Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

31 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: All Saints', Manaia

'New Zealand Odyssey', published in 1989 by Heinemann, was authored by me, Don Donovan (who did the text and illustrations) and Euan Sarginson, who did the photography and design. In this series of blog posts, I will publish some of my drawings.

This modest little church lies on the hillside at the southern curve of Coromandel Bay. I went inside; the front door didn't need to be locked, it was jammed tightly at the bottom. Inside, a couple of old brooms leaned against the wall, bristles almost eroded to nothing. The church was racked, ends of horizontal boards pulled from their verticals; it seemed neglected and yet bunches of fresh flowers were arranged in vases either side of sanctuary.

It was associated closely with the adjacent Maori marae and I imagine that its sad state was simply a result of there not being enough money in the Maori Anglican kitty to keep it in good repair. But if it had been spick and span it wouldn't have had a fraction of the charm that I found; that's why I painted it.


30 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Coromandel Wharf

'New Zealand Odyssey', published in 1989 by Heinemann, was authored by me, Don Donovan (who did the text and illustrations) and Euan Sarginson, who did the photography and design. In this series of blog posts, I will publish some of my drawings.

This is an unusual painting for me, I usually stick to buildings of one kind or another. This is much freer than usual, almost a sketch book scribble. I was quite pleased with the result which showed the wharf at Coromandel in the late eighties; quite ramshackle. What you can't experience from this is the salt, fish and tarred rope perfume that makes you want to go to sea.


28 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Thames-Coromandel District Council Office, Coromandel

This was (and is, I hope) one of the handsomest buildings on the Coromandel Peninsula; it stands in Coromandel township itself. I just painted the central part of it, leaving out wings on either side. As with so many New Zealand public offices it has its war memorial. In this case a well-crafted soldier in traditional uniform complete with his lemon-squeezer hat.

'Honour' stands out proudly over too long a list of names of men who died fighting Britain's wars. But those wars were in times when white New Zealanders still called Britain 'home'. Never again.


27 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey, Thames Free Public Library

This rather serious looking building was opened in 1905 as a replacement for an earlier library. Funded by literary-crusading philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, a Scot who'd made a fortune in the USA out of steel - among other things, it remained Thames's library at least until 1987 when I did this drawing. I think they have a handsome new one now.

The thing that fascinated me at the time was that the brick inserts between the windows and pilasters had been covered with a layer of brick veneer. It gave the place a Formica look but, I guess, the original bricks might have become severely eroded. But it did seem a bit like sticking American cloth over a mahogany table.


26 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Strange Structures on the Coromandel Peninsula

You notice that there's something slightly strange about the Coromandel Peninsula the moment you cross a narrow bridge that takes you from the Hauraki Plains to Thames, an old gold-mining town. Perhaps it's old gold fever, a hidey-hole for alternative life-stylers or an over-abundance of environmental saviours?

No odder than some of its residents are some of its buildings as at 1987. The upper one was a converted tramcar (ex Auckland I believe) in which humans lived a narrow existence. Below, a pair of corrugated iron lavatories on the beach at Kereta. One wonders whether the effluent might have made its way into the Hauraki Gulf wherein Captain Cook became embayed for three days because of a north wind. But that was long before public loos came into fashion.


24 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Tudor Towers, Rotorua

This Elizabethan revival has always struck me as one of the weirdest buildings in New Zealand. There couldn't be a better example of English eccentricity overlaid on to a colony twenty thousand kilometres distant. It was opened in 1908 by prime minister Joseph Ward and to make it even weirder, they invited an American admiral to the opening ceremony.

Tudor Towers started life as a government bath house; a spa, making use of Rotorua's abundant, smelly, sulphurous mud effusions. Layer it became a nightclub, restaurant and now it's a museum.

To me, it was a challenging subject to draw; a problem of holding the rigid detail intact while keeping enough freedom not to make the thing look like a front elevation. I enjoyed drawing it, but I still think its weird.


