Colin McCahon is a household name in New Zealand because of his paintings – but did you know he dabbled in jewellery? Decorative art and design curator Justine Olsen writes about a lesser-known part of McCahon’s life.
In 1948 Colin McCahon moved from Nelson to Christchurch, starting what was to be a fruitful period for both his art practice and his interest in design. While intent on finding accommodation for his family, he initially stayed with friend Doris Lusk (a potter and painter) and her husband Dermot Holland (a maker of tools). This opened up new opportunities to widen his practice by exploring jewellery making.
McCahon’s history of design
McCahon’s interest in design had previously involved both sign writing, poster production, and theatre set design. Studying at the Dunedin Art School under R. N. Field, an advocate for Bauhaus design, reinforced the idea of craft as a valid part of artistic practice.
When he arrived in Christchurch McCahon began to make metal jewellery with Colin Keith (brother of the art historian Hamish Keith). The pair, who sold their jewellery commercially under the name ‘Colin Twice’, created work that was at times abstract, otherwise naturalistic. A photograph from the Hocken Collections shows McCahon making jewellery at the kitchen table using pliers – a Ballpeen hammer, snips, and metal pieces (perhaps at a stage close to finishing) lie close at hand.
A simple necklace
Te Papa’s necklace was originally owned by McCahon’s family. We don’t know much about who it was made for, or whether it was intended for commercial sale, but the design of the necklace suggests that McCahon was interested in creating work well outside the fashion jewellery of the period. Simply made, three painted floral shapes were cut from sheet metal, shaped, and connected by plaited cords. There is a sensitivity and honesty to the use of materials while the naturalistic subject remains very clearly expressed. If McCahon was drawing on local flowers, it could be the Harlequin flower with its six petal feature and dark centre that caught his eye. This is a perennial plant happily grown in sunny climates and naturalised in New Zealand since 1883.
The necklace bears no relation to fashionable jewellery of the period, in which tight naturalistic forms were typically shaped from inexpensive metals and combined with artificial stones, recalling Hollywood glamour. McCahon’s necklace instead emphasises the simplicity of its materials and the process of making – through paint, cut metal, and twined cord we can clearly see the artist’s hand at work.
Ahead of its time
In post-war New Zealand, it was to be another few years before jewellers like Ida Hudig, Jens Hansen, and Kobi Bosshard brought the ideas of European modernism to contemporary jewellery. This necklace would fit quite comfortably in the local scene that these jewellers later created, where craftspeople began to both explore more abstract forms, and to emphasise the crafted, handmade nature of their work.
McCahon was to spend another few years in Christchurch until he headed to Auckland in 1953. Although his jewellery practice was not a commercial success, this necklace is a fascinating expression of the principles through which the artist approached his subjects and craft, at a time when landscape and figurative paintings remained his primary concern.
- Hamish Keith, Colin McCahon: the Gallery Years, Auckland City Art Gallery, 2006
- Natalie Poland, Fine Folk, design work by Colin McCahon, Hocken Collections University of Otago Library, 2008
Colin McCahon at Te Papa
To mark the occasion of his 100th year, we’re hanging a group of Colin McCahon’s paintings in Toi Art. We’re also planning some public programmes over the course of the year and we’ll be publishing a McCahon blog a month over the course of the year – in which curators and conservators, as well as writers, artists and historians, write about a specific McCahon artwork from Te Papa’s collection.