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Sir Rex Nan Kivell's Birthday
Lecture with Treasures Curator Nat Williams
Talks / Lecture
Lecture with Treasures Curator Nat Williams
8 April 2019
On what would be art dealer and collector Rex Nan Kivell's (1898 1977) 121st birthday, Treasures Curator Nat Williams reveals new insights into the Library's collection.
Nat on Nan Kivell 08-04-2019
*Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Nat Williams (N)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 8 April 2019
K: Hello and good evening. Welcome to the National Library of Australia Theatre, welcome to all of you who are here with us in the Theatre and to those of you who may be watching online either in real-time or at some distant time in the future. Who knows? That’s the wonders of the modern world. For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favelle and I look after the Library’s Community Outreach Programs and it’s a very great pleasure to be here tonight to introduce one of my colleagues to you.
As we begin this evening I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, I pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, to their elders past, present and future for caring for this land that we’re now privileged to call our home.
Today is the birthday of a very significant man to the Library. I’m sure you’re all here because you’ve heard of Sir Rex Nan Kivell who was an art dealer, collector and cultural benefactor. He was born on the 8th of April 1898 in Christchurch, New Zealand and I think it’s fair to say that his collection is one of the collections that the National Library of Australia stands on the shoulders of. The Library purchased the Rex Nan Kivell Collection in 1962 and it – in fact I think it was earlier than that, wasn’t it, Nat? Yeah. We’ll hear more, we’ll hear the exact details, no fake facts here.
The collection comprises pictures, prints, maps, manuscripts, books, pamphlets and photographs relating to the discovery and settlement of lands in the south seas. You’ve probably seen just – you may feel like you’ve seen many of the works in the collection but I can guarantee you’ve probably only seen a tiny percentage, so vast it is.
Our Treasures Curator, Nat Williams, has been researching Rex Nan Kivell’s life. He’s gone to the UK, he’s talked to people in New Zealand and he’s uncovered some unexpected treasures hidden within the collection. Tonight we’re going to celebrate Sir Rex Nan Kivell’s birthday. Nat’s going to share with us some of the stories from the collector’s life and he’s going to show us some of the fascinating natural history items he collected. Please join me in welcoming Nat Williams.
N: Thank you for coming along tonight to hear about Rex on his birthday. I’d like to dedicate this lecture to a friend, Martin Cook, who died last week very suddenly and he followed my research into Rex Nan Kivell with great interest. He was the Foundation Director at The David Roche Foundation in Adelaide so to Martin and Rex, here we go.
I’d like to achieve a couple of things tonight. First, to update you about my research into the life and collecting of Sir Rex Nan Kivell and relate some of my overseas experiences in speaking to a number of his existing friends and colleagues. Second, to speak briefly about the biography I’m preparing as a result of this research and to share a few new and perhaps surprising facts with you about Nan Kivell. Third, to speak briefly about a few key items acquired by Nan Kivell in his indefatigable collecting of natural history-related items and what this might tell us about him and how he collected. Finally I will close with a suite of New Zealand items collected by Nan Kivell which speak to the collector’s nostalgia about his past and the intensity of his feelings for New Zealand which sadly he felt he could not return to from England.
It can be argued that collecting is a form of identity-building and that if it continues long enough and if the collection is rich enough the items assemble themselves into a self-portrait of the collector, albeit a self-portrait which is hard to interpret without knowing at least a good proportion of the material gathered together by that collector. The rambling collections of Rex Nan Kivell, the thousands of items held here once recognised give a good sense of his various interests and passions. He recognised the potential for each piece to be simultaneously an artefact and a story. In some senses they are indivisible. He also understood how pieces would reverberate with each other in time to tell a larger story about our part of the world and its inheritance. He collected maps, pictures, rare books, objects, manuscripts, natural history, portraits, it goes on and on.
He said he read the great narratives of maritime exploration and conquest as a boy in his ship’s cabin wood-lined bedroom built ‘specially for him by his older brothers. What he didn’t know until later was that they were in fact his uncles, a fact kept from him as a protection, his boarded bedroom and books a kind of protective shell for him to grow into.
As someone who is a natural storyteller and a creative inventor of fictional moments in his collecting odyssey Nan Kivell clearly saw the potential in collecting for both self-reinvention and for also collecting a personal mythology. The stories he invented were often funny, improbable, sometimes involved the timely intervention of an air raid, they both had drama and luck in spades and they often involved the long game. They sometimes take the following form. First, recognition, a glimmer, a treasure existing somewhere out in the countryside which could include Australia and New Zealand as well as England then finding a lead and pursuing it until a dead end appears. Time passes, years later another lead, another search, now getting closer and closer. Eventually the prize is won. Something - usually something amusing happens and both he and the now ex-owner all love one another or he gives some similarly fruity expression of success for both parties. He was certainly not beyond telling a lie to seal a deal or placate an injured party when the need arose.
A major problem for any biographer is having no personal material, no diaries, no personal letters, no notes, really, to reveal moments captured in prose or image. This is largely the case with Nan Kivell and I think to an extent it was self-preservation and it was purposeful in the way that he crafted that. One has to tread carefully therefore in creating such a – recreating such a person when the source material is measured and filtered and sometimes artfully arranged.
Nan Kivell’s collection-building was epic. It was forged through alliances, good luck and obviously access to considerable funds generated from his gallery dealings. The project was also successful, not just because of his passion for collecting and for interesting objects but also because his escape from his difficult past as a bastard and as a young homosexual man in New Zealand meant that he happened to be in exactly the right place and at the right time to gather up his many treasures.
You can see here on screen just a couple of scraps from his papers here which are littered with business cards or notes saying something - someone might have mentioned to him something interesting, so-and-so collects Australian material or New Zealand material. He also met people in the antiquarian trade through his Redfern Gallery contacts, people such as John Maggs from the famous Maggs Brothers booksellers or senior figures in both Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
He also – he became a famous dealer in the cutthroat world of London art trading. It seems he came to know everyone including expats from Australia and New Zealand who were visiting. New Zealand’s John Beaglehole and Ken Webster, our own Bernard Smith, Rex and Thea Reanetts, Robert Menzies and of course the National Library’s indefatigable Harold White, and ultimately his business partner and great friend, Harry Tatlock Miller and his life partner, the talented Australian designer, Loudon Sainthill. Harry was to help Nan Kivell become one of the most prominent and successful dealers in the British modern art market.