23 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Burrell Demolition, Scotland Street, Auckland

When I first saw this ramshackle edifice I licked my lips in anticipation. It was exactly my kind of subject: peeling paint, lots of rusty iron and not a straight line anywhere. I never went inside but can imagine its tumble of demolition materials: everything from lavatory chains and door knobs to sash windows and bathroom suites all covered in dust and wreathed in cobwebs.

I imagine that over the years up to its own demise (it's certainly no longer there) this building must have housed refugee parts from a city that was constantly undergoing modernization.

I wonder how many people living in Ponsonby and Freemans Bay will remember this wonderful blot on their landscape?


22 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: 39 Elliott Street, Auckland

I went sketching with a friend in North Canterbury once and after half an hour's earnest scratching he suddenly burst out, 'Blast, I've left out a whole mountain!'.

It's easy to do. In the case of this unusual brick building, I didn't leave anything out - I added a level that wasn't there! I'll leave you to work out which one but I don't think I did the structure any harm.


21 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: 508 Queen Street, Auckland

 In 1987 this strange little building stood on Queen Street. In 2011 it has gone and nobody from Da Vinci's Italian restaurant seems to remember it. It intrigued me because it was a perfect example of New Zealand street architecture where what is above the rain canopy bears no resemblance to what is below. In this case the restaurant fa├žade was ugly and impermanent but the pretty Dutch style brick upper storey was most unusual and obviously built with care. The significance of the treble clef device at its apex is mysterious to say the least.

508 Queen Street is now a horrible glass fronted apartment block. Da Vinci's still exists as an Italian eatery, it is at 5 City Road, I must eat there sometime for old time's sake.


19 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: The Auckland Club, Shortland Street, Auckland

The  Auckland Club was founded in 1853, in the earliest days of the colony. 

I drew it for the book in 1987 just before the charming, but tired, old building was demolished to make way for a new glass tower that made maximum use of the site's area.

From then onwards the club was discreetly housed on five floors of the eighteen-level tower until 2010 when, after all those years of existence, it was closed for lack of patronage. After cashing up, the remaining members swapped the proceeds for membership of the once rival Northern Club, an ivy covered sanctuary 'up the hill'. Thus history evolves.

I confess that, in my youth, I misspent a lot of my time on the billiards tables of the Auckland Club!


17 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Higher Thought Temple, Union Street, Auckland

This odd little building stands out from undistinguished neighbours in an equally undistinguished part of Auckland; it's at a junction of roads where most motorists would spend their time waiting for the traffic lights to change rather than studying the architecture. I drew it in 1987, it's still there.

The Higher Thought Centre was (is?) a non-denominational church, set up to enable all people to study the principles of religion - all religions -  free from restrictions or spiritual dogma. It's a pity its principles are not more widely practised; to my mind religion has caused more misery in the world than just about anything else.


13 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Town Houses, Napier Street, Auckland

A friend of mine was a part investor in this hideous row of pseudo-Mediterranean townhouses. They replaced a number of classic kauri cottages and villas that had stood on the site for over a century. I not only knew the investor, I also knew one of tenants - he thought they were wonderful. Takes all sorts...

Meanwhile I also knew a young woman who lived in one of the remaining crumbling old villas further down Napier Street. It was her firm opinion that this line up of neo-Coronation Street hutches 'brought the whole tone of the neighbourhood down.'

As for me: I'm just a simple artist recording what was expressing the New Zealand character in the late 1980s.


12 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Allendale, 50 Ponsonby Road, Auckland

One of the most imposing houses on Ponsonby Road, number 50, attracted me through its rather snooty belvedere. wrought iron lace and pompous bay windows. (I drew the lace work with liquid rubber solution, then painted the watercolour washes over it, then peeled it off. Hey presto - white railings!)

'Allendale' was built in the early 1890s for George Allen, who made horse tack. Over the years it has been a private hospital, doctors' rooms, boarding house, hostel for Maori girls, a refuge for alcoholics and 'Orsini's' restaurant. I think its latest disguise is that of a bank trust.


