150 Celebrating Christchurch City Libraries 1859-2009 RSS feed

Three books and an original McCahon please

Three Bathers by John Buckland WrightImagine hanging an original Colin McCahon or Grahame Sydney on your wall and it costing you nothing. An art thief’s dream? Far from it. Between the 1950s and 80s, any Christchurch library member was able to borrow artworks by a wide range of New Zealand artists, thanks to a particularly visionary librarian.

City librarian Ron O’Reilly was passionate about art, and a knowledgeable and well-connected collector in the local art community. In September 1953, he established a lending collection of 80 art prints. This was very popular with library members and two years later the lending of original art work began in May 1955. The first purchases were The cat by Louise Henderson, and Fabric design by Alison Pickmere.

Waterfall & bush by A. E. BaxterJohn Stringleman, who followed Ron O’Reilly as city librarian, recalled:

“Colin McCahon sent him a painting. I think from memory he gave it to him and Ron had it on the wall of his office. It was a little difficult to interpret but Ron interpreted it as a lake with reflection in the lake. He could explain it all quite clearly. Then he must have had second thoughts about this, because one day I went into his office and there was the painting up the other way, you see. I said to him, “Ron what’s the story about this?” Oh, he said looking a bit shamefaced, I asked Colin and it’s actually a kauri tree and it goes that way! Sure enough it was clearly what it was. We had a good laugh about that on plenty of occasions. In the 60s Ron was given two years leave of absence to act as a visiting professor to a library school in Nigeria and at that stage he had never been out of New Zealand before. He had no sort of idea about what was entailed in air travel. The day came and he was leaving Christchurch to fly to Nigeria via Auckland. We took him out to the airport and as we got ready to go, he produced his luggage which apart from his hand luggage and a suitcase, consisted of two great paintings, one a McCahon and one a Woollaston. He couldn’t bear to be parted from them and he dragged these all the way to Nigeria as cabin luggage. However he got them there and got them home.”

Farm scene by Owen MertonBy the time O’Reilly left the library in 1968, the collection had grown to 125 paintings. Barbara Collie continued to purchase for the collection which eventually grew to 297 items representing a who’s who of New Zealand artists of the time.

The paintings were for loan to library members for a month and could be renewed for up to a total of 6 months at one stage. Of course, there were problems, such as pictures going missing. Among the disappeared canvases were two Tony Fomison works and others by Gavin Bishop, Ted Bracey, Roy Cowan, Rudolf Gopas, Pat Hanley, Richard Killeen, Colin McCahon and Grahame Sydney. Lists of missing works have been sent to art dealers over the years but none of the works has been returned. People became attached to individual works and had to be persuaded with difficulty to return them, but the collection gave many people exposure to the best in new painting and a lot of pleasure, as well as supporting and encouraging local artists.

Track Over The Brow Of Hill by Dorothy Kate Richmond The Colin McCahon painting Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is was rejected for purchase by the library because it was too large. The Robert McDougall Art Gallery also rejected it as unsuitable. Ron O’Reilly was involved in a protest group of Christchurch residents, who, over the period of 1959 to 1962, set up a subscription to buy the work for the city. During part of this time the painting was displayed in the library, and later purchased for the McDougall where it remains in the Christchurch Art Gallery collection today.

Library purchasing continued until March 1981, when an inflationary art market made it impossible for the library to fund additions to the collection. The more valuable of the originals e.g. Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Bill Sutton and Toss Woollaston, were withdrawn from lending in the 1970s and 1980s. Some continued to hang in the Central Library, but many were housed at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery and in October 2001, 115 paintings were formally gifted to the gallery and are now cared for by Christchurch Art Gallery. More works have been gifted to the art gallery since, and the remaining items of not so well-known artists are displayed in the Central Library or kept in the library store. The library collection at Christchurch Art Gallery can be viewed online.

The Hill Road by Margaret StoddartIn 1989, an exhibition of works from the collection was staged at the C.S.A Gallery. New Zealand Art Works from the Canterbury Public Library was intended as a tribute to the vision of Ron O’Reilly. In 2009, Christchurch Art Gallery staged another exhibition from the collection entitled Ron O’Reilly: The Collector’s Eye which also included works from Ron O’Reilly’s private collection.

Prints continued to be bought and loaned up to about 1990, until storage space was required for Central library renovations. The print collection was sold off in June 1995.

Christchurch City Libraries may not lend original art any more, but art continues to be purchased and made available for public enjoyment in our libraries. Many of the libraries in our network have also been given art works, sometimes as part of new building decoration. These works are collected in our catalogue and many can also be viewed online.

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