Hear Nat Williams, James and Bettison Treasures Curator, explore the life of Sir Rex Nan Kivell (1898–1977), a man with a mysterious past who amassed an extraordinary collection acquired by the Library in 1959.
Audio transcript for ‘Sir Rex Nan Kivell: Australia’s greatest forgotten benefactor?’
Speakers: Guy Hansen (G), Nat Williams (N)
Location: National Library of Australia
G: ... exhibitions at the National Library of Australia and I welcome you to the Library. I thank you very much for coming out on a cold spring night, I’m very impressed to see a full house and we’ve got a great talk for you tonight. First of all in welcoming you here today I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I thank the elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
This evening’s talk focuses on the life and collection amassed by Sir Rex Nan Kivell. Now this man who received a knighthood at the behest of the Australian government never actually visited Australia but he’s recognised for the gift and sale of the collection of books, paintings and documents, manuscripts and artefacts relating to the history of Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific to the National Library of Australia. Our presenter this evening, Nat Williams, the inaugural James and Bedison’s Treasure curator will be speaking about Rex. I think Nat thinks of him as Rex in a sort of informal way. He’s spent so much time thinking about Rex.
Helen James, a former member of the National Library Development Council and passionate supporter of the Treasures Gallery, first spoke of the creation of the Treasures Curatorship in 2009 and it was her wish that this curatorship be established. Her aspiration was for the Library to appoint a scholar who would be able to bring the Library’s contemporary and historical collections to life for a wide variety of audiences playing a critical role in Australian cultural life.
Now Nat of course prior to becoming the Treasures Curator was the Director ... the National Library’s Director of Exhibitions and has overseen the development of over 50 library exhibitions and of course at the very peak of that pyramid of exhibitions is the Treasures Gallery and that was a very important player in developing that Gallery which has now been open since October 2011 and has had over 350,000 visitors. As Treasures Curator Nat has been exploring the collection and life of Rex Nan Kivell. He’s curated the collection in focus display downstairs, Portraits of the Famous and Infamous, which is drawn from the Rex Nan Kivell collection and which you’ll have a chance to explore later today but before we go down and have a look join me in welcoming Nat to talk about Rex Nan Kivell and his collection. Thank you.
N: Bit of a juggling act here. Right. Thank you, Guy. Welcome. I would like to acknowledge that the James and Bedison Treasures Curator position is proudly supported by Helen James whose wish it was to support a curatorship associated with the National Library’s collections and their display in the Treasures Gallery. Today I am going to speak to you about the New Zealand born London-based collector Sir Rex Nan Kivell whose remarkable collection is central to the National Library’s capacity to richly illustrate the history of our region. I want to give you a brief account of Nan Kivell and of his rather mysterious and remarkable life, who he was, what he collected and why he is I believe so significant in the building and the richness of this national collection.
I find it curious that a person who developed such an extraordinary collection and made it available to Australia on the most reasonable terms is not better known. Here, that is. The rather distinctive and reengineered surname Nan Kivell is by no means a household name and I say at the outset that people might say well you know I’ve heard of him and probably many of you have heard of him which is why you’re here but I have taken hundreds if not possibly thousands of people around exhibitions and around our Treasures Gallery over 15 years and whenever I start talking about Rex Nan Kivell and his collection they almost universally look at me blankly and say who? What is he? Where’s he from? What ... so this is me putting him on the ... bringing him back into the public domain.
As a New Zealander Nan Kivell is of course held in some regard across the Tasman, not just for his international success as a collector and as an art dealer but also for his generous gift of 1,300 prints by leading artists to the major art museums there in the early 1950s. At the time of the National Library’s formal acquisition of his collection in 1959 there was considerable publicity. Fifteen years later, 1974, the Library named a gallery after him, subsequently dismantled, and in the intervening years awareness of his name and of his generosity I think has waned. Generosity is a word that one can easily associated with Rex Nan Kivell. Having studied his substantial and complex will it’s clear that he left his close friends, employees and supporters and even his beloved dogs well looked after.
He left over £50,000 in cash as a bequest to his friends and to his long-term life partner, Mizouni Nouari, who we see here, and his Australian-born business partner of nearly 30 years, Harry Tatlock Miller. He also split his very considerable assets including expensive cars and real estate between them and considerately left £2 a week for food for his dogs which was an awful lot of money in Morocco in 1970s. He also seems to have made regular donations of cash or art to charitable organisations during his life and supported numerous British, Australian and New Zealand museums and benevolent funds. But rather than inundate you with examples of his generosity now I will close tonight with just one example, perhaps his most unlikely gift.