11 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Four Square Shop Mt. Eden Road, Auckland

To any illustrator this subject is a gift for not only are the shapes and angles challenging and fun to interpret, the colour is a rare opportunity to let loose with the red pans in the watercolour box.

What crazy architect devised this toytown building? Whoever he was he should be awarded a posthumous medal by some Institute of Architects because this graphic concerto does more to delight the eye than just about any other on Auckland's Mt. Eden Road. 

This is how it looked in 1987; I don't think it has changed much since then. Why would anybody want to change it?


10 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: 46 Parnell Road, Auckland

Somebody's folly, this pseudo-Georgian building stands, unique, on Auckland's fashionable Parnell Road. I was unable to find out anything about its history but was attracted to it for its almost Dickensian sense of history. At the time I painted it, about 1987, it seemed almost anonymous with no external indication of its function. In 2011 it is, I believe, a restaurant. 

What a delight it was to paint those bricks in all their subtle ochres. A building of two halves, the left a mirror image of the right.


09 January 2011

The Man Who Wrote ‘Oliver’

Some years ago I wrote the following article which was published later in ‘The Oldie’ and ‘The Fourth Oldie Annual’

 I Once Knew Lionel Begleiter

On 10 April 1948, fifteen years old and the personification of inexperience, I started my new job as messenger boy and trainee at Zec Limited, the Baker Street commercial art studios founded by Philip Zec, the Daily Mirror’s political cartoonist.

It would be my job to sweep the floors, wash out and refill the artists’ water jars, run for cigarettes, tobacco, Chelsea buns, rubber nails and buckets of steam, and to deliver parcels of artwork to stylish advertising agencies around the West End. My arrival ipso facto promoted the previous boy who would now show me the ropes and then move on to the drawing board, leaving most of the drudgery to me.

He was a little older and bulkier than I. Olive-skinned beneath a mop of black curly hair, he had a bulbous nose, a thick, cocky, cockney accent, and an East Ender’s swagger. He over-awed me, the new boy up from the north Surrey suburbs, full of innocence yet instinctively aware of his street-wisdom which, I somehow knew, might be the saving of me if I could tap into it.

As the weeks went by he showed me how to go by bus and pocket the taxi fare. He revealed the whereabouts of J.Walter Thompson, Erwin Wasey or S.H.Benson, and he fired my youthful lust with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the minds and bodies of their receptionists. He made known the secret ways: the narrow, smelly connecting tunnels and alleys or the fast nip through Browns Hotel from Albemarle Street to Bond Street. He pointed out the street girls in Lisle Street and Shepherd Market; showed me how to fiddle the Waygood-Otis pre-selector in the housing on the roof of our building to cause the lift to stop between floors so that we could rescue the office girls from the Sta-Blonde Laboratories; and I joined him, with an enormous sense of audacity, pouring Coca-Cola over the barrow boy in the street below the studio after he’d sold us a bag of rotten cherries for sevenpence.

But in a serious vein, perhaps the most important thing he ever did for me was to kill an unquestioned prejudice inherited from my childhood.

One day, walking along New Oxford Street, wanting to show off my grown-uppedness, I nudged him and pointed at a black-clad, Homburg-hatted figure and said, ‘Look at that greasy old Jew.’

Lionel stopped me dead. ‘Why did you say that?

‘I-I don’t, know,’ I stammered, shocked by the look of anger and hurt on his face.

‘Don’t you know that I’m a Jew?’ he asked.


‘Look at my skin, my hair, my nose; listen to my voice – my name is Begleiter! What did you think I was?’

The plain fact was that, too young, too wet, I had no idea. ‘Italian?’ I hazarded, awkwardly.

He shrugged, palms upward, and looked to heaven. The he laughed and put his arm around my shoulders. ‘Think before you speak in future.’ he warned.

My unthinking prejudice and his understanding forgiveness are lessons I have never forgotten.

Years later, when I had gone to live abroad, I read an article about the brilliant man who had written the musical, ‘Oliver’. There was his photograph. I knew that face. It was Lionel Begleiter.

