Cats in the Trees by Eileen Mayo


The pair of domestic tigers slink slyly across the surface of the paper, prowling through the branches of a suburban tree, dispatching terror throughout the bird world and trepidation into the lives of assorted dogs.

Eileen Mayo Cats in the trees 1931. Linocut. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, presented by Mr Rex Nan Kivell 1953. Reproduced courtesy of Dr Jillian Cassidy

Eileen Mayo Cats in the trees 1931. Linocut. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, presented by Mr Rex Nan Kivell 1953. Reproduced courtesy of Dr Jillian Cassidy

For British artist and printmaker Eileen Mayo, the image of two ginger cats at home in their patch of jungle was irresistible. Her work Cats in the Trees now forms part of Rex Nan Kivell's gift to posterity.

Nan Kivell (1898-1977), noted director of one of London's most successful dealer galleries, the Redfern Gallery, was born in Christchurch in 1898. While still at school, he worked for the Christchurch antiquarian book dealer, Sydney Smith. In this environment he developed a love of history and a taste for collecting and dealing that was to remain with him for the rest of his life.

He is perhaps most well known for collecting the large array - about 15,000 objects - of material relating to the early history of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, now housed in the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Nan Kivell's philanthropy also extended to gifts to the four main galleries in New Zealand of examples of British printmaking from the 1930s through to the early 1950s. The former Robert McDougall Art Gallery was very fortunate in being given a second chance at acquiring the Kivell gift in 1994 after it was initially rejected by the gallery's former director in 1953.

Nan Kivell joined the Redfern Gallery in 1925, becoming the gallery's director in 1931. One aspect of the Redfern Gallery's activities was the commissioning of limited edition prints by contemporary British artists of the day.

This was encouraged by Nan Kivell as it allowed contemporary art to reach a wider audience due to the mediums affordability. Artists regularly commissioned included Eric Ravilious, Mayo, Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

The popularity of the Redfern Gallery's prints is seen in an article written on the gallery in ‘The Studio', May 1951 which noted "one of the most enterprising activities of the Redfern Gallery is the sale of colour prints by artists joined in a group called London Painter-Printers, which are regularly exhibited.

"County Councils, education committees, public galleries, shipping companies, no less than the private buyer, are quick to seize on these inexpensive and original works. Colour is the touchstone of all these prints, and in its variety, complexity and harmony there is something to suit all tastes."

In 1953 Nan Kivell put together examples of the Redfern prints into four parcels, one for each of the four main art galleries in New Zealand, and packaged them off to the National Art Gallery in Wellington.

From here the three remaining packages were sent to the art galleries of Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. The Christchurch package was however addressed to Roger Duff, director of the Canterbury Museum. When Duff notified Robert McDougall Art Gallery director, W.S. Baverstock of the prints arrival they were examined and deemed unsuitable for the art gallery's collection. With the consent of Nan Kivell it was agreed the prints should be disposed of. Thirty-four were given to the Canterbury Public Library where they were available for hire.

The rest were put into storage in the Canterbury Museum and over the years became forgotten. Forty-one years later, in 1994, the prints were rediscovered and passed over to Robert McDougall Art Gallery, where they were gratefully accepted.

The total number of prints - 217 - makes a major addition to the gallery's works on paper collection, providing an excellent overview of British printmaking from the 1930s to the early 1950s. The public library collection was also passed over to Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Eileen Mayo began making linocuts in 1928 when she attended the Grosvenor School of Modern Art under Claude Flight. In the same year she exhibited in the ‘First Exhibition of British Linocuts' at the Redfern Gallery. She continued exhibiting prints at the Redfern Gallery until her departure for Sydney in 1952. In 1962 Mayo moved to Waimate where her mother was living. By 1965 Mayo was living in Christchurch where, apart from a period in Dunedin from 1972 to 1975, she remained until her death in 1994. She continued producing prints in Christchurch until 1985.

Peter Vangioni