Well today marks Rex’s 121st birthday although he was known to be fluid with the truth and claimed he was actually born a year later so that would make him 120. But this was perhaps his earliest fib and you can see here that he manages to get his earlier birthdate actually chiselled onto his grave which I visited with my partner last year in September in West Lavington in Wiltshire. He had the last laugh in that respect, I suppose.
Anyway on his birthday I hope you all leave better informed about an industrious, dedicated visionary, remarkable if naughty chap who battled adversity to achieve all that he did in his six-decade collecting odyssey. If you work it out he sort of collected probably – roughly two things a day for 60 years. I also hope that you leave better appreciating his truly remarkable legacy which I am profoundly lucky to be able to investigate on a weekly basis.
Nan Kivell’s collection is full of surprises and will continue to reward researchers for decades to come. The Collection’s depths are still not fully plumbed and it’s still not fully digitised and if that’s something you would like to assist the Library with please see me afterwards.
We are unlikely to see Nan Kivell’s like again and sadly our national institutions need the Rex Nan Kivells of this world, whatever form they take these days, more than ever. I’ve spoken about Nan Kivell’s life and achievements before but not recently and as a result now of two overseas trips to London and then most recently last year also to Wiltshire, Somerset and to Cornwall and through meeting some of his existing friends I feel I have a much better understanding of the man and of his complicated and rather improbable life.
As a collector he is deserving of a serious biography and I intend to deliver one in time, warts and all, which will include some very unexpected turns. As a man his narrative, sometimes audacious, sometimes suppressed and sometimes happily public, is also worthy of placing on the record.
Nan Kivell was significantly aided by two women that entered his life early on in England. Without his beloved old godmother, Fanny Hulbert, whom he met while at Codford Army camp and with him he’s buried and you can see the family tomb here. His life would have taken I think quite a different course. He specifically directed for he did reap to be carved on his tomb as you can see here, writing only Fanny would understand what was meant. Then the inscription says – not very clear but it says the inscription’s relating to the proverb carved on Fanny Hulbert’s grave, whatsoever a man soweth that shall he reap. The Hulbert – what seems to be the Hulbert family motto which is on the other slide which is rather greyed out there, they that sow in tears shall reap in joy. So he obviously felt in that pious way that he had at the end of his life probably pleased Fanny, his godmother, and he certainly did reap.
A couple of years ago through the current Directors of the Redfern Gallery, Richard Gault and Richard Selby, I was introduced to Maggie Thornton who worked at the Redfern Gallery from the early 1960s. Maggie was first an assistant to Nan Kivell then eventually an owner/director of this prestigious gallery. One of Maggie’s friends and ex-business partners is Gordon Samuel who now co-owns the prominent Osborne Samuel Gallery. This is a gallery which specialises in British sculpture, for example the artist Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick. It also specialises in Grosvenor School prints and contemporary artists like William Kentridge and British modernism generally. Gordon credits his great success to Rex Nan Kivell and his belief in him. He started as a gofer, age 17, getting lunch, running errands, going to the printer and ended up codirecting the gallery. I’ll mention Gordon again briefly later.
So on my trips to London in 2017 and ’18 I managed to record interviews with numerous people from different sectors of the art world who knew Rex Nan Kivell. I felt I had to do this before people started being unreliable sources due to age or infirmity or sadly died. This has now happened to one of my interviewees since I met her. This means I could begin to develop a number of views on the subject under consideration. I recorded interviews with Nan Kivell associates and friends, Maggie and Gordon who I mentioned, two of his artists, both sculptors, William Pye and Brian Neill. I also recorded Rex’s accountant and executor, Ken Hanks, who’s still going at the age of 93. I also recorded an interview with remarkable collector, Marlene Burston, who has one of the best private collections of British art in England. My visiting her in Belgravia was astounding, really, and she shared a memorable story concerning Rex’s generosity.
Through Maggie I also met a delightful woman who had been her predecessor in the Redfern Gallery. Antonia or Toni Garosh as she was when she worked there. Toni had her wedding reception in the Redfern Gallery at Nan Kivell’s suggestion in 1961. Here she is on her wedding day at the Redfern with various photographs taken by James Mortimer whose photographs we hold in the collection here. She’s obviously there. In the middle on the right standing next to the waiter are Harry Tatlock Miller and on the left his partner, Loudon Sainthill.
Oh the other image I should have said there's Rex Nan Kivell fiddling with his coat and laughing, something you don’t see very often, he seems to have been rather camera-shy. It might have been his teeth or he just didn’t like having his photograph taken perhaps.
So Toni who I met and spent a day with told some extraordinary stories, really quite remarkable stories, some of which are not fit for repeating here but they’ll go in the book one way or another. Each of these interviews filled in crucial information about the collector and his complicated and productive life. His work ethic, his sense of humour, his generosity, his tightness with money also, his kindly nature, his sex life, what he wore – he liked bow ties, his habits – he didn’t drink or smoke, for example, and lived fairly simply but he did have a love for fast, expensive cars. Bentleys and Rolls Royces generally but he also purchased Baron von Ribbentrop’s special Mercedes when he exited London in a hurry. Hitler drove the same model apparently which sold in 2009 to a Russian collector for £5m. Slightly creepy footnote to the Nan Kivell story.
What came out of speaking to all these people are - his associates was that they clearly loved him even while recognising that he could be a rogue. One of the stories Antonia told me very briefly was that he used to get high-quality prints from a particular magazine called [Kia Dazar] 17:45 and he’d take the prints out by Matisse, Bonnard, Vuillard, Picasso and he had rubber stamps made up. He’d just stamp them and sell them for not full price but for a kind of modest nice return so he was doing rather well out of that, kept them going through the lean times. Slightly unorthodox but people have done worse. That’s Toni with her wedding gift from Nan Kivell, that little side table and the painting by [Seri] 18:23 Richards. She’s still alive and kicking.