Excitedly, I wrote to him care of the London theatre which was staging the show. Although it was a long shot, I hoped the letter would find him for I wanted simply to remind him of our days as messenger boy-commercial art trainees and to congratulate him on his success.

Some weeks later a mauve, slightly scented envelope arrived in my mailbox. It contained a mauve, slightly scented letter from his secretary.

‘Mr Bart is unable to answer your letter as he is fully engaged in working on his new musical...’

I never did hear from him, in person. I wonder whether he ever read my letter? I believe his fortunes later fluctuated and I have no idea what has happened to him. I’ll not forget him, though. He was a good teacher.

Now that he’s an ‘Oldie’ he might read this. It’s a reminiscence by way of saying ‘thank you’.

After the above was published I received a Christmas Card (yes, a Jewish Christmas card!) from Lionel.

© In text DON DONOVAN. The portrait photograph was taken from an Internet image - my apologies and prayer for forgiveness to the photographer.

07 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Ex Grey Lynn Borough Council offices, Ponsonby

One of the gifts of illustration is that you may put in or leave out whatever you fancy. In this case I was so charmed by the shape of the building that I isolated it completely from its background, foreground and everything else. It finished up looking like a fairytale building.

A restaurant when I painted it in 1987, it was originally a borough council office in 1889 with, at the rear, a fire station (that's what the empty belfry is all about). Lots of bricks, different colours; various shapes: triangles, rectangles, parallelograms and arcs - I so enjoyed the work.

Built to last and it has lasted well.


06 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Chelsea Sugar Refinery wharf, Birkenhead, Auckland


This complex of buildings that can be seen across Auckland Harbour from the city side upstream from its 'coat hanger' bridge has always fascinated me. It's such an intriguing Disneyland jumble of shapes, sizes and colours and lends itself to illustration. It dates to 1883 after which the first consignments of raw sugar from Indonesia were unloaded for refining.

I sold the original of this watercolour to a friend of mine who was also head of an engineering company who had a lot to do with construction at the refinery. He was appalled at my cavalier treatment of the wharf which, he complained, had taken so much skill, intellect and work to complete, and here it was, a few lines dashed off by an impatient artist!


04 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Graffiti, Parnell

There was nothing elegant or artistic about this wall off Parnell Road in Auckland but it demanded inclusion in a book about home grown features of New Zealand becaue of its rather typical ugliness; plain walls all over this country attract this sort of mindlessness.

In the book, the caption under the illustration read: 'One glimmer of wit on an illiterate wall.' and although it's crude, the highest of the graffiti is at least amusing.


03 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Ex-Synagogue, Bowen Street, Auckland

How do you get rid of graffiti? Answer, you get a professional to use them as a palimpsest for another graffito. This astonishing effort graced a retaining wall on Bowen Street below the old Auckland synagogue built in 1885. I had fun drawing it and can claim not to have left so much paint on the floor as the painters did on the footpath.

The synagogue was a copy of one in Glasgow and thus plagiarized by a certain Edward Bartley, architect. The Jewish community moved out in 1969 whereupon the temple became home to an operatic society after which it became a bank. A certain irony there - the temple becomes home to money lenders; I wonder what Jesus would have said?


02 January 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Edwardian Shops in Queen Street, Auckland

When I illustrated this row of shops, 456 to 486 Queen Street, in 1987, they were falling apart but by the time the book was published in 1989 they had been bought and were in the process of rehabilitation as 'Chinatown'. They were built in 1912 and made a wonderful subject for watercolour. Without realizing it at the time my illustration itself would be historic because the post office van in the drawing carried the livery of both New Zealand Post and Telecom who had become two separate companies under state privatization. The new graphic presentation of the van was half finished.

This was a tricky subject because what looks like a front elevation is actually in perspective as you can see from the canopies over the footpath in front of the shops. Our book, 'New Zealand Odyssey' had a reversible cover, on one side was one of  Euan Sarginson's photographs while on the other, this illustration stretched from the back to the front and round the spine.



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By Don Donovan