Well Rex Nan Kivell was born here in Christchurch in 1898 and died in London in 1977. He was a prestigious collector and networker and had great social aspirations. One of his principal aims was to be knighted. He was for services to the arts a year before he died. A decade earlier he’d received a CMG for services to the National Library, an institution which is fair to say he loved. Curiously in ‘It’s An Honour’, the Australian honours website database, his name is misspelt as Nankivell, one word, making him virtually impossible to find. He was a great charmer, storyteller and art dealer. He amassed a fortune which he spent largely on his great Australasian collection as he referred to it. He was also a great liar and this is something I’ll come back to later.
His collection was built up between the early 1920s and his death. It is one of the most remarkable and tremendously diverse collections underpinning the Library’s Australian and Pacific holdings. His vision in setting out from afar to document the history of the region in a largely pictorial manner was bold enough but the way the collection diversified and grew was unprecedented. The first letter to Nan Kivell about depositing the collection here with the National Library is from Kenneth Binns in October ... the National Librarian ... in October 1945. The collection was formally acquired 14 years later in 1959. It finally numbered at least 20,000 items by the time of Nan Kivell’s death. He had strategically lent at his own expense nearly 1,300 key items to the National Library from 1948 and even so it still took 11 years more ... years of complex negotiations to finalise the purchase. It was a triumph of persistence and goodwill on both sides. At times though Nan Kivell despaired and in one letter he writes to the Library that he might just well sell it all off and focus on gardening in Wiltshire which he loved to do.
Acquired for the modest sum of £70,000 and worth at least three or four times that sum at the time the collection must be now worth hundreds of millions of dollars without even beginning to consider its tremendous historical significance. When finally acquired and complete the collection consisted of 3,404 water colours and drawings, 233 oil paintings, 8,162 prints, 5,041 rare books and 1,460 art books, 813 manuscripts, 861 maps, hundreds of historical items and about 650 photographs ... historic photographs not including his own photographs which we got as well.
From 1959 Nan Kivell continued to donate thousands of items in a second collection spending the £70,000 he received on new acquisitions. A few items also came in posthumously from his house in Tangier. A thorough count of the Nan Kivell collection at the item level has probably never been undertaken and I estimate that the real number of items could easily be 25,000 or more. For example in the fir ... he gave everything an NK number, NK1 through 12,000 something or other. And in the first 500 NK numbers there are actually well over 700 items so they don’t always have one item per number.
In 1953 an exhibition of highlights from the Nan Kivell collection toured New Zealand and as part of that country’s efforts to lure the collection eastward ... as part of the collection ... yes, part of the country’s efforts to lure the collection eastward, in an article in the Weekly Listener magazine entitled ‘Brilliant Harvest of Patience and Determination,’ the acclaimed New Zealand historian and editor of Cook’s journals, J. C. Beaglehole, wrote about the collector and the man he knew as follows:
As an art dealer he is as able and shrewd as anybody on Bond Street but he is much more than an able and shrewd art dealer, he is as we have been coming to realise in New Zealand a very generous man and he now comes before us as a great collector. The extent of his collection is staggering, staggering. A good deal goes into that word. This is not the sort of thing a man of money, a Mellon or a Huntington, heaps up and puts in a marble palace, it is the harvest of knowledge, patience, determination, a sort of collector’s strategy and tactics as well as the collector’s flare, a willingness to plunge as well as to scratch. It is a brilliant collection and it is quite unsnobbish but casting his net widely he has seen the point of the little fish, he has had the historical mind, he’s taken in the oil, the water colour, the popular lithograph, the scrap of drawing, the gauche and the amateurish as well as the expert, the primitive as well as the sophisticated. The result as a massive illustration of early life on this side of the world is—well, staggering.
Beaglehole goes on to write that Nan Kivell as he says ‘is himself an interesting and somewhat odd phenomenon. He is tactful, he is alert, he has an admirable cunning; the provincial antique shops render up their unregarded treasures, old ladies melt before his charm.’ Beaglehole then asks rhetorically ‘Is he left lamenting in London missing his home?’ And answers, ‘he can pass from the pictures and pleasures of his gallery to his flat behind the BBC where Renoir and Van Gogh, Soutine and Graeme Sutherland provide their more intimate benediction from his walls.’
The perspicacious Beaglehole sums up the collector pretty perfectly. Nan Kivell was an odd phenomenon, indefatigable, obsessive in building his collection and definitely a charmer and generous with it. He would often give people unexpected gifts, perhaps as a kind of investment thinking there might be some return one day or perhaps just as a gift.
