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Dear Colin, Dear Ron: Selected Letters of Colin McCahon and Ron O’Reilly
by Peter Simpson

The 'illuminating' record of a long friendship and forty years at the heart of New Zealand visual art.

By April 29, 2024No Comments

Books of eminent artists and writers’ letters appear to be a thriving genre. Artists’ Letters: Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney, edited by Michael Bird, came out in 2019. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of the first art books I bought sixty years ago – has been through many editions. The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin (2018), joins seven others in the Laughlin-and-writer-friends series. Closer to home there’s Frances Hodgkins Letters (ed. Linda Gill, 1993) and Toss Woollaston: A Life in Letters (ed. Jill Trevelyan, 2004).

The blurb for Bird’s Artists’ Letters claims they enable a ‘unique insight into their lives and a glimpse into their characters’, which, as a succinct summation, is broadly applicable to Dear Colin, Dear Ron, edited by Peter Simpson. Painter Colin McCahon and the librarian Ron O’Reilly met in 1938 in Dunedin: McCahon was 19 and O’Reilly was 24. Reilly was acting in student plays for which McCahon was making painted sets. The letters – close to 400 of them – span the years 1944 to 1981, divided into three chronological sections. The book includes a short introduction by Simpson, as well as his characterisations and context for the letters and extensive useful annotations. Simpson also transcribed all the letters, a task he describes as ‘marathon-like’ because of the volume of letters and McCahon’s handwriting.

Probably more has been written about McCahon’s art than any other New Zealand-born artist; Simpson himself is the author of three. In contrast, probably most readers would know little or nothing about O’Reilly. The book concludes with short responses to the letters’ publication by McCahon’s grandson, Finn McCahon-Jones, and O’Reilly’s son, Matthew: the latter provides necessary knowledge of his father, a philosophy graduate, prominent and influential librarian who also spent two years teaching at Ibadan University in Nigeria. Towards the end of his life, Ron became

director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery [in New Plymouth], although he remained in his essential spirit an amateur, a lover of the visual arts, and a promoter of art’s value to society. McCahon, and especially his art, was always Ron’s guiding compass: nothing one without the other.

Ron O’Reilly in Ibadan, Nigeria, when he was teaching librarianship at the university there 1964–66. McCahon’s Landscape theme and variations (D) is on the wall behind him.

O’Reilly’s letters reveal his love and advocacy of the visual arts, especially McCahon’s (for whom he frequently acted as a kind of agent, helping to arrange exhibitions and find buyers for McCahon’s paintings) and the breadth of his reading and thinking – a true friend of the sometimes ‘difficult’ McCahon. ‘Have had a very busy and bad year,’ McCahon wrote to O’Reilly in December 1961. ‘I have been in a constantly unpleasant mood largely through overwork here [at Auckland City Art Gallery] & at home & with my own painting which is slowly coming right, I know, although almost all think quite the reverse.’ O’Reilly was also an intellectual, at a time in this country when that designation could generate suspicion.

The letters range from the mundane stuff of daily life, personal and family matters, to their shared artistic and literary interests and McCahon’s art – how it was developing, its sustaining motivations, technical matters and responses to it, for example. O’Reilly could be critical as well as supportive: ‘I am not content’ with Crucifixion with Virgin, he wrote to McCahon in 1947. ‘I see no more in it than I did when I first looked at it, and that was not quite enough.’

Evaluations and views of other artists’ works and their experiences, sometimes ambivalent, of mutual friends and acquaintances, notably Toss Woollaston, make appearances – not surprisingly, since letters are often vehicles for gossip and otherwise private (not to be read by others) thoughts. ‘Am most upset to hear of Toss’s letter,’ McCahon wrote in 1948. ‘I keep thinking that at last we can live in peace & then he wrote to me most kindly & to you rather less so. This land is not for one painter alone[;] there should be room for us both.’ Twenty-six years later O’Reilly was in trouble again, having ‘managed to offend Toss grievously’. McCahon’s response was to berate O’Reilly over the loan of a painting: ‘On top of your difficulties with Toss I’m going to be difficult too.’

Is that one of the attractions of books of artists’ and writers’ letters? Dear Colin, Dear Ron certainly has a lot of illuminating stuff about matters of art in mid-twentieth century New Zealand, much of which will probably be new or little-known to most readers – for instance, that McCahon hoped for an exhibition in London in the late 1940s (it didn’t happen), with the help of his close friend, artist Patrick Hayman, who returned to Britain in 1948, and McCahon’s disinclination to travel overseas, which meant he never got to Europe. O’Reilly observed, rightly, that McCahon would have gained much for himself and his art, if he would have or had. O’Reilly had plans too, which never eventuated – for example, to organise, when Director of Govett-Brewster, what would have been the first retrospective of Gordon Walters’ painting, and to write a monograph on McCahon’s art (Gordon Brown was to do the first after O’Reilly’s death in 1982).

