The Barry Lett Galleries in Victoria Street, where the Hanly’s bought Colin McCahon’s ‘Visible Mysteries no. 4’ in 1968, were at the epicentre of Auckland’s vibrant and expanding arts scene in the 1960s.
Pat and Gil Hanly purchased Visible Mysteries no. 4 on the opening night of McCahon’s exhibition at Barry Lett Galleries, which ran from 14 to 25 October 1968. The invitation to the exhibition read: “Colin McCahon’s Bargain Basement! Of Multiples and Variations on his Regular Themes… Also Visible Mysteries: a series of eight paintings arising from the Bellini Madonna series and the more recent series Still Life with [an] Altar.” Evidently, it was Gil who chose the work, though Pat described it as “beautiful, calm, infinite.”1 All four of the people involved in the transaction – the Hanlys, Barry Lett and Colin McCahon – were well known to each other and, indeed, close to the epicentre of the vibrant art scene which had developed in Auckland by the late 1960s.
“Pat told Gil in a letter how struck he had been by what he saw of Colin’s work: “just unable to comprehend it all, it was so very powerful – convinced he is a master”
Pat Hanly, already familiar with McCahon’s work from group shows seen in Christchurch (where he studied and where he met Gil Taverner, who became his wife), first met McCahon at his home in Titirangi in 1957 when he (Hanly) was en route to London and Europe. He told Gil in a letter (she had left for England before him) how struck he had been by what he saw of Colin’s work: “just unable to comprehend it all, it was so very powerful – convinced he is a master.”2
The Hanlys returned to New Zealand in 1962 and, though tempted by Australia, decided to settle in Auckland largely because of the presence of McCahon in the city. Hanly was convinced that McCahon was a “giant” who alone had “found a way through the daze of confusion” confronting New Zealand artists.3 They met again at Don Wood’s and Frank Lowe’s The Gallery in Symonds Street (soon to change its name to Ikon Gallery and, later, its location to Lorne Street), the only dealer gallery in Auckland at the start of the 1960s. Both McCahon and Hanly had exhibitions at Ikon Gallery. McCahon showed his first Gate series paintings there in 1961: his Landscape Theme & Variations in 1963 and his Waterfalls in 1964. Hanly showed his London paintings there in 1962, and then his first New Zealand series, New Order in 1963 and Figures in Light, in 1964. From the latter show, McCahon purchased Figures in Light, No. 9 and presented it to Auckland Art Gallery; he also arranged for No. 17 in the series to be donated by the Friends of the Gallery – an important validation for the younger painter and his work.
Meanwhile, in 1964, a young artist by the name of Barry Lett, who had been studying in Wellington, completed his studies at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland (where McCahon had just begun teaching) and soon drifted into selling art at The Uptown Gallery (with John Perry). McCahon and Hanly were both in group shows held there. The following year (with support from Rodney Kirk Smith and Frank Lowe), Lett set up the Barry Lett Galleries in Victoria Street.
It was Gil who chose the work, though Pat described it as “beautiful, calm, infinite.”
In Lett’s own words: “In May 1965 the Barry Lett Galleries opened with an exhibition of Pat Hanly’s Girl Asleep paintings. Pat had already established a reputation as an important New Zealand artist and to launch our gallery with a show of his work was a great privilege and a smart move.”4 One of the Girl Asleep paintings (Number 3) was purchased by McCahon. McCahon himself soon joined the new gallery with a show in June that included some Gate paintings, the Numbers series (1965) and some landscapes.
From this time onwards, both Hanly and McCahon were central figures at Barry Lett Galleries along with many other leading painters of the day, including Suzanne Goldberg, Ralph Hotere, Michael Illingworth, Toss Woollaston, Ross Ritchie, Milan Mrkusich, Don Binney, Robert Ellis, Don Peebles, Gretchen Albrecht, Geoff Thornley, Richard Killeen, Philip Clairmont, Tony Fomison and many others. McCahon exhibited every year from 1965 to 1976, including such series as North Otago Landscapes, the Written Drawings (scrolls), Victory Over Death, Necessary Protection, Jet Out from Muriwai, Jumps, Comets, Noughts and Crosses, Rocks in the Sky, the Urewera Mural and Teaching Aids. Likewise, Hanly regularly showed at Lett’s, including Pacific Icons, ‘Inside’ the Garden, the Creation series and many others. Hanly and Lett became close friends and Lett worked as his assistant on several major mural commissions, including those for Christchurch Town Hall and Auckland Airport.
Ron Brownson wrote in a blog after Barry Lett’s death, eariler this year, at the age of 79: Barry’s opening events were always lively and spritied; people still recall them with affection. He was a welcoming art dealer and his warmth and enthusiasm was encouraging. His gallery helped revolutionise the presentation of contemporary art in Auckland…The Barry Lett Galleries were never solely a venue for art exhibitions. It hosted memorable events. One of the liveliest evenings was the BOMB reading on 20 August 1969 when David Mitchell, Mark Young, and James k Bakter performed their recent poems focused on protest and the social awareness of politics.”5
Barry Lett recalled: “For a while, we had almost every important NZ artist showing with us…It was a wild time…The gallery had its ups and downs, but the bills were steady and we really struggled for periods. I was ready to become an artist in my own right, but we owed a lot of money to the artists, so I stayed on and worked hard until we could repay our debts. I finally sold the gallery to Rodney Kirk Smith in 1975, but there was one last hurdle. I didn’t realise, but Rodney intended to keep the name, Barry Lett Galleries. I wanted to be and artist – not forever cast as an art dealer – but he refused to change it…At the exhibition opening, while everyone was upstairs in the gallery drinking wine, I came along with a ladder and an axe and cut down the gallery sign and hacked it to pieces on the pavement – what I called ‘performance art’. Rodney called the Police and I was arrested and charged with wilful damage. But he did change the name after that.”6
Visible Mysteries no.4 is a potent emblem of a heroic period in Auckland’s art history.
1. Quoted in Russell Haley, Hanly: A New Zealand Artist (Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), p. 159. Incidentally, the Bellini Madonna series referred to in the invitation was a 1961–62 series of abstract paintings of which only four examples are extant (two are in Auckland Art Gallery), the others having been bought by a foreign businessman who cannot be traced.
2. 20 August 1957, quoted in Haley, p. 40.
3. Quoted in Haley, pp. 128, 137.
4. Barry Lett, interviewed in 2015: http://www.localmatters.co.nz/news/7961-local-folk-barry-lett-artist.html
5. Ron Brownson, https://www.aucklandartgallery.com/page/barry-lett-1940-2017
6. Barry Lett interview cited above.