Interestingly Rex Nan Kivell occasionally used to refer in his correspondence to his old damp Elizabethan place down in the country in which he stored his collection. Intrigued I looked through his papers and eventually came across this single colour photograph of Sundial House, Corton [Whilps] 18:44. He’s got the most terrible writing you can imagine. Then later another image of the Bentley parked out the front.
As you can see it is a simple Georgian house dating 1775, not Elizabethan obviously, and it sports a sundial. I visited and eventually found the house – I found the house first via Google maps eventually and visited it last September whereupon I met Richard Witt, the farmer that owns Sundial Farm and used to own the house. It’s quite a substantial, nice house. It was an interesting set of events that led us to that point but the little round window on the end here is – that’s the port hole window that Rex Nan Kivell had in his room. So basically I met Richard, he used to own the farm. I later recorded an interview with him and he’d known Rex since he was born. He’s now 74 and has a twin brother and was full of stories about Rex.
The two boys lose him and they used to help carry art and books up and down the tiny staircase into their Great-aunt Lillian or Nin's attic. I then met the current owner and then stood in her attic quietly contemplating the fact that Nan Kivell had stored thousands of items in this space miles away from wartime bombing and possible theft. It was a slightly surreal moment. It’s now a teenage daughter’s bedroom as you can probably see.
As kids Rex used to bring the twins boxes of nougat and presents from nearby Bath where Bayntun’s Bindery still exists and where Nan Kivell spent a fortune over decades having his books bound, slip-cased, covered and restored. It seemed Nan Kivell had found a loving family who he maintained contact with for most of his life. Some might be cynical and think it was just opportunistically using their generosity however the warmth effused by Richard when speaking about Rex suggested otherwise.
So it transpires Rex’s country house was actually owned by Auntie Nin and that Nan Kivell stored his collection there and had a free room at his disposal for 40 years. Nin loved him and prepared special meals when she knew Rex and his offsider, Mizouni Nouari, were driving down in the Bentley for the weekend. Mizouni, who was in Nan Kivell’s life for 35 years, has been cast by some researchers as Nan Kivell’s live-in lover, chauffeur and general factotum. It’s always interesting to question such assumptions.
When I asked Richard who the person was in this photograph next to the corn dollies in his shed he said ruefully it was Angela, his sister. Angela was a champion corn dolly maker. She was also eight years older than the twins and had a romantic relationship with Mizouni for years. He would borrow the Bentley and take her out to dinner, go dancing, go to the movies, always getting noticed because they were turning up in such an amazing car. People would actually leave the picture theatre to come and look at the car rather than go to the movie.
Maggie, Gordon and Antonia all relay the same message about Mizouni. He’d been married and fathered a son, Rashid, but had later divorced so it turns out Mizouni was something of a lady’s man. The relationship with Nan Kivell was of a different cast, I believe. He had picked up Mizouni in Algeria in the 1940s and brought him to London where he organised to have him cured of his TB and Mizouni became an indispensable part of Rex Nan Kivell’s life. I think he grew to see him much more as a son and heir despite the apparent class, ethnic, sexual and religious differences. Tall, well built, exotic and good-looking Mizouni had many flings and a passionate relationship with the daughter of the Queen’s long-serving private secretary, one of the most influential figures in Britain.
Nan Kivell’s life strongly often seems to be linked to those in power and those with influence. Sir Anthony Blunt, the keeper of the Queen’s pictures and spy, was also a good friend before the fall at least. Without the love and support of a network of people like Auntie Nin and godmother, Fanny, and more strategic contacts Nan Kivell would not have succeeded the way he did. Certainly Fanny’s financial support both before and after her death in 1934 led to Nan Kivell’s success in putting the Redfern Gallery on the map. He sold paintings to the Queen Mother and to the Queen and to many other famous Britons such as Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud, John Mills, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, they were all sort of friends and associates. Ask me more questions at the end if you're interested in hearing a bit more, I can’t do them justice tonight.
Another interesting discovery I made through my English research was Audrey Russell’s great friends with Nan Kivell. She was not only the first female BBC radio news reporter and the first female accredited war reporter but she became a distinctive voice known in every British home. She broadcast the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II live in 1953 and also the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965. We’ve held a 1970 radio recording here which is an interview of Rex Nan Kivell being questioned by an unidentified woman. Well it is in fact Audrey Russell who has a very distinctive voice. The unfortunately rather brief interview is not yet digitised. It’s significant that the famous Audrey Russell gave the eulogy in St Paul’s Cathedral Chapel as part of Nan Kivell’s memorial service in 1977.
During Nan Kivell’s life the Redfern Gallery specialised in modern – British modernist painting and printmaking and then in French postimpressionism and European modernism. He had joined the gallery in 1925 and ultimately it was the boom in value of this post-war art that ensured Nan Kivell could acquire the outstanding Australasian collection he did and which we are now lucky enough to own. Nan Kivell’s hold on the gallery from the 1930s was strategically engineered through his funds via Fanny Hulbert and through alliances with key figures in the aristocracy and individual arts, business, theatre and cinema worlds.
I will come to one business partner in a moment but first as an example Charles Laughton, the British actor, was perhaps his closest friend and as an almost exact contemporary. Unlike Nan Kivell who served rather ungallantly in world war one and was punished for various infractions Laughton was gassed as part of the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion. In his oral history Nan Kivell claimed to have been gassed in the famous Messines raid then later in the BBC interview claiming that he just luckily missed out because he had the ‘flu. One of those switches that seems to happen regularly.
In reality Nan Kivell was in a New Zealand Army field hospital working as an orderly. I believe that he was protected from the perils at the front by a patron, an officer higher up in the command who I’m trying to identify. Laughton, married to Elsa Lanchester, was gay and a major art lover and collector and survived the war and went on to fame and fortunate, obviously. Nan Kivell was devastated when Laughton died in 1962.
