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What's hidden beneath TLC's walls?

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Two paint conservators from Te Papa, Linda Waters and Tijana Cvetkovic, along with Bronwyn Holloway-Smith and Lynn Freeman of Radio New Zealand National have visited The Learning Connexion to search for a missing mural by artist E. Mervyn Taylor.

The E. Mervyn Taylor search and recovery project led by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, from Massey University's College of Creative Arts, has been looking for missing murals, painted from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, by well known New Zealand artist, craftsman and designer E. Mervyn Taylor (1906-64).

Taylor created at least 13 distinctive murals throughout the North Island between 1957 and 1964. He is also known for his wood cuts, engravings and illustrations – particularly for the New Zealand School Journal – and was passionate about creative arts within New Zealand. As a Pākehā artist, he actively supported the protection and promotion of Māori culture in an era when dominant colonial influences threatened its decline.

The project team were searching for a work entitled ‘First Kumara Planting’, rumoured to once be on display in the foyer of the former Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) Soil Bureau  – now home to The Learning Connexion School of Creativity and Art.


Soil Bureau mural 590x388 
Artist: E. Mervyn Taylor
Title: First Kumara Planting
Medium: Painting directly on concrete wall, using a PVA matt latex paint from Resene
Dimensions: 2750 x 1850mm


The lost 1962 mural shows the carved stone taumata atua or kumara god placed at the head of the plot and the early morning ceremony performed by the tohunga, dressed in his cloak and turning the first sod with his ko, or digging stick. The growing kumara is shown symbolically reaching up to the life-giving sun. 

The project team planned to use infrared technology on-site to see through the paint, with the hope of finding the ‘First Kumara Planting’ mural underneath. Nothing could be seen on the surface of the walls with the naked eye - no brushstrokes or hints of colour beneath the top layers of white wall paint.

The only evidence they had to work from was an old photograph, which showed the position of the mural on the wall in relation to the doorways.


Interior, Ministry of Works, Soil Bureau building, Taita, Lower Hutt.

Interior, Ministry of Works, Soil Bureau building, Taita, Lower Hutt.

Taylor painting the Kumara planting mural.

Taylor painting the Kumara planting mural.




Listen to Lynn Freeman, from Radio NZ, talk about the discovery effort


Unfortunately, they were unable to penetrate the white wall paint with the infrared camera equipment due to the combination of materials, and the nature of the artist’s paint and pigments. The wall paint may have contained lead white pigment, which reflects infrared, and the artist's paint perhaps contained synthetic pigments or dyes which are transparent to infrared.

The team’s second plan of attack was to get physical evidence. The team came back and took a small chip of paint from the edge of a screw hole in the wall, within an area the mural should have been, and took it back to the conservation lab at Te Papa. They mounted it in resin and ground it back to reveal the layers.

Analysis revealed promising signs that the mural is still there, hidden deep under layers of whitewash. Further tests were done to see if the entire mural was there. The team took a further three samples, after mapping out the entire mural on the wall in green tape. 


Taking a sample using a scalpel and a magnifying head lupe.

Taking a sample using a scalpel and a magnifying head lupe.
Photograph by Shaun Waugh, Massey University.


The results are that the complete mural is likely to still be there on the wall. The project team discovered blue, yellow and red artist’s paint underneath the white layers of paint, from the different areas that corresponded directly to indicated paint locations of the mural in the reference images.

Unfortunately, Taylor's mural will never again see the light of day. It cannot be uncovered easily, due to the nature of the materials and the uneven concrete substrate behind it. The artist’s paint layer is very thin compared to the layers above it, and any removal would result in damaging the original paintwork beneath it.

Read more about Te Papa’s investigation


Other murals by Taylor, still in their complete state, can be viewed at:

• Khandallah Presbyterian Church, Wellington

• Otaki War Memorial Hall

• Boardroom of Radio New Zealand House, Wellington

• Masterton War Memorial Stadium Hall of Memories

• New Plymouth War Memorial Hall, Museum and Library (now Puke Ariki)

For information about studying art and creativity at The Learning Connexion, request a prospectus or call 0800 278 769.


  • Bronwyn Holloway-Smith
    18/04/2017 12:13am (7 years ago)

    Thanks for this great writeup Alana, an excellent summary of our journey so far!

    One correction: We've found out recently that the New Plymouth Post Office ceiling mural wasn't done by Taylor after all, but by James Turkington - another celebrated NZ muralist.

    Clementine - let us know if you get anywhere with your brother. It would be amazing to retrieve it, or at least to have a faithful replica fixed in it's place (without damaging the surface of the wall of course!). Maybe nanobots will be able to bring the work back to life one day...

  • Clementine Cuppen
    16/04/2017 9:38pm (7 years ago)

    So would it actually matter if an attempt was made and it didn't work? If it will never be seen again anyway, even a vague reclamation might be better than nothing? It might be a tedious and painstaking affair but worth it?
    I wonder if a Dutch or American painting restorer can manage it?
    I can ask one of my brothers to find such a person in The Netherlands. He once had a Medieval Mosaic restored in a cloister that was being rebuilt.