The central role of the collection is played in allowing cultural historians to research and illustrate our history is profound. In great depth the researcher can unearth telling insights into cultural production in or about our region over centuries. It enables researchers to examine the warp and weft of life in the past in surprising detail. The Portraits of the Famous and Infamous exhibition downstairs is a great example of the scope and depth of his collecting. A selection of only 50 portraits in different formats distilled from thousands, it is a small window onto his collecting and his interests. It gives an idea, not just of his obsessive acquisitiveness but also of his keen eye for a good work of art and his hunting and gathering skills. From the auction room and the gallery to the manor house and the junk shop he combed them all looking for the flotsam and jetsam which accumulated gives us an extraordinary view of the exploration and settlement of our part of the world.
The legacy of Nan Kivell’s collection is substantial and will continue to appreciate perhaps increasingly into the future as its depths are more fully digitised and plumbed. I'm sure what percentage of the Nan Kivell collection is fully digitised but certainly many of the pictures are but to have all of it captured and online one day would be wonderful and a great boon to researchers around the world.
After many years of dealing with the Nan Kivell collection I am still making discoveries now weekly in my new role. Tonight I’ll just give two examples of the items recently encountered, researched and subsequently exhibited. The wonderfully eccentric creature is an example of the kind of serendipitous and in this case unique item which can be encountered in Nan Kivell’s dense collection. He classed this unlikely image as a portrait in his maverick Portraits publication which he worked on, a labour of love for over 20 years and self-published at huge expense in 1974. He calculated it cost him well over £33,000 which would be something today like three to $400,000 to produce his book. I found the enigmatic, hairy wild man from Botany Bay hidden way in the Portraits book and prior to its recent display in the Treasures Gallery it had not been seen since an exhibition celebrating John Ferguson, the extraordinary bibliographer of Australia. This was held at the Menzies Library in 1965 at ANU and incidentally I think it was Ferguson that inspired Nan Kivell to want to create his encyclopaedic portraits collection and the associated illustrated book. I think he wanted to do in visual terms what Ferguson had done in print. And I’ll be giving a lecture ... if you bear with me ... I’ll be giving a lecture in early November on the Portraits project. Sorry, this isn’t a great image. Looks better in the flesh.
I’ve also recently found this painting that I’m now convinced is a rare oil by the earliest colonial South Australian woman painter, Martha Barkley. She arrived into the dust and flies of an Adelaide summer in February 1837 with her sister, the sculptor, Theresa Chauncy. This attractive early scene of Adelaide in about 1842 was hitherto unrecognised in the collection. Nan Kivell catalogued it rather prosaically as ‘Early Australian Landscape showing Mission Church, a few houses, people and a group of natives.’ Thing ... sort of thing cataloguers just love. It was later given the date of 1860s by the Library’s picture staff. I looked into it being a mission thinking it might have been a depiction of the distinctive church at the Native Training Institution at Poonindie, established by Bishop Short, north of Port Lincoln in 1850. And while investigating these works associated with Poonindie, the portraits of Samuel Kandwillian, the preacher and Nannultera, the talented cricketer which were commissioned by Short from South Australian colonial portraitist, John Crossland, I was alerted to this drawing by S. T. Gill. It’s also held in the Nan Kivell collection.
The correspondence between the images of the churches, the distinctive style of the oil painting, the prominent cross trees in the composition, the depiction of the Aboriginal people and other stylistic keys and the fact that it was painted on a sheet of metal as Berkeley did all led to the conclusion that this could be the only known landscape in oils by her. Luckily my ex-Art Gallery of South Australia colleagues, curators Jane Hylton and Tracey Lock Weir, agreed. This important work was just sitting there waiting to be discovered and I’m sure there’s many more there too. I’ve just written an article on this and it’ll be in the next National Library Magazine if you’re interested.
As a backdrop now I’ll show a couple of slides just featuring some key Nan Kivell acquisitions which hopefully will give you an idea of the variety and significance of the collection. Australia’s Top 50 Philanthropic Gifts were announced about 18 months ago or so in Melbourne. They were chosen through a public nomination process and the NGV’s Felton Bequest and the NGA’s Poynton Bequest were shortlisted along with Simon Mordant’s gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s eponymous ... funding for their eponymous centre in Melbourne. Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me, was that Nan Kivell’s great benevolence was not even mentioned. Perhaps this was because it was no strictly an outright gift however in any case I think we as a nation have some considerable way to go in better recognising and attempting to understand and celebrate Nan Kivell, the collector and the donor. Surely through publicly acknowledging the thoughtful and generous collectors of the past, now in the present we can attract the attention of those who might be disposed to assist us in our collection-building activities into the future.