It’s interesting to look at this image Nan Kivell captured presumably of his hospital attic room. Far from the privations of the front it looks comfortable and significantly features tin books and numerous postcards and photographs stuck to the wall. It looks like the bedroom of a visually engaged young student and Nan Kivell was a keen reader. It seems the processes of reinvention were underway as soon as he arrived, age 18, in England.
During the war Nan Kivell was surprisingly discharged to study at Imperial College and he’d only gone to level 10 and studied bookbinding after that so this seemed rather unlikely. So rather than to fight – this is something which also doesn’t seem to have occurred, that is, his army records certainly shows he was released to study at Imperial College but there seems to be no record of that happening when I checked. Most peculiar.
So what was he doing for a year or more until formally discharged? It seems to be a bit of a mystery however based on hundreds of photographs held here and recently digitised it is possible – well I think it may be possible that he escaped to Egypt with the aid of a benefactor if these images can be believed. The photographs we hold seem to suggest a serious interest in Egyptian antiquities and he’s also quite a good and imaginative photographer. I like the one of the cow particularly. It is possible that he didn’t take the Egyptian images, of course, but if that is the case then what was he still up to between 1917 and 1918/19?
Nan Kivell’s existing photographs also reveal a strong interest in medieval architecture, castles, historic sites, fortresses, statutery and ruins. Stonehenge in Wiltshire features as well. By the end of the war on his military will as you can see here he has evolved from Reginald Nankivell, one word, into Rex de Charambac Nan Kivell, a young man on a mission.
It is interesting that in the early 1920s in Wiltshire, a locus of Nan Kivell activity throughout his life, he becomes enmeshed in archaeological digs and generates a considerable horde of antiquities which he scrupulously records, documents and artfully sketches and paints in watercolour as seen here. In 1930 he then gives the whole collection to the [Divisors] 29:45 Archaeological Museum in Wiltshire which is now the Wiltshire Museum. This is his first act of beneficence and it consisted of well over 300 plus items. Some are displayed in the museum today and you can see some in that photograph, top right. I visited the museum last year and took these photographs of his sketchbooks held in their archive and also of their displays and he’s not a bad hand at a watercolour either.
I believe any rough edges in Nan Kivell’s post-war English life was smoothed to an extent by a patron or possibly a number of patrons who were probably also homosexual. These associates seem to have assisted him to prosper and to become the debonair young chap he became at the centre of the London art world. Nan Kivell claimed the High Court judge for whom he claimed he worked part-time as a marshal on the District Court Circuit for 10 – or if you believe him 15 – years, introduced him to the original owners of the Redfern Gallery, Arthur Knyvett-Lee and Anthony Maxtone Graham. There is no record of this marshalling arrangement in the archives with the Courts of Justice either but I believe it may have been a private understanding which he negotiated to his benefit.
He was young, gay, relatively alone other than Fanny, without many means and vulnerable but obviously canny from an early age. It seems to me he found a way to work the system to his favour. He had already transformed himself at least on paper from Reginald Nankivell to the dandy Rex de Charambac Nan Kivell and this sits comfortably with the creation of a new persona which will be more appealing to the elite he would later go on to sell art to. But also to any opportunistic men who had means and wanted companionship, sex and possibly to make some money from supporting a young art dealer in the making.
Post-war Nan Kivell was linked to the so-called Bright Young Things, a nickname given by the British press to a group of Bohemian young aristocrats and socialites in 1920s London. In the post-war depression era they threw elaborate fancy dress parties, went on extended treasure hunts through night-time London and drank heavily and often took drugs as well. Evelyn Waugh satirises them rather beautifully in Vile Bodies published in 1930.
Among Nan Kivell’s associations was Napier Alington known as Naps to his friend. A couple of years older than Rex and a bright young thing Captain Napier George Henry Sturt, 3rd Baron Alington was a British peer. He was born in 1896 and succeeded to the Barony in 1919 on the death of his father and he’d served in the first world war in the RAF. He owned the Crichel House Estate in Dorset which you can see here. Naps married Lady Mary Sibell Ashley-Cooper, daughter of Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 9th Earl of Shaftesbury in 1928 and they had one child, Mary Anna Sibell Elizabeth Sturt. So they’re related to Sturt, the explorer which is interesting.
Alington is probably best remembered for having an affair with the actress, Tallulah Bankhead in the 1920s. He was described as well cultivated, bisexual with sensuous meaty lips, a distant antic charm, a history of mysterious disappearances and a streak of cruelty. His bisexuality was well known.
Naps was associated with Nan Kivell as his partner in the Redfern Gallery from 1930. He brought connections, good looks, reputation and no doubt some useful funds to the operations of the gallery as it rode through the depression. Nan Kivell became the gallery’s managing director in 1931. On this invitation you can see both their names from an exhibition in 1933. Nan Kivell and Naps were lovers for a time and they remained very close. Naps sadly was to die early during the second world war from pneumonia while serving in the RAF in Cairo, aged only 43.
Significantly Nan Kivell launched the Grosvenor School of Printmakers through the Redfern Gallery through – during the depression. The coloured lino cut prints were made as cheaper contemporary art which middleclass collectors might afford. The best known of these prints today sell for around £100,000. The artists including Claude Fleiss, Cyril Power, Sybil Andrews, Lil Sudy and the Australian women, Doret Black, Ethel Spouse and Eveline Syme were inspired by Italian futurism and the English variant, Vorticism, led by the painter, Wyndham Lewis.
The dynamism and imagery of the modern machine age exemplified by life in a large city the scenes of the tube, of bus travel, of fun fairs, fast cars, sport etc were popular. A survey exhibition of the Grosvenor School has been curated by Gordon Samuel who I mentioned earlier and is being opened soon in London at the Dulwich Picture Gallery with an accompanying major catalogue which acknowledges Nan Kivell’s early role in promoting and showing these artists.
It is worth mentioning that in 1953 Nan Kivell generously gave 1,300 prints including important works by Grosvenor School artists to the four major galleries in New Zealand. Today collectively they would be worth many millions of dollars. It is unclear however whether he actually ever owned these works in the first place to give them away so that’s something that needs to be tied down a little more.
