Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Alan Taylor 1933-2016, artist and writer. An obituary by Alister Taylor.

This post is by publisher and writer Alister Taylor (no relation to Alan). We were honoured to be sent this obituary by Alister for publication - Alister Taylor has always been one of our publishing heroes,  a pioneer in treading the entrepreneurial tightrope between art and commerce who created a body of work that's shaped NZ's cultural landscape of today.

Alan Taylor, one of New Zealand’s significant but virtually unknown artists and writers, has died. He was 83. He died in obscurity, destitute, ravaged by emphysema from a lifetime of heavy chain-smoking, still recovering from an earlier stroke. Even the art dealers and auctioneers who sold his work didn’t know of his death until I told them today. Nor did his friends. When I told Sophie Coupland, Director of Art at the resurgent Mossgreen-Webb’s in Auckland today, she said “Poor old soul.”

Born in the UK, Taylor served in the Korean War (1950-1953) as a young British soldier in the combined Commonwealth forces (British, Canadian, Indian, Australian and New Zealand), along with South Korean and American forces, against the North Korean and Chinese armies. He was taken prisoner and served several years in North Korean and Chinese POW camps, where he endured prolonged sessions of attempted brainwashing, a near starvation diet, disease and negligible medical assistance. More than 40% of Commonwealth and US POWs died in captivity. In 1953 the US Department of Defence claimed that more than 900 US prisoners remained in captivity after the North and the Chinese said all prisoners had been released. The South Koreans claimed there were 55,000 to 65,000 of their troops still being held by the North Koreans. Indeed in 1994, 41 years after the war ended, a South Korean soldier escaped from captivity in North Korea and over the next 20 years a further 78 former South Korean POWs escaped from North Korea. South Korea still claims the North has 565 prisoners from that long-ago war.

Scarred horribly from his POW experiences, Taylor was stunned by the negative reaction he and his fellow POWs were met with on their repatriation to Britain after their release. British army authorities suspected them of being converts to communism – the result of the “brainwashing” -- and they were shunned by the military and many of their former friends. Taylor took his first opportunity to escape and arrived at Auckland Airport at Mangere where he got as far as the local marae and fell in love with one of the Maori maidens there.

I first became familiar with Alan’s quirky naïve work when he began to send me cartoons for several magazines I had published: “Affairs” magazine for schools in 1969, the NZ edition of “Rolling Stone” in 1972, “The NZ Whole Earth Catalogue” in 1972, 1975 and 1977 and “The New Zealander” from 1981. Alan also sent his cartoons and drawings to others involved in the publishing process, including editors of student newspapers among whom was the barrister Hugh Rennie CBE, QC when he was editor of “Salient” and later at the “National Business Review”.

Alan lived on his minute army pension and became immersed in Maori art and travelled around New Zealand, visiting marae, meeting Maori informants who could teach him Maori history and art and photographing meeting houses. He was particularly interested in kowhaiwhai rafter patterns and many of the primitive colonial and post colonial period carvings. He was probably the first European to appreciate them and the first to describe them as “Maori folk art”.

Alan wrote frequently and was widely published, often in obscure publications but also by prestigious university presses in Hawaii and North America. His pioneering book “Maori Folk Art” is now a rarity and much sought after; it was first published in Hawaii and internationally and then in a much expanded edition in New Zealand by a long-gone English imprint Century Hutchinson in 1988. His 1966 book “The Maori Builds: Life, Art and Architecture from Moahunter Days” was published locally by Whitcombe and Tombs. His smaller publications, “The Maori Warrior”, “Maori Warfare”, “Maori Tattooing”, “Maori Clothing” and “Maori Weaving” were all published by Brigham Young University in USA but deserve a local collection of their own.

Alan was an avid protester and was always creating cartoons and images of protest: on the threat of nuclear war, against apartheid, against the Vietnam war, against All Black tours to South Africa and on the perils of allowing South African immigrants and the racial ideals they would bring with them to New Zealand. He gave me a set of unique water-colours – small works devoted to notable New Zealand artists, but they are so obscene I hesitate to hang any of them except in the lavatory; toilet humour.

He was always trading his current bits and pieces for survival and even when paid handsomely for his paintings or his acquisitions the money disappeared within a day or two. I remember him selling an ancient and beautiful ceremonial greenstone adze for several tens of thousands of dollars, but the next week he seemed as broke as ever.