Certainly potential contemporary collectors will not think kindly of us if we appear to have forgotten them ... forgotten those that came before them and the naming of a room, a building wing or a lobby after their good deeds is good but not enough. The collection and thereby the collector should be celebrated in the present through activities that bring the collections to life, the stories in the collection to life through lectures, publications, concert, a collector’s birthday event, social media. We of course try to do this through our Treasures Gallery displays and the associated events program. The collections we have in our custody have the capacity to enrich our lives in very diverse ways and the person that first brought them into our worlds of enquiry and appreciation must not be allowed to disappear. My named curatorial position created by the Library’s very generous benefactors, Helen James and Tim Bettison, is now enabling me to hopefully bring Nan Kivell back ... and his actions back into the limelight and hopefully to encourage other prospective benefactors to think kindly of the Library so if you’re thinking kindly of the Library that’d be great. Remember us.
I haven’t got time tonight to explain in detail the complex acquisition processes and negotiations and deal-brokering which spanned decades and several prime ministers and national librarians today. Principally though it was Robert Menzies as Prime Minister that was the great supporter and enabler of the acquisition. From 1931 Nan Kivell owned and operated the very successful Redfern Gallery in Bond Street and then in Cork Street in London. It sold the major French and British modernists: Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Braque, Manet, Renoir, Matisse, Rouault, Bonnard, Klee, Sickert, Augustus John, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Alan Reynolds, the list goes on. It’s still trading today. It also pioneered selling modernist prints, hence Nan Kivell’s generous gift to the major art museums in New Zealand.
Menzies met with Nan Kivell at the Redfern Gallery on a couple of occasions and their correspondence held in the Library suggests a mutual respect and a great interest in the development and the final destination of the collection. On an official letter addressed by hand ‘To my dear Nan Kivell’ after a visit to the Redfern in March 1955, Menzies writes ‘My hour with you was unforgettable’. On this letter, seen here, he writes ‘When will we see you in Australia?’ For complex reasons Nan Kivell never visited Australia nor did he ever return to New Zealand where, I suspect, he felt that his history there and fictions could catch up with him.
Okay. Menzies went on to open the first Australian exhibition drawn from the collection in Adelaide for the Festival in 1962. He spoke with great humour and intelligence about both the collector and his collection and the role of Harold White, the Library’s indefatigable National Librarian, who fought long and hard with Treasury bureaucrats and others to make the acquisition happen. Menzies described White as a man who ‘has a prehensile grip on anything that matters from the point of Australian history and records—marvellous!’ he said, ‘a grip like a pawnbroker, do you know what I mean?’ Menzies then went on to say in his speech about Nan Kivell:
So here’s a Cornishman, a New Zealander by birth who has chosen to become the most remarkable collector in our time of Australian pictures and papers, an astonishing collection going back to the earliest days. Prints, water colours, drawings, marvellous things. To look at them is a thrill, to have them put in their setting is an intellectual feast.
I think Menzies probably would have quite enjoyed our Treasures Gallery downstairs, particularly that there’s a lot of Nan Kivell material in it.
I think what’s interesting here is that in another era a prime minister would take a pivotal interest in cultural matters, Menzies with the Nan Kivell collection and some years later Gough Whitlam with Blue Poles. As the leader of the nation they were prepared to actively support audacious purchases in the cultural arena and historically we can look back and celebrate their actions. Both acquisitions of course have proven to be great investments and I say that just in case there’s any Treasury officials here tonight. Unlikely, probably.
Right. In 1974 the Library created the Rex Nan Kivell Room, a gallery named after the collector. Art historian, Bernard Smith, an extensive user of the Nan Kivell collection officially opened the room. He had of course extensively illustrated his ground-breaking volumes with images drawn from Nan Kivell’s collection and also met with him in London viewing his collection firsthand. Smith in opening the room observed, sounding not unlike Beaglehole, that the men, and they were generally men, who have sought to create collections in Australia that would enable fresh perspectives on our cultural and social development, and he quotes,
stood not at the centre of action in our society as the Medici or Henry Clay Frick have done in their societies; they are men rather who have been recluses, even eccentrics or have as expatriates sought to lead a more complete life elsewhere. Sir William Dixson, Alfred Felton, Dr John Power, Rex Nan Kivell. It is not until the collections of such men ... until the collections of such men are formed and made available to historians that the material, the archaeological side of our history can be written.
It’s interesting to hear him in that quote remembering John Power whose exhibition we had here recently and who was another forgotten great benefactor.