While being gay was not only illegal but dangerous for a young man out of his provincial environment Nan Kivell seems to have found a way into the parallel world that operated for gay men in the period. Homosexual sex was not to be legalised in England until 1967 and Nan Kivell knew men that had been prosecuted and jailed. Friends. He was 69 by the time the law was changed and had been very lucky not to have been caught out as he took considerable risks to have sex, usually transacted for money with a motley crew of rough blokes, one of whom, little Jimmy, who may have had affiliations with Ronnie Cray, the gay identical twin gangster murderer and psychopath. Ronnie Cray interestingly for a time lived around the corner from Nan Kivell in Bohemian Fitzrovia with his dangerous brother – not so dangerous as Reggie but – Ronnie – living with his brother, Reggie, literally in the next street.
Fitzrovia was a haven for artists, eccentrics, mavericks, writers, it was the home of the BBC, the fashion industry and it was to be Nan Kivell’s home for most of his life in London. In a drab tenement-like basement flat here on Gosfield Street, in which he lived rather simply other than for the works of art on his walls as you can see here, he has a little Manet, of Berthe Morisot above his head. He has a painting by a follower of Bosch which is quite an interesting one. I worked it out from the leg on that picture sticking out there on the top left, is actually the leg of the skeleton figure there. Also quite a famous – by Charles Cordier as you can read there.
He also lived with a very famous Gaugin self-portrait which is now in the Musee D'orsay, a Matisse and important prints by Picasso, Clay, Braque, Bonnard, Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec etc. Other better known 20th century residents of Fitzrovia included the artist, Sir Augustus John, Walter Sickert and he showed both of them at times. And Wyndham Lewis, writer and actor, Quentin Crisp, the poet, Dylan Thomas, the occultist, Aleister Crowley, the artist and writer, Nina Hamnett, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell so it was a pretty action-packed neighbourhood. Charles Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester, lived there too, about five minutes away from Nan Kivell’s subterranean flat on Gosfield Street.
In 1941 having survived the London blitz and his career ascended new heights, Nan Kivell was trading his way through the war as part of the war effort. The threat of bombing was catalytic and he’s beginning to think more seriously about what to do with his now large and vulnerable collection. Many London galleries had shut down and a close call with a bomb allegedly led to Nan Kivell having to empty the art from his gallery storeroom while bomb squad experts diffused an unexploded bomb through the wall next door.
Nan Kivell however had another unexpected bombshell ticking and I acknowledge my colleague and friend, Gary Kent, for this tipoff. As you can see here he was arrested for receiving stolen goods, two typewriters, to be specific. This newspaper story mentions the recent death of his friend and business partner, Naps Alington. For a normal mortal a public humiliation of this kind especially while working at the centre of the trust-reliant art world would have been fatal. For Nan Kivell he seemed to have just brushed it off and kept on selling and buying more stuff. This says something about his resilience but also his ability to talk his way out of difficulties and to convince people of another narrative. I’m sure it no doubt would have been a miscarriage of justice. He would have made a great PR agent and in one sense he was one.
I’m going to leave Nan Kivell’s life there tonight ‘cause I don’t want to give you too much to think about and we’ll look at now – at some of his natural history collecting as an example both of the richness of his collecting but also what it perhaps reveals about him.
Naturally history illustration is a strength of his collection not just in books but also in watercolour, in engraving and in lithography. Thankfully there are not stuffed koalas or stuffed birds. Here you can see a wonderful collection of New Zealand pressed ferns. He also has within the collection a lovely collection of New Zealand pressed mosses. Images coloured and uncoloured were pressed into the thousands of pages of books which Nan Kivell collected and as you’ve just seen a complement of delicate specimens of real New Zealand ferns, mosses and seaweeds.
The remarkable diversity of Australian and New Zealand natural flora and fauna fascinated the indigenous occupants of the lands they rightly owned here for many millennia and in the case of Aotearoa for more than seven centuries. The earliest descriptions, both written and painted, of the plants and animals and even the human inhabitants fascinated Nan Kivell too. His collection richly catalogues the discovery of life in the Pacific in all its splendour and diversity. From Cook’s Endeavour artist, Sydney Parkinson’s depiction of the bread fruit here from Tahiti to Thomas Martyn's Universal Conchologist, the most beautiful shell book ever produced, to Captain John Hunter’s extraordinary first fleet sketchbook from Port Jackson in 1788 to 1790 which Nan Kivell referred to as the jewel in the crown of his collection. From singular items depicting plants, trees and marsupials including birds in their thousands and numerous insects and shells to watercolour landscapes awash with eucalypts, banksia, ferns and Kourie.
Here we can see a selection of delightful plates from the Naturalist's Miscellany, Vivarium Naturae produced between 1789 and 1813 by George Shaw in London with illustrations by Frederick Polydore Nodder. The British artist, Nodder also worked for Joseph Banks on his famed Florilegium publication and was also the botanical artist at Queen Charlotte and produced engravings for John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales.
Within this set collected by Nan Kivell there were well over 500 loose coloured plates but he also collected two further bound sets running to dozens of beautiful leather-bound volumes. Nan Kivell’s commitment to acquiring such imagery, no matter the cost, implied storage issues or heft to transport and handle was really remarkable. I must say it’s wonderful being able to compare the different versions of the same colour images across his collection.
One can do this also with his copies of Thomas Martyn’s book, The Universal Conchologist which I just mentioned before. This printing and hand-colouring project documenting the shells arising from Cook’s voyages was epic and exhausting. Martyn trained numerous young boys from good homes, he said, to paint in watercolour the paired shells arranged on the page. Each one of the copies had to be identical to the numerous other copies offered by subscription. The result was fabulous but Martyn’s ambition to continue the project with more volumes was quashed. The volume is however the greatest highlight of conchological book-collecting and of course Nan Kivell had two sets, not one. One bound set and one volume unbound.