His paintings were pointillist, primitive and powerful; they vibrated with colour. Many of them related to historic Maori incidents which he had researched intimately, others were of his favourite fish, the pukeko, hills, native bush, historic locations or legendary and Maori characters such as Captain Cook, Hongi Hika and Hone Heke. He gave my friend a beautiful painting of a teddy bear for his son Silas on his birth. Alan had a tender heart.

Alan was also a gentle character and a very generous man. Once I received a gift from him – a metal tin in the post in which lay a large greenstone tiki of the great Bay of Plenty chief Hori Pokai, who was painted by Goldie. Attached to it was Pokai’s gold watch-chain and a silver shield engraved with his name. Alan knew of my connection to Goldie and the books I’d written about him and thought I would appreciate the tiki.

For a time, almost every week, a cartoon or Alan Taylor drawing would flutter through the post. Whenever he knew I’d moved house or location he would send me a painting related to the new place I lived – Kororareka/Russell, the British destruction of Pomare’s pa opposite Opua while Pomare himself was a guest on board a British naval ship, Mount Hobson, Auckland -- all inscribed on the back with a suitable quotation and history of the place or of related identities such as Hongi Hika, Kawiti, Pomare I and Governor Hobson.

When Alan went to hospital in his final illness his son Fetulaki and his mates cleaned out Alan’s rooms up the stairs in Dominion Road in an area he had lived for decades. There is nothing left there to remember him.

For much of his life Alan’s paintings sold for less than a thousand dollars, rarely above $1500. Now that he’s gone, these exquisite and colourful records of our past will undoubtedly soar in value as the naïve gems left by colourful characters such as Alan Taylor so often do.

Alister Taylor

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Picture framing - layout options for online product pages

Framed print - black boxframe style - (Rita Angus' Cass)
Eagle eyed shoppers at may have noticed that along with the good folks over at our long time ecommerce partners Miva NZ Fine Prints have been testing several different layouts of online product pages over recent months.

Testing Picture Framing Options

As we move onto Miva's next generation responsive ecommerce platform our user experience team are working out the clearest way of showing the different mounting and framing options available on prints that we stock on the new responsive page template designs.

(It feels like we have been testing framing options on all our prints for so long, partly this is due to working on the behind the scenes systems to be able to frame (or stretch canvas prints) in a timely and efficient manner after we had our physical premises much reduced in size following our post earthquakes relocation to a different part of Christchurch.)

We also have not been able to resolve whether each main product page should have the same basic layout or if we should have three templates (for reproduction prints/posters, original prints and canvas prints).  The split testing on our site was designed to resolve this question as well.

A core belief is that we don't want to interrupt customers browsing the site for artwork with cross-sell demands where they are prompted to frame prints before they can checkout.   We have thousands of happy customers who have been content to purchase their prints directly without NZ Fine Prints necessarily framing their order as well.  Our aim is to offer a standard frame that suits the artwork rather than a custom frame with a multitude of options for a customer to configure.  We don't want to offer much beyond a good quality relatively timeless style of frame in black, white or natural timber.

For customers who want hundreds of options of moulding type, mat colour and framing styles we can't recommend custom framing heartily enough.  Having your prints laid out in a framing studio with framing samples in front of you means you can see both colour and relative size of the framing components in relation to your art print or poster.  We support the custom framing industry in NZ to the tune of millions of dollars annually and are only offering framing to cater for the percentage of customers we have identified who only want to purchase artworks ready to hang (an obvious customer is someone purchasing a gift).

Custom Framing still recommended for the majority of customers

Custom framing means that you can match an artwork more closely to the room where the print is going.  Since artworks are no longer built into the physical fabric of the room (yes, pictures were originally placed in built in frames and were part of the actual wall! We've written previously about the surprisingly fascinating history of picture frames back in 2010) we think there is greater value in placing most emphasis on the frame's relationship to the picture than to its surroundings as a picture can be moved multiple times or go through several re-decorations over the typical life of a modern (long life ink) reproduction print.

Our conclusions & what's left to do before rolling out framing on every print site wide

Thanks to all our customers who have feed back on the different designs.  We have decided to have just one product page template for both art canvas and paper prints, the mounting options will be referred to as "Framing Options" even if the "framing" is actually stretching a canvas print around an internal wooden stretcher frame.  It just seems to cause less confusion than using technical words like "unstretched" and "stretched",  awkward when a customer orders a canvas print that arrives carefully rolled in a tube rather than ready to hang if that was what they were expecting - or vice versa a gift being taken on the plane abroad is not rolled in a tube but in a rather large and cumbersome box!

