Above - David McGill & Robin Perks next to the threatened McCahon.
‘What do you see in it?’ was a common accusatory question, often followed by ‘I could do better than that. A kid with a paint pot could. A monkey.’
These were literate folk, but in 1979 McCahon was still a favourite object of derision by those who knew what they liked and liked to tell you what they didn’t. I didn’t argue, for I had been no better when Barbara Magner took me into Barry Lett’s gallery in Auckland to look at the Noughts and Crosses series McCahon was exhibiting.
I spent a month at a flat in Wellington where a McCahon sat opposite the sofa. I used to look and wonder what its owner saw in this crude black and white lettering. One day the scales fell from my eyes. Like Saul of Tarsus, something exploded and I was converted. I rushed down to the McLeavey gallery to tell the mild-mannered fellow with albino-white hair and owlish glasses that I had to have a McCahon. Peter McLeavey nodded and smiled in his enigmatic fashion and said we would have to see.
I was seeing, but yet I did not see. I was a turbulent ex-seminarian who had been struck dumb by the power of McCahon. I craved McCahon. What about the Muriwai beach one, where sea and sand and sky are scarcely separate? I must have that. Peter said he did not think that was for me, I should look at more McCahons. Rumour was he had 150 of them. I tried to curb my impatience as he suggested other McCahons.
I went back over three purgatorial months. Peter shook his head in that slightly startled fashion, as if surely I would come to my senses and realise this McCahon was not for me.
Finally, one day, after I went to and fro between three big paintings, I said YES! Peter graced me with a slight nod and a ghost of a grin. ‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘Colin recalled that twice to work on it. Timbacryl on yacht canvas, makes it robust. Even so, you must keep it safe.’ We both stood gazing upon this epic painting. ‘Colin saw it,’ he said, ‘as a 500-mile cross in the sky.’
Fantastic. I was even more impressed. I paid up and Peter personally rolled up the painting. The only wall we agreed big enough was by the billiard table. I don’t think he was too impressed.
I used to visit Peter for years after, not just to reassure him about my McCahon, but to chat, thinking like so many that he conferred on me a special relationship. I did not tell him of the terrible day when a noisy, whisky-fuelled gathering knocked my McCahon off the wall. My daughter was getting into crayon decoration and Neil Rowe told me his daughter defaced his McCahon, ruining a $55,000 retirement fund. I visited Maurice Shadbolt and he showed me what had been his retirement fund, a glorious butterfly and blue painting his mate Colin did on the side of his bench, until his lad had kicked a hole in it. I got the message and went back to Peter to say I had to sell, I feared I couldn’t protect my McCahon. I told him Sam Neill had been around twice to contemplate the painting. He nodded.
Peter got me $80,000, but could not reveal who had bought it. I thought for years it was Sam, until I read the McLeavey biography and figured it was an Auckland couple. Like Peter said, we were only temporary custodians of genius. It was close to my heart, as no doubt it was to Colin’s, for he married Anne Hamblett at St Matthew’s church, Dunedin, a few months before I was born in 1942.