Nan Kivell’s collection also holds surprising natural history collection firsts. This image of the Poa or Tui bird from New Zealand takes the credit of being the first coloured mezzotint print in history. A stuffed specimen of a Tui was taken back to England by Joseph Banks and given to his friend, the bird-mad collector, Marmaduke Tunstall. This bird was later published as you see here by the Danish-born natural history artist, Peter Brown, in his engaging volume, New Illustrations of Zoology which is in the middle. That was in 1776. The New Zealand Creeper, he called it.
The image of the Tui became the first New Zealand bird ever published. However in London earlier the same year a multiply-awarded young, ambitious engraver, Robert Laurie, saw the opportunity to both make some money and to make a name for himself. He laboriously created the Poa in a five-colour printed rendering of the Tui. The revolutionary coloured mezzotinto print suitably impressed the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts and Laurie, still only 20 years of age or in his juvenile state, as he put it, was required to print two copies of his coloured Poa not long after completion of Cook’s second voyage.
Laurie’s Poa was probably modelled on a taxidermied Tui collected on Cook’s second New Zealand visit when the crew had more success in its bird-collecting, Ultimately Laurie was awarded 30 guineas as a premium for his ingenuity which was a lot of money at the time. Only seven coloured-lettered copies like this one belong – which belonged to Rex Nan Kivell exist today. In his early typed catalogue of his collection he listed the Poa as a very rare important print. The collector was certainly accurate in that assessment and the Library is lucky to own a copy. The British Museum only acquired theirs as recently as 2010.
The death possibly by suicide of Sir Ashton Lever in 1788 was a quiet footnote to one of the greatest chapters in the collection and display of the world’s natural and artificial curiosities. Having been – first been divested through a public lottery in 1786 then moved and augmented Lever’s remarkable collection of nearly 30,000 items was finally auctioned off in 1806. Enmeshed in the Leverian story was a young woman whose skill as a painter matched the demands of her obsessive employer.
Sarah Stone, born in 1760, happily toiled for Lever in the Holophusicon, his private museum of wonders, and documented many of his treasured specimens. Her engaging watercolours ranging from birds and bats to bivalves were excised from Lever’s lottery signalling their importance to him and their range. Lever could contemplate her faithful drawings as a simulacra while lamenting the loss of his collection.
The young artist continued to paint as the collection evolved into the Leverian Museum through its new owner, the lucky ticketholder, James Parkinson, a law stationer. For a time and for half a crown visitors could view Lever’s memorable objects and Stone’s images of them in well-heated rooms, brightening even London’s dullest day.
Stone’s well known image of the Holophusicon interior which you just saw gives the viewers one into the white painted rooms, contrasting the plumage and forms of countless birds with the endless variety of shells, wet specimens and trophied horns. All were offset with a welcoming stuffed elephant and an Eskimo kayak. Must have been pretty extraordinary.
Stone’s first watercolours may have been made as a small child and she lived to the venerable age of 82. We do know that she exhibited at the Society of Artists and at the Royal Academy and created a series of paintings from specimens sent to England by first fleet surgeon, John White. Stone bought the intriguing fauna to life. Some almost seemed to exhibit personality as you can see here in this pairing. This was a major achievement given the gutted skins she was working with.
The extraordinary Colony Australia exhibition held last year at the National Gallery of Victoria included Stone’s interior of the Leverian Museum and the Library’s birds which you can see on the screen. Encountering the surprising array of nature here posed challenges for many artists, irrespective of their skill set. Artists had to overcome antipodean improbabilities, kangaroos, platypuses, wombats and koalas all proved difficult. Birds were better served as can be seen here in these two spirited but delicate watercolours. The cocky and the kookaburra look to each other in the exhibition almost as if in a dialogue but what were their original names?
In 1793 two New Hollanders were recorded as visitors to the Leverian Museum. These men must have been Bennelong and [Yemrawani] 49:47, his companion, the indigenous Australians who travelled to England with Arthur Phillip. Looking through the displays they may well have sighted the birds with their keen eyes and softly spoken their names, [Gurraway] 50:03 and Kookaburra.
Recently while researching undigitised works in Nan Kivell’s collection I found this, a new find, NK231, catalogued as a parrot of New South Wales by WR. The catalogue record for the watercolour makes reference to it being a copy of the John White image from his journal of a voyage to New South Wales. What the original cataloguer seems to have overlooked is that it would appear to be an original and hitherto unrecognised Sarah Stone watercolour of the rainbow lorikeet or Blue Bellied Parrot, albeit from a later date, post 1816 but following the John White journal images.
The work is painted on paper clearly watermarked Jay Larkin, 1816. A signature inscription under the WR initials has been largely erased. It would appear then that Stone produced another copy of the popular rainbow lorikeet image for a collector which finally made its way to Rex Nan Kivell. This is the kind of discovery one loves to make and such treasures can still be found amongst the Nan Kivell collection. Here you can compare the rainbow lorikeet to the printed version in White’s journal and also to another naïve rather stretch-necked version of which Nan Kivell has four or so by the same artist of these strange-looking birds. So you can call up all three and look at the three of them at the same time in the reading room.
We can also investigate the early development of natural history representation of a single species through Nan Kivell’s collection, in this case at the other end of the earth. The polar bear or white bear as it was first known to Europeans was sighted, killed and documented and memorialised. Here you can see John Webber’s iconic drawing of the bear from Cook’s final voyage in contrast with Frederick W Beachy’s drawing from two decades later. You can also see how Webber’s image makes its way into Cook’s official published account via engraver, Peter Mazel in 1784 on the left and how then the animal is reimagined as the polar bear for the famous naturalist, Thomas Pennant’s History of Quadrupeds printed in London in 1793. Or for a 20th century representation we can even see Nan Kivell’s own photograph of the polar bears in the zoo in Glasgow.
The extraordinary story of Nan Kivell acquiring nearly 130 17th century natural history watercolours which had been in the Royal Library after they’d left their original owner, the collector, Cassiano dal Pozzo in Rome via a Cardinal and then a Pope and then George III, is too complex to relate in detail here and I have spoken about it before. However this lovely coot still held here and painted by Vincenzo Leonardi in about 1630 in Rome did not get repatriated to the Queen by Rex Nan Kivell in 1976. This was the year in which Nan Kivell received his long, long-awaited knighthood. He was to die only a year later in London by which time the Royal Library were reunited with their splendid drawings.