We have some minor work to be done around a new mini FAQ that will go onto every product page plus a bit of programming behind the scenes to manage and inform the delivery timeframes on framed prints - we won't be carrying all the prints in stock pre-framed! Delivery timeframes should be less than 10 days for a framed print around NZ, a pretty quick turnaround but not like our standard delivery of 3-5 days nationwide.  There is also the issue of delivering framed prints outside NZ in a cost effective manner, unless the print has very large overall dimensions we can physically ship the order but the cost of air freight - particularly to the US and Europe - is pretty daunting.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

That's how we roll - packaging prints for delivery

Artists submitting work for the first time often ask "Do you want me to send my consignment of prints flat?". Customers are curious to know if prints are delivered rolled up or flat too, but nothing beats the intensity of discussion on this topic when two print retailers start talking about which is best!

Print with giftwrap and Airmail packaging
For the record NZ Fine Prints deliver prints carefully rolled in large cardboard mailing tubes.  This is despite NZ Post dropping their long-standing cylinder rate which meant we used to be able to deliver nationwide using their extensive network at a price less than the equivalent volumetric ticket.

[Framed prints have cardboard corner protectors added to the corners of the frames, the glass is faced with cushion foam board, with each picture wrapped in bubblewrap, then encased in corrugated cardboard and then another final layer of bubblewrap.]

Why have we chosen to roll prints rather than send them flat?  Long experience has taught us that a cylinder is stronger packaging.  The downside of rolling prints can be mitigated but flat packages are more easily bent or folded by the courier which means we have to replace the damaged prints more often than the rare occasion one of 3mm wall thickness tubes are run over.  Although it costs more to send (Airmail is calculated by weight) we use thicker and heavier tubes than those sold by some stationery companies as being suitable for posters or prints in stores (or in Post Shops for that matter). We like to say when asked about how strong our tubes are that they are the same type of tubes that were used to build Christchurch's famous cardboard cathedral!

ChCh's transitional cathedral built with mailing tubes like ours!
The two drawbacks of rolling prints are that the paper can be creased and the prints can be difficult to remove from the tube once they are delivered to a customer.  Avoiding creasing the prints comes down to three things, not rolling the prints too tightly (which means using mailing tubes of a sufficient diameter that the prints are not rolled into an unnecessarily small bundle), rolling the prints gently on a soft surface (we use carpet) and rolling with the grain of the paper, not across it.  The last one is the most critical and you can test this for yourself quite easily.  Take a piece of paper and attempt to roll it in one direction, then turn it 90 degrees and roll it the other way.  One way will be easier, the paper will feel floppier or softer to turn - rolling in the other direction you will feel a resistance - rolling this way against the grain of the paper can easily result in creasing of the paper that is difficult to fix as the fibres of the paper will actually break.

The second trick is to make prints easy to remove from the packaging.  We wrap the roll of prints in acid free tissue paper - that way they slide out of the tube.  Rolling a print or poster and dropping it into the tube without wrapping the prints means they spring open and line the inside of the cylinder.  This makes them difficult to remove from the package unless you are very careful and have lots of practice at reaching into the tube, holding the inside corner of the prints very tightly and gently twisting the contents so they contract into a smaller roll inside the tube before sliding the prints out of the tube.  This works but it's very easy to tear a corner off one of the prints if the wrong amount of pressure is applied, especially if the print is on a heavy but delicate cotton rag substrate.

One of the great things about our business is we are able to recycle nearly all our packaging for incoming prints from artists and publishers.  We get some pretty crazy boxes and recycled oddments like downpipes (spouting) and once found an artist's child had stashed a pair of underpants in the tube when Dad wasn't looking!  Most artists pack their prints with love as we will send back any prints that come in that have not been packaged to arrive in perfect condition.

The weirdest packaging for prints we have ever seen was when our sales manager purchased some exhibition posters designed by a well known NZ artist from the Auckland Art Gallery a few years ago.  She asked them to please ship them down to NZ Fine Prints as there were too many to take back with her on the plane.  The posters duly arrived in Christchurch a few days later a sad and crumpled mess. The shop assistant had rolled each poster into a plastic sleeve then popped them in a paper shopping bag with a courier ticket on the outside!