The Second Gate Series (panel one), 1962.

Several others were also considering a McCahon monograph during the 1960s and 1970s, a project the artist was ambivalent about, as if being ‘done’ – his words – might detrimentally affect his art and reputation (it hasn’t). In 1978 he inquired of O’Reilly about a ‘Len Ball [sic]’ planning to write a book about his art. If that refers to this reviewer, as Simpson’s annotation suggests, it is news to me: I never entertained any such plan. Rumour, misunderstanding, who knows? Or was this an early sign of McCahon’s unfortunate, imminent cognitive decline, of which the often disordered, sometimes agitated quality of the later letters could also be?

In his essay, ‘An Inherent View’, Finn McCahon-Jones raises the issue of privacy:

[Too] often the life of the McCahon family is looked at like some sort of tourism venture. Our stories are taken and made public, often without thought or consideration that there is a living family that still closely connects to this time, to the people and their relationships, and to the tangible legacy left behind. I was reluctant to have a lifetime of private letters published in their entirety, especially as I was not sure what these letters would contain. What secrets would be made public alongside everything else you already know about us?

Would McCahon and O’Reilly really have wanted others reading their more intimate and highly personal exchanges – for instance, when they expressed  negative opinions about someone still alive or when the issue discussed was clearly confidential between them? Jones handles this difficult matter well. That the letters of both men were left to a public institution, the Hocken Library, implies that they both accepted the idea of public access. ‘Colin obviously wanted them to be seen,’ McCahon-Jones concludes, but adds, ‘I hope you explore these pages gently’.

Overall, the letters are a testimony to a long and close friendship. What we read does offer, wittingly or unwittingly on the part of their authors, some new and unexpected perspectives on McCahon’s painting. They certainly confirm the centrality of matters Christian in his oeuvre, and that he read widely and intensely, sometimes prompted by O’Reilly. They discussed writers as well as painters. ‘Have begun again where I left off reading Kafka’s diaries,’ O’Reilly wrote in 1949. ‘You may have them later if you would like them. Camus’ The Plague I found tiresome after the first few chapters’. In McCahon’s reply he thanked O’Reilly for sending him the journals of Andre Gide.

Drawing in a letter, 28 July 1946

That Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774-1840) metaphysical landscapes – seen in reproduction in the early 1970s – appealed to McCahon sheds light on his own landscape imagery. Without the letters, would we realise? Such letter writing as McCahon’s and O’Reilly’s, whether considered or rushed off, is now a thing of the past in this digital age, to the loss of future researchers and archivists. Perhaps, without books like Dear Colin, Dear Ron and their ilk, we’ll eventually find ourselves in a totalising ‘Now’? No more letters from ‘gone worlds’.

The book includes several appendices of O’Reilly’s writings about McCahon’s art, notably his introduction to Colin McCahon: A Survey at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1972. This exhibition was revelatory for many and entrenched McCahon’s reputation not just as New Zealand’s foremost contemporary artist, but also as a kind of seer or prophetic figure. McCahon, O’Reilly wrote was ‘no improvident bohemian’, nor a Catholic, nor ‘a back-to-nature man; nor, a faddist nor a fanatic of any kind.’

Dear Colin, Dear Ron is well-designed, sits nicely in the hands and has an excellent selection of colour plates, mostly of McCahon’s painting, a good number of which were new to me. In short, the book is an attractive and informative addition to the large body of existing literature on McCahon’s art, career, ideas and behaviour. To O’Reilly, McCahon would always stand for ‘the considered, the considerate, the direct, decided and intended act; which involves faith and courage in the presence of doubt.’

The view from the top of the cliff, watercolour on paper, 1971.

Dear Colin, Dear Ron: The Selected Letters of Colin McCahon and Ron O’Reilly

by Peter Simpson

Te Papa Press

ISBN: 978-1-99-116552-7

Published: April 2024

Format: Hardcover, 528 pages

Leonard Bell

Leonard (Len) Bell taught Art History at the University of Auckland for many years. His most recent books include From Prague to Auckland; the photography of Frank Hofmann 1916-1989 (2011); Jewish Lives in New Zealand: A History (co-edited, 2012); Strangers Arrive: Emigres and the Arts in New Zealand 1930-1980 (2017); and Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists (2020).