Smith may have carefully classified Nan Kivell as an expatriate rather than as an eccentric or as a recluse, but, that said, Rex Nan Kivell was an enigmatic figure and a slightly slippery character. His papers, MS4000, are held in the Library’s manuscripts collection. Reading through the extensive paper trail is instructive but he is it seems purposefully elusive. He may have felt he had good reason to be. There are no diaries, few personal letters, only a couple of books of quotations, handwritten as some kind of useful exercise to improve himself. The archive of letters, notes, invoices and photographs that does exist is mainly about the inexorable process of building his collection. And this paper trail sadly only starts in 1938 as his earlier papers were destroyed during the Blitz.
Recently I came across this invoice while searching in Nan Kivell’s papers. These records give a unique view of how he collected and how much he paid for items and the substantial costs of restoring, binding and rehousing acquisitions. Thousands of pounds, he spent, when that was an awful lot of money. His archive demonstrates how often he acquired items and I’ve calculated averaging it that he purchased roughly two items a day for 60 years. All this while he was running a demanding and successful west end art gallery, travelling for work and for pleasure and often taking lengthy holidays particularly later in life to his estate called ‘El Farar’, a palatial house decorated with Matisses and Picassos on 150 acres in Tangier, overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar. I noticed recently ... in fact the house was up for sale for €20m so obviously ... it probably had its grounds cut back a bit but it’s obviously still a substantial property.
A journey through his collection records also provides an idea of how his acquisitions have dramatically increased in value and how the market in Australiana has boomed. Criticised by some for not attending better to the provenance of his vast collection I have found many, many acquisition records in there, obviously purposefully archived in his fulsome papers. This invoice rather naively describes two important Eugene Von Guerard oil paintings as A Sheep Station and A Cattle Station, Victoria. They were acquired by Nan Kivell for £90 in 1956. These well-known works by Von Guerard have been on loan to the National Gallery along with another major Von Guerard and about 30 highlights of Nan Kivell’s colonial oil painting collections since it opened. A recent enquiry I made to ascertain a notional valuation ... current market value of this pair elicited a figure of perhaps $1.5m. I cite this simply as one example of the phenomenally increased value of his collection today but also of how Nan Kivell was in the right place at the centre of the art world and at the right time and with the right connections to acquire major items for often relatively modest amounts of money. And incidentally £90 converted in today’s dollars would probably be about $4,000.
As well as having a very dedicated circle of dealers, collectors and suppliers in the UK and also travelling throughout Britain and Europe to hunt out items Nan Kivell also advertised for items as seen here. This certainly seems to have worked as a strategy finding him some acquisitions. It’s a bit like the antique roadshow in reverse, really, people sort of bring stuff to you know and you go through it and assay it. In fact I’m sure Rex Nan Kivell would have loved that program if he’d lived long enough to see it.
Some of you may know this map. I thought I would use this extraordinary rare and rather wonderful map of Sydney in 1789 to provide an example of Nan Kivell’s capacity to bend the truth in building and protecting his collection. It is one of a number of such stories that I’ve encountered searching in his papers. In late 1940 he purchased this map from Francis Edwards Booksellers for £44 which was quite a lot of money then. He then quickly received a letter from the dealers saying they were terribly sorry but Sir William Dixson, the State Library of New South Wales, great benefactor and collector of Australiana had actually ordered the map and that Nan Kivell would be ‘doing them a very great service’, they said, if he would release it for Sir William. Almost immediately Nan Kivell wrote a lengthy response to Francis Edwards with a copy for Sir William saying ‘there is no reason for the three of us, yourselves, Sir William Dixson and myself to be unhappy as I had decided it should go nowhere else but to the Dixson Library.’ He continued that he would need Dixson’s assistance when he visited Sydney to research his planned book on the early paintings and engravings of Australia. He would be very pleased to give it to Dixson but there’s a catch, most of his collection is now at his home in Christchurch and the Fowkes map has already, very conveniently, been sent out there. However he intended to visit Christchurch in the following January or February and would collect the map and then visit Sydney to present it to Sir William. Nan Kivell would use the opportunity, he wrote, to discuss the disposal of his collection with Sir William and he continues ‘no one else will be given a first offer to acquire it. I promise this as I feel the only place for all these pictures and prints should be Australia.’
Well many years later the map is with us. Nan Kivell never returned to New Zealand. His collection never resided there. He didn’t produce the proposed book as he stated nor did he offer the collection as far as I’m aware to Dixson. It was all an elaborate ruse. He knew the significance of the map and certainly wasn’t going to let it go. I wonder what Dixson thought? And then years later the map came to the National Library just to rub salt into the State Library’s wounds. There are also other instances outlined in his papers where Nan Kivell pipped the State Library at the post with an acquisition such as the memorable John Hunter sketchbook which he acquired at Sotheby’s in 1953 with an interesting exchange of correspondence about that.