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Maps as art in your home - the full interview

Maps as art in your home feature in "Weekend"
Over Anzac weekend there was an interview published by NZ House & Garden magazine editor Sally Duggan in Weekend magazine. She spoke to Antony Ellis here at NZ Fine Prints about the trend for using maps in interior decoration.

Below is the full transcript of the interview which has bit more detail than the edited version that appeared in the magazine. We have also illustrated this interview with a couple of the maps Antony mentions and of course linked to the actual maps that are for sale in our online catalogue.

SD How long has your business been going for? Can you give me a brief history....

AE NZ Fine Prints have been NZ's specialist art print retailer since 1966, it's our 50th birthday this year! Back in the 1960s New Zealanders were becoming much more aware of our unique visual culture and naturally began looking to our own artists to decorate their homes and offices. In 1969 it was the bicentenary of Cook's rediscovery of New Zealand, we published a large folio focussed on Cook's artists in the Pacific so we were publishing historical maps and charts almost right from the beginning.

Until the earthquakes NZ Fine Prints were in characterful 1880s era double brick warehouses in Hereford St in central Christchurch, we spent over $100k trying to keep our much loved buildings together after the first quakes but this was a hopeless task after February. Our gallery was behind the cordon and under the tilting Grand Chancellor hotel so it was a couple of months before we were given just six hours to load all our prints into trucks and shipping containers. After a mammoth job of sorting everything we then transferred all our prints to our new stockroom in Cashmere. We would have gone straight back into the CBD but the government confiscated our land for the green frame and we now probably won't ever return to the central city as the internet is much more important than foot traffic for a nationally focussed business like ours and post-quakes Cashmere has become a very lively and convivial part of town to work in!

SD What percentage of your business is online/remote sales vs instore sales?
AE Because we'd always used mail order catalogues to reach customers outside of Christchurch the shift to online retail back in 1999 was an easy step, we now have hundreds of visitors to each week and pretty much only see thrifty Christchurch customers who would like to save $6 on delivery in store. With 80,000 prints on shelves or framed in boxes for shipping it is not a very exciting retail experience if someone just wants to browse!

Our largest markets are Auckland and Wellington followed by kiwis living overseas with a significant growth in Christchurch due to the rebuild - but only in the last 18 months as people nearly always leave buying new artworks til absolutely everything else in the home or office is finished.

SD What proportion of your print sales are maps? Has this changed over the years?
AE Maps are what's known as an "evergreen" product, consistently making up around 5% of the NZ print market year in year out with periodic spikes in interest. Before the most recent upsurge in maps' popularity sales last peaked during the America's Cup when it was held in NZ which created an interest in all things nautical. We always have a uptick in sales around Christmas but the big secret for map retailers is the phenomenal sales coming up to Father's Day each year, it's amazing how common your Dad's unique interest in old maps is!

SD What are your top selling maps? Has this changed ?
AE A large clear wall poster of New Zealand is a completely practical purchase in an office or school
NZ Map (Large Poster Version)
environment, we sell a lot of $29.95 posters that are simply pinned on the wall as a staff or student reference. But the majority of our maps are bought as wall decoration. But there is a dimension to a map that takes it beyond just being decorative. I have a map of the South Pacific above the bath at home, sure it's decorative but my 8 and 10 year old have an instinctive geographical centre to their sense of who they are just because they have looked at this map nearly every day of their lives. A map resonates and connects like this with the viewer over time, you value it more deeply the longer you have it as you invest more meaning simply by your changing relationship with the map, perhaps as a result of visiting some of the places on it or by learning more about the explorer's journey around the coastline.

Maps are the super dependable gift, we have customers buying maps for the work leaving gifts nearly every day, for instance someone heading overseas after a stint at the NZ branch office. Also as soon as you get a lease on the flat in London Mum & Dad send a NZ map to remind you of home!

The great thing from a business point of view is that guys who aren't "into art" at all are ok with maps. Maps are sometimes the only decoration a traditional kiwi guy feels comfortable getting enthusiastic about when it comes to choosing interior decoration!

Sometimes we like to suggest having a map in the mix of prints for a house because they are a grounded counterpoint to fluffier frills and fripperies. A map will help balance interiors if all the other decoration choices are being made by the female half of a traditional household which still seems a surprisingly common practice.

