On the legacy of Peter McLeavey, the charismatic, pioneering art dealer who since the 1960s has shaped—even transformed—New Zealand art.
Jill Trevelyan has written about many of New Zealand’s best and most important artists (Toss Woolaston, Rita Angus, Frances Hodgkins) and has now turned her pen to arguably New Zealand’s most important art dealer, Peter McLeavey.
The book opens with a 1967 plea to investors from McLeavey which sets up the whole premise of the book: “I believe I have the ability and judgement to create both financially and artistically the best art gallery in the country. One day I will do it.”
By the end of the introduction, Trevelyan has perfectly described the Peter McLeavey I have known as an occasional visitor to his gallery—a quiet, welcoming, generous man, who is excited to share the art with anyone, whether it is on the wall or in the stock room, whether you have bottomless pockets or no pockets at all.
This really is the story of the Peter McLeavey Gallery, still going strong after close to 50 years, firstly in a flat on The Terrace and since then at 147 Cuba Street. This is also the story of New Zealand contemporary art, the evolving New Zealand art world. The artists whose works have graced the walls of his gallery represent a who’s who of post-war New Zealand art from Toss Woolaston to, at the time of the book launch, Ben Cauchi.
The first couple of chapters cover McLeavey’s childhood and early adulthood, introducing us to recurrent themes—Catholicism, introversion, thirst for knowledge—and discusses his discovery of art and artists, both here and overseas, his early purchases, and the impetus for becoming an art dealer.
From there on it’s all about art, and a little about family, much like McLeavey’s life. Regarding the family, there is an openness in discussing relationships, and their ups and downs, and Peter’s feelings and failings in marriage and fatherhood. Quotes from interviews with McLeavey’s wife and children don’t shy away from the reality of things which is refreshing, but also important in painting a full picture of who Peter McLeavey is and how he operates.
But the real focus is McLeavey’s relationship with art and his artists. Hugely beneficial in this is the extensive quoting from McLeavey’s letters and recent interviews with artists, clients, and friends, which really add to the storytelling, giving genuine insight to his thinking throughout his life. There is a beautiful poetic quality to much of the correspondence, especially between McLeavey and McCahon.
What continually comes through is McLeavey’s belief in the artists he showed, and the importance of art over commerce. He showed great support for artists—including in the early years McCahon, Walters, and Woolaston, even when their works weren’t selling—and was known to not go through with sales if he thought the buyer was not the right fit, or worse still, wanting to buy as an investment. I suspect there are very few of his kind anywhere in the art world these days.
Rather than being purely chronological, chapters tend to focus on one or two artists over a brief period, which occasionally means some events are repeated, but allows for a greater consideration of the relationships. With many of the artists having died, much of the detail comes from letters, though Trevelyan did interview many artists and clients, and fortunately was able to speak to both Ian Scott and Don Binney before their recent passings.
Interspersed amongst the text we get one fantastic artwork after another every few pages, from the famous to a nice collection of McLeavey’s own Hockney-inspired photos of artists and exhibitions. As much as anything else these show just how important McLeavey has been to helping us understand and appreciate contemporary New Zealand art. And that really is the story of this book. I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that without one man’s decision to exhibit some paintings in the bedroom of his flat in 1966 the local art scene would be quite different to what we have today.
The only real disappointment for me was the fact that the first couple of decades of the gallery take up the bulk of the book. Undoubtedly they were interesting times, and the main artists (principally McCahon, Walters, and Woolaston) have proven to be extraordinarily important to our art history and culture, but the later years also stars important artists, many of whom have also earned their place—Killeen, Dashper, Reynolds, Hammond, Robinson—and these years could have been expanded upon.
That aside, this was undoubtedly an important story to tell, and whether McLeavey achieved his aim of creating “the best art gallery in the country” is largely irrelevant when you consider the legacy of the artists he has represented. Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer really is a must-have for anyone interested in New Zealand art and New Zealand art history.