I am pleased to say that this library has just recently purchased the voluminous catalogue, [Rezinet] 53:39 set, assembled by the Royal Library of these extraordinary images from Cassiano’s paper museum. I’ve brought the volumes here tonight so if you’d like to look at them I’ve marked up most of the ones that were owned by Nan Kivell with orange tags if you want to have a look.
Now to finish up tonight with some of Nan Kivell’s collection of delicate specimens of New Zealand seaweeds. These items are surprisingly robust survivors of centuries past and provided the collector with more potential to invent narrative. While the delicate scent of these sampled pieces of pristine environments have faded they still radiate an aura of foreign places and times. They were once keenly picked and handled among the various ecosystems of New Zealand. No doubt the species were gathered along the foreshore – the seashore, the mountain trail and the woody forest in an effort to entertain, to educate and to enthuse local family and friends.
This amateur collecting was also a way of acclimatising to a new home and engaging with family 20,000km away to the north. Such collecting also enabled dialogue and specimen-swapping with keen citizen scientists of the colonial era in different places. These delightful pressed forms are also a barometer of sorts of the diversity of ecosystems now under threat in a way that the original collectors and later Nan Kivell could not begin to imagine. The billowing smoke stacks of the industrial revolution in the northern hemisphere while being gritty and annoying daily reminders of progress in the British Isles were in fact the beginning of the end which is now in sight.
Maori and Pakeha looked out to the pristine skies of Aotearoa in the 19th century and could not have imagined the consequences of this exploding carbon overload. Even the idea that the two worlds were somehow connected other than by ships would have seemed a slightly arcane idea. The swirling vortices of wind and sea would bring their toxic loads into the once pristine Pacific.
Nan Kivell seems to have collected New Zealand natural history specimens in particular. This harvesting from afar of pieces of his homeland is telling in some ways. His lack of resolve to return home to revisit his troubled past and his deep nostalgia for the beaches of Christchurch perhaps enthused him to collect in New Zealand in an almost granular way. Piece by piece, each fern frond and seaweed branch ensured his collection grew organically and no doubt to the delight of the collector, sometimes these albums of pressings had pleasing provenances.
The first example seen here was catalogued by the collector as being collected and cross-referenced in New Zealand by his great-grandmother, Mrs William Nankivell, in 1850. The samples are delightful and carefully presented with a seemingly accurate taxonomic description. I do not think there is any chance that Nan Kivell’s granny produced this scholarly grouping of seaweeds. He has created a pleasing if improbable family provenance for an object which probably didn’t have one or overrode an existing one. As I said at the beginning he was collecting stories around objects as well as the objects themselves and sometimes engineered them when it suited his upwardly mobile trajectory.
This Nan Kivell seaweed album however has a much more assured provenance through its inscription, 30 Taranaki seaweeds for Gemma from Charles M Clarke, 13th of October 1861. The giver is presumably Sir Charles Mansfield Clarke, KCB, Adjutant to the 57th Regiment during the New Zealand Maori war and later Governor of Malta. The dedicatee would seem to be his wife, Gemma Cecilia Adams, who died as late as 1922. There is no attempt at taxonomic analysis or documentation, it is a gift of love and of dedication. It also demonstrates to the researcher the amateur colonial interest in collecting the endemic species of an outpost of the empire.
This collection of seaweeds has what Nan Kivell would have regarded as the perfect provenance. Colenso, the collector, and early New Zealand settler, was a very notable ‘though ambiguous figure. He trained as a bookbinder and printer just like Nan Kivell and more desirable still was a natural historian from Cornwall where Nan Kivell’s family roots lay. I think this album was like a kind of talisman to Nan Kivell. The album of William Colenso’s personal collection of pressed seaweed starting in Penzance and continuing later in New Zealand, circa 1830 to 1840 - it’s a great title – is an object which connected Nan Kivell’s family past in Cornwall with his predecessor’s past in New Zealand and through a famous figure. It would have been gold to the collector.
The long-lived Cornish-born printer, missionary, botanist and politician, William Colenso was an inveterate collector of natural history specimens in New Zealand and wrote about them widely. He was a passionate natural historian and arrived in Paihia, New Zealand in 1834. The following year he met Charles Darwin when he visited on The Beagle, 1835. He later became firm friends with Australian botanist and collector, Alan Cunningham and his brother. He also became a lifelong friend of and correspondent with John Dalton Hooker and with his father also who visited on HMS Erebus. Interestingly both the Hooker father and son were Directors of Kew Gardens so Rex was in illustrious company with this connection.
Colenso’s life in New Zealand encompassed printing translations of the Bible and pamphlets into Maori and he roamed widely fulsomely collecting specimens which he sometimes shoved down the front of his shirt to protect them on his horse. Eventually his evangelism, work ethic, abrasiveness and infidelity with a Maori friend counted against him.
For his scientific contributions ultimately however he was made a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1865 and in 1886 became a Fellow of the Royal Society. Nan Kivell prized Colenso’s printings and acquired numerous items produced by New Zealand’s early visitor. Dozens of his books, pamphlets as well as his manuscript items and a photographic portrait were collected.
The arc of Colenso’s experience from printer in Penzance, Cornwall to Minister of religion in New Zealand piqued Nan Kivell’s interest. To an extent it mirrored that of his indomitable forebears as he referred to them. Also early settlers to New Zealand from Cornwall, ‘though not from Penzance. Also the fact that the seaweeds collected spanned both the Cornish shore of the English Channel and the beaches of New Zealand would I think appeal to the collector. Further, Colenso’s marital issues and the birth of his illegitimate son, Wiremu, to Ripeka Meretene, a Maori woman, a servant in the family home has a strange resonance with Nan Kivell’s own family history which was very difficult.
His mother was a domestic working in the neighbourhood for quite a prosperous fellow called [Bwyatt] 1:57 and he seems to have raped her or interfered with her and Alice, his mother, gives birth at the age of 18 and - outside of Christchurch - so the whole thing’s hushed up and he’s brought up by his grandparents thinking they’re his parents.
