James Turkington: Artist (1895 – 1979)

“ If one was to talk about art in the 1940’s and 50’s in Auckland then the name James Turkington would appear as often as Vernon Brown’s or Rex Fairburn’s did in architecture and literature..!”

Turkington’s presence was felt across nearly all of the areas of visual arts in the country for almost four decades. A man of great kindness and warmth, he was admirable in deed as in thought, and loved by those who knew him. James Turkington was in many ways larger than life although his upbringing had been fraught with drama and hardship, all of which he transcended to follow his passions.

He was born in Moire, County Down, Belfast Ireland two years before the family moved to Pukerau in 1897 where his father started business as a wheelwright and blacksmith. At an early age James’s talent for drawings was recognised by the nuns at Gore where he at age 10 had painted ‘stag at bay’ which was obviously impressive enough to warrant further lessons, although he said they only taught him to paint flowers.

By twelve, the family moving to the north Island, Jim started drawing sketches of Egmont (Mt Taranaki) and selling these to people for sixpence.

Life changed dramatically for him and his seven siblings when their father was killed by a train, and his mother died only months later. The children were then looked after by neighbours and relations although remaining close in the following years.

He later went to Wellington Technical College for two years (1912/13) and studied under Linley Richardson before joining the army where he became a lead gun driver, which meant he was in charge of the horses which pulled and positioned the large artillery for battle, this taking Jim to the killing fields of Passchondale and the Somme.
It was here he would form his life-long philosophy’s of humanitarism – or socialism and communism. In his diary, edited by daughter Patricia he writes of the inhumanity and cruelty inflicted on not only the human participants but the animals unwittingly dragged into the conflict. As a survivor of this most savage and unnecessary slaughter Jim would remain a devout animal and human rights campaigner! And would inevitably become a strident Socialist (and Communist) throughout the rest of his life.

Arriving back in this country after the war Jim spent two years at Elam Art School 1920 -21 before he began working for Chandler & Co, a signwriting and advertising company. It was here he would met his second wife Emily, sister to Pascoe and John Redwood (his first wife having died of a heart attack after barely 3 years marriage). At Chandler’s Jim worked on large scale billboards and facades for cinema’s (The Majestic, the Mayfair & Prince Edward) and it is probably here that he began to paint murals for interiors – the first purportedly an Arabian scene for Rimmer’s Coffee Shop in Karangahape Rd in 1918, although this is in question as he remained in England for a year year or so after his war in Europe and Africa! (More likely the painting was produced in 1920)

The advent of mural painting and the rise of Socialism in this country seem to coincide with Modernist thought arriving around the First World War, although New Zealand already had a vigorous history of socialist action – the Wahi Miners Strike of 1912 and the eight hour working day as promoted by Samuel Parnell, being but two instances!

The mural concept has numerous descendent art forms throughout time including tapestry and fresco, but seemed to resonate all the more resolutely with the ‘workers plight’ and Modernisms particular interest in the white wall.

1924 saw the arrival in Auckland of a young Archie J Fisher, to head up the Elam Art School at Auckland (the same year an even younger Gordon Tovey would paint his first mural in Rodney Pankhurst’s Wellington cabaret). Fisher’s goal was to drag the somewhat moribund school into the new age, although not throwing out the rudiments of good draughting or observation. A man of seriously impressive ability and a sharp mind, Fisher was not averse to treading on delicate toes to make his point. His famous critique of an Auckland Art Gallery show being an early skirmish in a long battle with the traditional elite in this small colonial city.

Luckily, Fisher was not completely alone in his appraisal of the establishment’s artistic renderings. Jim started teaching at Elam in 1925 initially part time as Lettering and Design tutor, leaving 13 years later as Senior Lecturer. He would also work as drawing instructor at the Auckland University College’s School of Architecture, setting exams and teaching, often with the help of a student with advanced skills to oversee some of the classes which he wasn’t able to do. One of these was a young Barton V Gillespie who would also become president of the Auckland Society of Arts and an important architectural designer in the city.

Archie Fisher’s crusade to improve the art school was delivering results, with students like May Smith, entering into study and being accepted into the Royal College of Art in London. A. Lois White who also started in Archie’s early classes would go on to become a long term tutor at the school, as well as helping to develop, along with Jim, the medium/establishment of mural painting in New Zealand and her own unique style. Lois (which was pronounced Loyce) would become a longtime friend and associate of Archie and Jim’s, a Socialist from a strong Mt Albert Christian background. In fact, the political was very often at the core of many enduring relationships.