Now to return briefly to Nan Kivell’s public visibility as a donor. The room named for him at the Library was dismantled years ago and this omission has perhaps contributed in some respects to the visibility of the collection to the general public and scholars alike at least until the Treasures Gallery opened four years ago ... almost four years ago. Currently 25% or more of the changing display in the Gallery is drawn from the Nan Kivell collection and elicits extraordinarily positive visitor responses. It’s also worth noting that 10% of the Library’s recent and very successful Mapping Our World exhibition was drawn from the remarkable Nan Kivell maps collection. Well I’m very pleased to announce that later this year the Rex Nan Kivell Room would finally be reinstated in what was originally the Library’s Manuscript Reading Room, which is directly below us. This room will be used to show off highlights from the Library’s collection or new acquisitions and for foundation and special events. I hope that the inaugural display may feature this 1960 portrait. It was commissioned by Nan Kivell from British Royal Academician, the painter turned sculptor, Brian Neill who Nan Kivell represented and championed through his Redfern Gallery and you can see he’s based it on this photograph by James Mortimer by the looks of it.
Just as Nan Kivell launched many significant British artistic careers at his gallery he also exhibited Australian artists. Harry Tatlock Miller whose par ... whose partner was the very talented artist designer, Loudon Sainthill, introduced Nan Kivell to leading Australian painters. As early as 1939 Nan Kivell gave Sainthill an exhibition, well before they moved to London. Recently ANU’s Dr Andrew Montana has written a very fine double biography of them both entitled Fantasy Modern. It’s a good read and it sheds some interesting information about Rex Nan Kivell’s sex life which I won’t go into for probity reasons. Other artists the Redfern showed included Sidney Nolan, Ian Fairweather and Donald Friend. Friend in his voluminous diaries held here mentioned showing Nan Kivell some of his drawings in 1949 and that the Redfern was ‘one of the very best modern art galleries in England, with a reputation for sharp dealing and so on. Never mind,’ he then ends. Enigmatic.
Even though they sold many of his works and kept him afloat Friend doesn’t seem to have liked Rex, referring him to him later as an ‘idiotic old buffer.’ Friend also quotes Nan Kivell in late 1952 regarding the issue of a potential Australian knighthood which might have been received in exchange for his collection and he says ... he’s quoting Nan Kivell ...
I am half tempted yet I’d be a fool because one day they’ll drop an atomic bomb on all this and that collection is the only insurance I have against the future, if I survive the bomb. This country will be done for, perhaps forever. If I were left without the gallery and had only a knighthood to my name what could I do? Marry an American?
A curious idea without doubt. But it does highlight the juggling act going on behind the scenes to secure the collection for the Library and Nan Kivell’s strong desire to be Sir Rex.
Well now to a few biographical details of the collector. His early life is rather mysterious and as I’ve hinted at it is clear he avoided the inconvenient realities of his youth to invent a past which was more congruent with his role as a major donor, art collector, dealer, philanthropist and friend to the rich and famous. I found this press clipping from the early 1950s in one of Nan Kivell’s albums ... probably won’t reproduce very well there but captured at a midnight viewing in his gallery are actors Richard Attenborough, Sheila Sim, Vivien Leigh, John Mills and his wife, Mary, Lawrence Olivier and Margaretta Scott. Nan Kivell was also best mates, he said, with actor Charles Laughton. And here you can see Charles Laughton in the Redfern Gallery with his portrait also by Bryan Kneale which is now held in the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection. And in the background you can see there’s a portr ... rather strange portrait of Nan Kivell, another one by Kneale.
There are numerous Christmas cards to him in his papers from John Gielgud, John Mills and other movers and shakers. As can be seen here he sold art to the Queen and to her mother and was also friends with Sir Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures and the Soviet spy and had many useful connections in the British society and in the art world. Must track down one day what picture it was that he sold to the Queen.
In the 2009 autobiography of socialite interior designer, Nicholas Haslam, entitled Redeeming Features, he describes Nan Kivell, who he met through his artist boyfriend, Michael Wishart, as ‘round and white always said to be a necrophiliac.’ Conversely and rather more positively Michael Wishart in his autobiography, High Diver, writes ‘no one did more to further my career than this kind gentle man,’ also referring to him as ‘a wise and protective sparrowhawk.’ Wherein lies the truth? If anything, I suppose, this demonstrates the polemics and bitchiness of the art world which Nan Kivell found himself at the centre of.