In his epic book, Portraits of the Famous and Infamous, finally published in 1975, Nan Kivell describes Colenso as the Caxton of New Zealand, a typically Nan Kivellian flourish. His apprenticeship as a Christchurch bookbinder seems to inform the next part of his description. Colenso, he says, set up the first New Zealand printing press of which he was the compositor, printer, binder and distributor, roles that Nan Kivell understood well from his training. He continues to catalogue Colenso’s friendships and achievements in the book.
What is curious, considering Nan Kivell’s bruised psyche given his illegitimate origins in New Zealand, is the comment with which he concludes his assessment of Colenso. In 1852 he was deprived of his deacon’s office for having a natural child. So much for the appalling enlightenment of the missionary’s superintendents when he, Colenso, had so much to offer. This sounds like a cry from the heart to me. Unlike Colenso who heavily wore the public shame arising from his affair and the presence of his son, Wiremu, Nan Kivell managed to escape the odium of bastardry. It was a fact well hidden and tucked neatly into his past like a furtive note inserted into the pages of a library book waiting for somebody to possibly find it. Luckily for his composure, sense of status and self-worth his dirty secret was not to be aired during his lifetime.
Well to close I’d like to say happy birthday to Rex Nan Kivell today, thank you for providing us with such a extraordinary collection and with an equally extraordinary life story. I hope I can do them both justice. Thank you.
K: Thanks, Nat, and you’ve stolen my thunder a little bit because I was sitting there thinking how much I loved the idea of the collection being a self-portrait of the collector and that Rex has given us a collection that is as extraordinary – or maybe even not quite as extraordinary –
N: Perhaps not quite.
K: - as his own life has turned out to be. We’ve got time for a few questions if anyone would like to ask some questions this evening. There’s microphones with Ros and Aaron. Oh we’ve got a gentleman here and Aaron’s on his way with a microphone for you.
A: Thanks very much, Nat, that was fascinating. Now my question is do you have an anticipated publication target for your book?
N: That’s the old question, isn’t it? It’s a bit rubbery like how long is a piece of string? I hope to – I’m structuring it in a way which I think will work. One is the narrative of his life, birth to death with all the various stories thrown in but then beside those there are essays that look at his collection because there’s not much point in doing it if I don’t talk about the collection. So the collection stories, I’ve managed to write six, seven, eight of those so far out of perhaps 12 or something like that and they are really telling funny or very revealing stories about his psyche and the way he went about things in the art world of the time and the antiquarian world and you can do that through looking at aspects of his collecting which is always entertaining with the overriding arch. I think I need one more trip to London probably to try to run two people to ground to work out a couple of missing figures but I think within the next two years I’d like to have it done.
A: [unclear] 5:59.
N: Yes, oh yeah, no. Me too. Anyone else?
A: Just a wonderful talk so thank you so much, it was both entertaining and also enlightening. Fantastic. You’ve shown us the connection from the – Christchurch to London and England at that time. Where does Australia fit into the story?
N: That’s a very good question. Well what happened was Nan Kivell’s family just quickly split into two branches, one that came to Australia – that’s an interesting story – and one that stayed in New Zealand. One that came to Australia did incredibly well. His great-great-uncle or whatever it was was the wealthiest man in Australia for a time. They had sugar plantations. Maie Casey was married into that branch of the family, married to Richard Casey and the Governor General etc, Government minister. She’s in London in the ‘40s en route to America when he was posted to Washington and she meets Rex and they establish they’re family related in some way, sort of distantly.
She sees his collection and just thinks this is extraordinary and it’s just the right timing because it’s just after the war. Well in fact I think it’s actually still during the war and he’s thinking what am I going to do if a bomb comes down and takes all this out and all this effort’s been to nothing? So she basically comes back and starts getting the National Library involved so that’s about 19 – in the mid-‘40s. 1948 he sends out 1,300 fantastic pieces from the collection as a kind of teaser to Canberra and says here are some things, look after them, you can publish them, whatever. The gist of it is that that starts a dialogue with the Library, particularly with Harold White who saw the value of it immediately as did Menzies, to his credit. Took them 11 years ‘though to work through with Treasury – surprise, surprise – how to pay for it. They paid £70,000 in two tranches six years apart so he got 70,000 when it was probably worth at least three, £400,000 at the time and he then spent all the rest of that money on buying another collection which he gave us.
So the Australian connection was he wanted a knighthood, Australia fronted up with one via London quicker than the New Zealanders who weren’t interested at all. In fact there’s a very interesting quote I read somewhere in a biography of Colenso which when he has a portrait done by Gottfried Lindauer who’s a very famous New Zealand painter of Maoris but he does a portrait of Colenso. When he does the unveiling of it somebody who’s there says publicly that people in New Zealand always thought a sportsman was much more important than any man with an idea. That in a way is kind of – that was in 1860. That was still persisting in 1960 and Nan Kivell wasn’t socially apt enough to be considered for knighthood so when they had 12 knighthoods to give out for the Queen visit in 1954 he was reliably told he would get one and he didn’t and that was like right, write them off, we’re going full steam with plan B which is Australia. Now it wasn’t plan B but there was a thought that he might have split the collection up but he didn’t really want to do that ‘cause he saw it more valuable being together so that’s the story.
No more questions? We can – I’ll remind you about the books if you want to come and have a look.
K: Do come and have a look at the books. Nat’s able to do this wonderful deep research into the Library’s collection as our Treasures Curator because of support from the Australian Government through their Catalyst Australian Arts and Culture Fund. They have funded the position for us which is an amazing gift to the Library, really. We are also blessed to have a number of National Library patrons who support our Treasures Access programs and allow us to present events like this and our Treasures dinner on the 26th of April so I hope you might think about joining us for that dinner when we’ll be looking at another one of our extraordinary collections, that of photographer, Frank Hurley.
On that note I’d like to close the evening, thank you all for coming, thank you to those of you who are joining us online but especially let’s thank Sir Rex and Nat for a wonderful evening.
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