O'Reilly/McCahon: an Easter meditation
Behind the scenes
An Easter-themed excerpt from an article published in 2010 in The Journal of New Zealand Art History...
On 20 May 1964, [Colin] McCahon wrote to [Ron] O'Reilly requesting a reference in support of his application for a lectureship at the Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland.[i] Asking that this not be publicised – and jesting about 'bribery & corruption' – he told O'Reilly that he was sending him Crucifixion According to St Mark now that it had been restored, in completion of a promise made in August 1962.
At that time (shortly before the opening of 'The Gate Series' show) he had chosen to include this painting within the receipt for a payment of £136.00 from Ron and Daphne O'Reilly for two others they had purchased, explaining 'It is, I feel, much more than you should spend. I get so much help & kindness from you both ... It has been at the back of my mind for some time that the S.M. [St Mark] does really belong in your collection.'[ii] Several months after its arrival in Christchurch, this painting and several others from O'Reilly's collection travelled 16,000 kilometres with him to Africa.
Granted temporary leave from his Christchurch library role, O'Reilly left in September 1964 to teach for two academic years as a visiting professor at the Institute of Librarianship at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. As well as Crucifixion according to St Mark, O'Reilly brought with him another McCahon, two watercolours by Woollaston and a Fomison drawing – all part of his hand luggage when leaving New Zealand. An avid natural collector, he soon built up an extensive array of Nigerian Yoruba sculptures, many of these acquired through itinerant traders visiting the campus. Later describing the Yoruba as 'the most aesthetically gifted people in the world', he clearly found this contact with non-Western artistic traditions of art-making and appreciation a highly rewarding one, indeed a challenge to his understanding of the nature of art.[iii] Completing his term in 1966, just as major conflict in Biafra was escalating, he was permitted to leave Nigeria with the collection after vetting from the Board of Antiquities, and the agreement that most of it would be donated to Canterbury Museum.[iv]
Ron O'Reilly died in Wellington on 10 July 1982 at the age of 68.[v] Outlining his achievements, particularly from his Christchurch years, The Press obituary noted also his having formed 'one of the biggest and most valuable private collections of New Zealand art in the country.'[vi] One of the gems from the collection, McCahon's Crucifixion according to St Mark, was gifted to the Robert McDougall Art Gallery from O'Reilly's estate, honouring the artist's wishes in the process. Important to both men, this vividly hued painting is a vast stage whose intense drama is being worked out in the local landscape. Through its history, it resonates with the association of their long friendship, a significant one in the story of New Zealand art.
Excerpt from Ken Hall, 'A progressive champion: R.N. O'Reilly, Colin McCahon and the Canterbury Public Library art loan collection', The Journal of New Zealand Art History, vol.31 (2010), pp.52-72. Reproduced with permission.
[i] Letter, Colin McCahon to R. N. O'Reilly, 20 May 1964, collection of the R.N. O'Reilly Estate.
[iii] Letter and receipt, Colin McCahon to R.N. O'Reilly, 2 August 1962, collection of the R. N. O'Reilly Estate. See also Brown, Towards a Promised Land, p. 42. Ron and Daphne O'Reilly were separated in 1962.
[iv] Ron O'Reilly Collection, Nigerian Sculpture, exhibition catalogue leaflet, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 1972.[ii] While in Nigeria O'Reilly was awarded a Carnegie travelling fellowship to visit libraries in the United States. He also studied British libraries before returning to Christchurch in 1966. 'Ron O'Reilly, 1914-1982', p://library150.com/Articles/RonOReilly/
[v] The Press, 12 July 1982, p.35.
[vi] 'Obituary: Mr R. N. O'Reilly', The Press, 14 July 1982, p.6.