Nan Kivell was certainly a man of his time. He was formed by his unusual family background, aided by his keen intelligence and his rampant ambitions for his reputation and for his burgeoning collection. The latter two are absolutely integral to the understanding of his personality. At a time when it was no doubt unfashionable to be a colonial, a New Zealander, illegitmate, homosexual and with both limited education and an inglorious war service record ‘Reginald Nankivell,’ as he was born, triumphed against the odds. It’s worth mentioning that he was also obsessed with the family history of the Nankivells in Cornwall and his pi ... and also his pioneering colonial heritage and forebears who arrived in 1840 as early settlers in New Zealand. He prominently features the Nankivell family crest on the bookplate which you saw earlier.
Sadly we only have a scant 20 minutes of Nan Kivell’s voice on our oral history recording which was taken in London in 1970 and there’s a little more on a BBC recording as well. These tapes give him enough time to get his story across without bothering with too many details. He tells stories and reads from notes to ensure that he doesn’t stray too far from the truth. But even in these recordings there are inconsistencies which say a lot about him and in fact you can go onto our website and go through the catalogue and listen to the oral history, stream it online if you’re interested.
First he says he’s 15 and then he says he’s 16 when enlisting for the great war. He was actually 18. He says he was gassed at the raid on Messines in France then later says he was recalled before the battle due to being underage. Now they’re the sort of things you don’t make a mistake about in the same sentence virtually but Rex did. He did suffer from influenza which put him out of action and he was punished for several infractions which he covered up. He refers to his canny early acquisition of 400 Augustus Earle water colours when there were actually 161—which surely would be enough for anyone. He says he shoves a large rolled up oil painting down his pants to escape France on a train during wartime bombing which seems incongruous. He elaborated regularly and inconsistently to make things sound more dramatic and to entertain.
However there are some reliable facts. Reginald was born in New Brighton, Christchurch on the 8th of April 1898. He was the son of unmarried 18 year old Alice Maud Nankivell, one word, and Noah Clegg. He grew up in modest circumstances with his maternal grandparents, George and Annie, believing them to be his parents. His grandfather was a fisherman and his grandmother a domestic servant. He tells of growing up with his much older brothers and sisters who were at work while he played on the beach and around the River Avon, sometimes with Maori children. These siblings were in fact his aunts and uncles.
Running off to the war in 1916, the end of 1916 he escaped his inconvenient past. From Private Reginald Nankivell seen here it was on his military will form in his service record, that he first emerges improbably as Rex de Charembac Nan Kivell Esquire, the exotic French de Charambac he said was allegedly to thank a French woman who had promised to leave her estate to him. More believably I think leaving New Zealand he obviously had decided in a youthful and opportunistic moment to disguise his roots and to begin the complex process of reinvention which culminated in Sir Rex de Charembac Nan Kivell CMG, then later Knight Bachelor and Order of the Dannebrog. It seemed he also invented the story that the King Christian X of Denmark had in 1935 awarded him the Order of the Dannebrog in recognition for his services to archaeology. I have checked this as it’s been checked before but I checked it again for specific reasons and there’s no evidence for this. He was an amateur archaeologist, though. Why he needed to make this up when he was established and in reach probably of his much sought after knighthood is ... seems strange. Presumably it’s an example of his insecurity about his status and place in the world. Surrounded by the elegant and affluent upper class who were buying his modern art and making him ever richer it seemed he still needed baubles which he could publicly point to to give him credibility and a status that his humble colonial background could not.
It was around the time of the First World War that it appears he met someone who was to become crucial in his later successes. Fanny Louise Hulbert emerges in his story as a wealthy, devoted, adopted old godmother and he clearly cared for her. At the end of this life he was buried in the Hulbert family plot in West Lavington next to Fanny. He lived in ... she lived in Codford, Wiltshire, not far from ‘Sling’, the New Zealand military camp, and they may have met through Nan Kivell’s hospital duties, which he served instead of being at the front. Fanny had considerable means and on her death in 1934 left him over £2,000, a large sum at the time, which allowed him to consolidate his interest in the Redfern Gallery and start to build his collection and reputation in earnest. There seems to be an almost predictable irony too in the fact that the designation of Knight Bachelor, used since the time of Henry III, came from the French battalere, or one who fought on the battlefield, and of course Sir Rex did not.
There are many other loose ends in his story. He says, for example, he went to Christ’s College, one of New Zealand’s oldest and most prestigious Anglican educational institutions. He didn’t. His family address of 25 Bligh Street, New Brighton given on his enlistment papers doesn’t seem to exist. There’s a house away from the beach and cordoned with streets named after Bligh’s mutiny and its aftermath. This house almost backs onto Pitcairn Playground and is very close to both Christian Street and Bounty Street. With its mutinous associations this locale may have contributed to Nan Kivell’s strong interest in collecting material around the Bounty Mutiny.