A map creates a sense of place, a context, and design wise a map or two sits happily with every style of interior decoration, if you look around every NZ home or office will have a place that's perfect for a map!

​SD Maps are turning up in all sorts of decorative incarnations (lampshades/ desk coverings etc). Do you sell maps to people for craft projects?
AE Incredibly versatile printing technology is amazingly widespread in NZ and the capacity to produce far outstrips the demand for traditional printed products. There are printers making really creative products by printing on fabric, steel and wood, personally I'd be tempted by a rug that's a topographical map of the South Island, that would be pretty cool to look at and educational for the kids to boot. Although we sell maps designed to go on the wall we happily sell maps for use behind splashbacks or to be displayed under glass on a coffee table, other people cut old maps up to embed into decorative jewellery like brooches.

SD Anything else interesting or diverting to tell me?
AE There are several different versions (by different cartographers) of the classic Cook's chart of New Zealand showing Banks Peninsula as an island and Stewart Island attached to the mainland. The
Classic Captain Cook Map of NZ
most decorative are by the Italian map-maker Antonio Zatta and the French Cassini family of atlas publishers, illustrated with tiny scenes or vignettes that are sometimes wildly fanciful depictions of New Zealand by someone who is relying on second hand accounts of what NZ and its people were actually like! The most popular map from Cook's voyages has always been the "Bayly" version [shown at right], it's not that decorative (it doesn't even have a decorative title or emblem which are known as cartouche) but all the place names are in English & Maori, it's accessible.

We recommend having a map framed with a warm white mat board and a natural colour timber frame, a wedge shape frame is traditional, or go for a square white frame with a white mat if you have a contemporary interior design. Either way a map will give you decades of enjoyment in a multiplicity of settings as you move house or office over they years which means they are ridiculously great value.

Maps are a very social artwork - they give people something to look at together and chat about for a few minutes! An art work that can help break the ice between people who don't each other well because location and history will either be something they have in common or a starter for ten about where they come from.

Aside from decoration maps are a uniquely functional artwork, you can put a map in a specific space to serve a practical purpose. A detailed map absorbs people's attention for a few minutes while they wait at reception, or by the bar or in the loo!

SD I think this is everything I need! Many many thanks Antony. Will call later if I think of anything else.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Collecting prints from NZ Fine Prints? An update.

Running a business in Christchurch as the city rebuilds is a challenge.  It's exciting seeing the new buildings going up and houses finally being repaired.  However the constant noise is wearing, roadworks droning on from streets away all day for weeks at a time, our new neighbour is having seemingly endless stone walls built, the tink, tink, tink of hammers and the snarl of stone cutting saws 8-6 six days a week for the past six months.

Forced to relocate from the central city to Cashmere by the government's confiscation of our gallery's land for the "green frame" (now being developed by Fletcher's for housing) we now relish the 21st century way of doing business close to home.  It seems like this is the way of the future for a specialised niche business that sells over the internet rather than through a traditional retail store (NZFP's roots are in mail order, not retail).

Post earthquake street art outside NZ Fine Prints' new home
Just after NZ Fine Prints arrived at 139 Hackthorne Rd a previous neighbour called the council about Jason Kelly's "Greenzone" artwork on the plywood fence around our collapsed garage which they thought was too big for a "business sign" in our part of town. CCC officials then came out, said "Greenzone" was (of course!) a piece of street art rather than a non-complying sign and they checked out that NZ Fine Prints complied with their regulations (employee numbers, selling online etc). They assured us that our business model fitted in with the pre-earthquake city plan and in fact, given our size and the reality that our customers purchased online rather than in store, we didn't even need a special post earthquake 5 year resource consent that some businesses had to apply for.

Today we've had another neighbour on our shared driveway concerned about someone coming in to pick up a print they had ordered and parking for a few minutes in a shared area common to our three properties.

Until we have our top garage rebuilt (which we are going to use for pickups and courier deliveries directly from Hackthorne Rd) we'd like to ask that customers collecting prints park at the top of our long drive and walk down if they are able to.  A little bit of extra consideration that will help us harmoniously coexist with our neighbours until we get our top garage re-built which will move all business traffic off the driveway completely. Yes, we are still waiting for our insurance company to get on with our claim five years after the quakes - but we are confident this will be completed by the end of 2016. Thanks.