Over the ensuing years a number of the University College’s staff were to become close friends and associates, and these relationships were initiated and progressed through the WEA and FSU (Friends of the Soviet Union) and the various clubs and groups that existed within and around the University; many had being sparked into existence after the horror of the first World War including the Christchurch Student League of Nations Union one of whom’s founding members Willis Airey would take up a position in Philosophy at Auckland in 1929.

Willis and other supporters of Socialism and Communist thought like R P Anshultz, Archie, Jim, RAK Mason, Bob Lowry, Allen Curnow, Elsie Locke were to become the centre of an often vilified group; at the time castigated, threatened and derided for their beliefs – and in other circumstances, (usually much later in life), held up as models of independent thought. Such were the vagaries of being an artist or free thinker in New Zealand during the mid 1900’s!

Jim’s move from working in the advertising world to the academic, enabled him to peruse other ideas of producing a living from his art. Like many of those in the city with an interest in art (Vernon Brown, Adele Younghusband, Jack Weeks) Jim became a member of the Auckland Society of Arts, exhibiting first in 1925 and becoming an active and regular contributor as well as board member and president from 1959 to 1963. As a member he would be involved with setting up the Society’s exhibitions and teach classes, judge competitions and provide support and workspace for the yearly Arts Ball – inevitably, in later years, much of the preparation would be done in Jim’s garage at Lloyd Ave, Mt Albert before being transferred to the Peter Pan Cabaret.

The Auckland Society of Arts had started in the 1880’s, occupying rooms in the Victoria Arcade, then eventually gaining their own building, a large Kauri house in Eden Crescent. Here the society ran exhibitions, taught art classes and had their meetings. Jim taught classes, usually in the evening after working at Elam and the School of Architecture, as well as sometimes on weekends and also producing work for his growing list of clients. His output and energy was close to phenomenal through over six decades of work in this country, and also off-shore. As such, mural work became a large part of his life outside the regular academic job up until the late 1960’s.
As the 1920’s slowly turned into the 1930, the country was starting to feel the steely grip of a world-wide ‘Depression’ which had in part begun after the Wall Street crisis in 1929. Escalating unemployment and draconian enforcement measures were to create a huge anti-government groundswell fed by the socialist and communist alternative groups which had arisen post WW1. Governmental response to the crisis was slow and late coming, although the Coates Reform government did eventually pass a number of Acts which would benefit the country in the long run, but far too late not to be voted out for the first Labour Government in 1935. Groups like the FSU and the WEA were ‘hotbeds’ of political ferment and action, and as far back as the early 30’s art/and murals were being used to send a message. Sadly, and horrifically Jim Turkington’s , Frank Coventry, John Holmwood and other artists like A. Lois White’s early murals are now non-existent; all it seems, even up until the late 1980’s having been demolished or painted over.! Thus the record of these seminal works is sparse and points out the not only the lack of understanding about their place in New Zealand’s social and art history, but also perhaps the power of political suppression.

Most of these known surviving socialist or anti government art works have only remained with us due to the strength of the organization or Union which they belonged too, as in Dennis Knight Turners paintings for the Tramway’s Union – and these date from a slightly later period.

Another catalyst and outlet for political and topical writing and art was the establishment of “Phoenix”, a student magazine by Robert Lowry with works by Allen Curnow, Rex Fairburn, Ron Mason and numerous others – which in a brief but heroic short life managed to become an iconic piece of literary history. Lowry’s typography and the others razor edged commentary on current affairs struck a chord with many of those questioning the faltering governmental efforts in a time of crisis which the Depression had delivered. The police bashing of Jim Edwards and subsequent ‘Queen St riot’ of April 1932 was pivotal for those still undecided in their form of action. At the time, Jim was painting an interior of a shop and could hear the windows breaking outside.

As in life and politics, the ferment of a very difficult last few years produced a visible reaction in the counties arts, with painters, artists, architects and writers perceptively embracing a distinctively New (Zealand) culture; Allen Curnow’s cry to ‘invent New Zealand’ in 1945 was somewhat belated (although perhaps necessary after the depletion and sacrifice of the Second World War).