Nan Kivell says his meeting with Sydney Smith, a bookseller in Christchurch, was crucial in developing an early interest in dealing. It appears Smith didn’t exist under that name but bookselling in Christchurch. Nan Kivell said that after his military discharge in London he continued his studies at the Royal College of Science. I have checked with them and there is no record of him ever being there. He is purposefully enigmatic and obviously expects to be believed. In the age before Google it was very easy really to cover your tracks if you wished to. He was protective of his past, as fictive as it might be, and I really want to get to the bottom of all, to write it down and to get it properly on the record. The slides you will see now are some of the watercolours central to my final story tonight.
To conclude I would like to reveal Nan Kivell’s perhaps most surprising gift which I alluded to earlier. In his lengthy will he mentions amongst the many generation ... generous bequest to partner, friends, dogs, colleagues etc ‘some 120 natural history drawings previously in the collection of Cardinal Alessandro Albani.’ These water colours, probably by Vincenzo Leonardi, who lived between 1588 and 1657 were originally part of the extraordinary collection known as the Museo Cartaceo, or Paper Museum, which was assembled by Cassiano dal Pozzo and his brother. Cassiano was secretary to Cardinal Barberini in Rome and was a nephew of Pope Urban VIII. Cassiano was also a friend of Galileo, major patron of Poussin, a member of the scientific ‘Academy of Lynxes’ and a correspondent with intellectuals all over Europe. His extraordinary collection of some 8,000 water colours, drawings and prints covered antiquities, architecture, zoology, botany and geology. It was one of the most significant attempts before the photographic era to encapsulate human knowledge in visual form. It was a rich visual encyclopaedia and in some respects, not unlike the visually dense pictorial collection developed by Nan Kivell, the Museo Cartaceo had a very complex and interesting history after Cassiano’s death in 1657, and in which Nan Kivell ultimately became enmeshed.
On Cassiano’s death the collection passed to his brother and thenceforth through the family to Pope Clement XI in 1703 for the Vatican Library. The Library defaulted in repaying the papal treasury and so the collection was acquired by Cardinal Albani in 1714. Almost 50 years later the collection was acquired by George III. There it sat with parts being periodically sold off and ultimately ending up in the Sir John Sloane Museum, the British Museum, the British Library, the V & A Museum and also at Kew Gardens.
To finance a major acquisition in the 1930s, the Royal Librarian sold off more of the collection to a London dealer, Moses Mendelsohn, from whom Rex managed to scoop up 127 of these beautiful water colours for probably just a few pounds each in 1935. Having been awarded his knighthood in June 1976 and aware through his friend, Anthony Blunt, that the Royal Library was seeking to reconstitute its collection of these works he decided his ultimate and very significant gift should be to Queen Elizabeth. Most of the works were sent to the Royal Library months before Nan Kivell died in June 1977. You can imagine him sort of getting them there ahead of his death. He obviously didn’t know when he was going to die, he wasn’t ill ... he was ill at the time. One work Nan Kivell had earlier given to Sir Anthony Blunt was also given back to the royal collection to complete the series.
So finally awarded for his services to the arts and the National Library and for his great efforts to create this remarkable collection he could now make this generous gesture to the ruler who had only knighted him the previous year. Strangely though last year within the Nan Kivell collection I discovered this attractive painting of a coot, Latin fulica, in Italian folaga. It’s stylistically related to the images you’ve just seen and the watercolour is inscribed in Latin and in Italian in the same hand as some of the other works are. It is one of the Museo Cartaceo works and I can only assume that the collector decided not to part with this particular watercolour as part of the gift to the Queen as birds similar to this one depicted here are common to both Australia and New Zealand.
Nan Kivell sent the water colour to Canberra as part of his second collection in the period following 1959. He may have lost sight of it when he came to settle his estate and make his gift to the Queen or it may have been purposefully included in his collection here. We’ll never know. Whatever the reason for its stranding with us it is a beautiful work and my photograph does not do it justice, sadly. It remains a tantalising link to the fabulous ambition of the Museo Cartaceo and all its rich associations. It also exemplifies the great scope of Nan Kivell’s collection and his many interests.
So now having divested himself of his collection to the Queen and to us the colonial expatriate collector, the inventor of his own history, the storyteller, the benefactor, the friend to the stars and the dealer to the rich and famous could go to his grave knowing that he’d achieved something extraordinary and of lasting importance. Now it seems only to be largely forgotten by the world around us. I hope that I can bring him back into the public domain. I think he both deserves and would have liked that. Thank you.
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