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