Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press, 2013), 496 pp., $64.99
‘I am not slaving my guts out as a dishwasher for kicks,’ Peter McLeavey wrote in a letter to Pat Hanly in December 1968. McLeavey was at that time working as a ‘general dogsbody’ in an electric battery factory in order to subsidise his Peter McLeavey Gallery, which opened in September 1968 at 147 Cuba Street in a suite of rooms the gallery occupies to this day, a Wellington fixture. McLeavey built up his dealer gallery the hard way, through elbow grease, business acumen and perseverance, but above all through belief in what he was selling: New Zealand art.
His sense of mission was self-developed, but it grew out of the circumstances of his upbringing and a particular moment in cultural nationalism, namely the zenith of New Zealand high modernism, promulgated early on by Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Hamish Keith and others, but which by the late 1960s was beginning to find a larger, almost mass audience, made up mostly of the post-World War II baby-boomer generation looking for signs of national identity.
Jill Trevelyan’s book Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, aptly and profusely illustrated, is a well-organised, lively and perceptive study of a man who was at the gossipy centre of the nation’s art scene up until very recently, forced into semi-retirement in 2011–12 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and his daughter Olivia took over the day-to-day running of the business.
Art for McLeavey was a vocation, not as a practitioner but as someone who sought to share and make it known as a vision of place and people. From the beginning he went with what he felt was true: he championed Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon, who became close friends; and he quickly attracted the attention, support and endorsement of many of the most eminent artists of the 1970s: Len Lye, Gordon Walters, Don Binney, Michael Smither, Milan Mrkusich, Ian Scott, Robert Ellis, Michael Illingworth. They recognised his gifts as a salesman, someone winning over clients with ‘a smile and a shoeshine’, but also someone who was a believer: ‘The paintings triggered something inside and I saw my land for the first time.’
McLeavey rapidly developed a persona to expertly promulgate the mystique: a sophisticated approach as an artists’ representative based on mutual trust, understanding and a sense of communality. Yet he also sought to distinguish himself from the hugger-mugger of commercialism and competition. As Trevelyan’s book reveals, McLeavey’s durability was based on a set of values that he expected the artists, on whose behalf he worked, to honour. He was ‘meticulous’, ‘reliable’, ‘professional’ in his dealings – dealings that often led to personal ‘emotional wear and tear’. Art required ‘respect and a degree of reverence’. A passionate promoter of that handful of artists with whom he formed a personal rapport, McLeavey noted in his diary as early as 1960 his conviction that ‘a local painting was not just of New Zealand – it was a living breathing chunk of New Zealand.’
McLeavey, then, began as a pioneer, a missionary dwelling among Philistines, not only the ‘numb squares’ as Len Lye termed them, those who didn’t understand the project the artists were engaged in, but also those who just saw dollar signs and bought art as a calculated investment. McLeavey struggled against this mercenary cynicism throughout his entire career as a dealer.
He maintained his astonishing longevity – no other leading gallery dealer has lasted as long using that simple business model – by trusting his instincts and his intuitions, and by a kind of organic responsiveness to changing social dynamics. He shed artists whom he felt were taking advantage, or else had lost their zeal, their fire. As Don Binney shrewdly points out in an interview with his biographer, McLeavey survived by adapting ‘through different sub-epochs of cultural history … it was either him or his artists who had to go’.
McLeavey’s particular mastery derived directly from his upbringing as a Roman Catholic. Liz Maw comments that he reminded her of the Irish Catholic priests of her childhood: ‘He had the same way of delivering his belief system, and the same kind of conviction.’
Peter McLeavey was raised in a succession of New Zealand railway settlements in the lower North Island. His father was a railway labourer, bitter that he had failed to inherit the family farm, squandered away by his older brothers. Convent school and the church steeped Peter in the values of sectarian symbolism – based on the religious paintings of the old masters – while his devoutness made him a potential candidate for the priesthood. But he suffered his first crisis of faith, and a kind of nervous breakdown, when his family shifted to New Plymouth and he attended New Plymouth Boys’ High School. He dropped out in 1953 without sitting School Certificate, to become, with his uncle’s help, a bank clerk. Both this and subsequent clerical work were useful training for art gallery book-keeping.
Essentially Peter McLeavey grew up in the last days of the Empire, when Edmund Hillary could still be claimed as a British conqueror of Everest and London was the imposing centre of civilisation for all New Zealanders. The future art dealer began his OE in 1959, working first in an office in Sydney before moving to London, which he used as a base from which to visit churches and galleries in Europe. He returned home after two years away but thereafter remained torn between staying in New Zealand and going back to the metropolitan centre.
Wellington held him, though. He married in 1969, at the advent of becoming the very model of a modern art gallery dealer, and was gradually drawn into the daily hurly-burly of being ‘a man in a room selling dreams and the ups and downs that that entails’, as he describes it in the book. He adopted a clerical aspect: always wore a suit and tie, and stuck with a manual typewriter and a green ink fountain pen to the end, while a black hat, black overcoat and black briefcase became, like those of a parish priest, his ‘outer vestments’. Instead of entering a seminary, this ‘strange, odd, timid yet persistent figure’, as Don Binney describes him, set up a kind of devotional sidechapel above Cuba Street, where art was a sacrament and artworks were its holy relics.
Thus a salvationist of sorts, he took to the theatricality of art gallery openings with gusto, working up a ‘cult of personality’ where, as he said, ‘the art dealer becomes an artist with his own stamp or style’, sensing the needs of his parishioners and delivering the appropriate object for contemplation.
Here is a life shaped or edited into a meaningful narrative, one almost exemplary, almost saint-like, as events in hindsight are given the significance of parables and we eavesdrop on the confidences of the youthful provocateurs who become the Establishment, then the Old Guard; and then the rise of a New Guard – John Reynolds, Bill Hammond, Yvonne Todd, and many more – in a rapid turnover of generations and seasons.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall and Landfall Review Online.