014, “Artist rediscovers long-lost mural.”
Dominion Post, 12 November 2015, “Solving a Wellington art history mystery.”
New Zealand Geographic, Number 87, September-October 2007, “Mervyn Taylor: The renaissance man of Karori.”
NZ Herald, 2 March 1912, “New Tasman Sea Cable.”
NZ Listener, 17 March 2018, “Back to the wall.”
North Shore Times Advertiser, 24 February 1983, “ANZCAN submarine telephone cable to be laid from Takapuna.”
North Shore Times Advertiser, 15 March 1983, “ANZCAN cable to start at Takapuna.”
North Shore Times Advertiser, 24 March 1983, “Takapuna cable-laying causes interest.”
North Shore Times Advertiser, 18 October 1984, “Queen to open cable link.”
North Shore Times Advertiser, 16 July 1992, “Telecom cable to run from Takapuna Beach.”
North Shore Times Advertiser,17 November 1992, “Ship to Shore.”
North Shore Times Advertiser, 26 November 1992, “Lines to better communications.”
The Rangitoto Observer, 24 May 2019, “Rediscovered modernist work unveiled in library.”
The Spinoff, 1 April 2020, “The Single Object: The internet cable that connects us to the rest of the world.”
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