By 1936, with a new Labour Government installed the country was in transition. Education and arts were taken on as desperately in need of development. Clarence Beeby was to be made Assistant Director of Education within the year, and was already implementing what would become the genesis of a new approach to childhood development and learning. The ‘New Education Conference’ initiated by Beeby and others would generate phenomenal interest, selling out huge halls across the country as teachers and those interested in education, growth and art sought a way to connect with new advances being made elsewhere in the world. As an maturing artist and teacher Jim was an important figure throughout the countries growing awareness and interest in art and ‘the new’. Seen from the luxury of later life, he might be deemed commercial due to his wide ranging talents and massive output in a number of fields; yet much of his own art was thoroughly of its time and place. The early  paintings of a gasworks roof against a Grey Lynn skyline inhabit a similar territory as those brighter regional works which are now seen as iconic. A delicate pencil study of his own daughter still holds the eye and sits comfortably alongside those of his friends and contemporaries like Russell Clark and John Weeks. It was this skill and observation that Jim would use to feed his growing family, both in the world of the commercial and what was called Fine Arts!

With the decade drawing to a close, and a new war threatening in Europe, the Labour Government had begun drawing up plans for a Centennial Celebration, to mark a 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Celebrations were planned across the nation but the centerpiece was to be at Rongatai in Wellington; a huge Centennial Exhibition based around manufacturing, craft, history and culture displayed throughout a variety of halls and pavilions. Although described as a ‘modern’ exposition, much of the design by Edmund Anscombe seem to be almost ‘Deco’ influenced, with the Australian building being the stand-out modern design.

Many of the exhibitions and buildings featured large mural designs by a variety of artists from throughout the country, friends and contemporaries such as Frank Coventry, Francis Shurrock, John Holmwood, but again it seems none of these works have survived, at least in public collections. Interestingly, Jim’s original 8 panel work in Horace Massey designed Wellington Provincial Centennial Memorial (now the Petone Settlers Museum) was painted over in the 1970’s but was then repainted from photographs by local artists some years later, thus leaving but one partial facsimile of the Centennials many grand and expansive mural works.

His association with Emily’s brother’s Pascoe Redwood, artist and entrepreneur who with his brother John had bought the Auckland Glass Company when it had folded during the depression would bring about another avenue for Jim’s evolving talents.

Architect and soon to be lecturer at the School of Architecture, Vernon Akitt Brown would be one of many to make use of Jim’s design talent. Brown’s own artistic ability had been acknowledged since 1933 at many a Society of Arts exhibition, and these along his architectural skills (initially with T E Wade) and his writings for various magazines were to make him one of the countries prominent commentators on matters of design and its related genres. In Brown’s own houses, starting at Bell Rd in 1937, he would often have a sandblasted glass partition or screen incorporated into the design, sometimes as a room divider or as part of the entrance area. Symbols of the Zodiac or mythical creatures feature in some of the designs, many of which were to end up being Jim’s handiwork. In fact, Jim’s own house at 61 Lloyd Ave in Mt Albert would be designed by Vernon in 1940 – and contain substantial amounts of fine glasswork, as would be expected as an inlaw of owners of the Auckland Glass Company owners, and artist at the forefront of mural and interior design.

The house (still in existence) is not a dramatic modernist work like the Haigh or Wright houses with mono-pitch roof and black creosote, but a restrained family home in the vein of the later Hawe’s house in Parnell Rd, with a moderate gable and three tier sash windows, which Emily would always align when opened.

Also, unlike the Haigh house, the Turkington residence was without an interior mural, probably due to the ongoing parade of paintings that would issue from Jim’s garage studio and the number of interiors he was working on at any one time across the country. Even during the mid 1940’s Jim was often employed by Freddie Maeder to design and paint interiors for his expanding hair salon business, initially through New Zealand and then in Australia during the 50’s and 60’s. ‘Uncle’ Freddie was a charismatic character with considerable business acumen, and would take the daughters shopping and to lunch. Patricia was even treated to first class dining when Freddie arrived in the city aboard an ocean liner.

Another long term client was liquor entrepreneur Henry Kelliher, who over the decades would furnish Jim with a great diversity of work, from the minute to the massive – and opportunity to pursue painting of his favorite subjects.

From an early age the young Jim Turkington had worked with horses, his father having started a successful wheelwright and blacksmithing business initially near Gore where James first attended art lessons at St mary’s Convent. The family moved to Mangatoki in Taranaki and his father’s business expanded to several forges in the area. Some nights Jim or his brother Samuel would accompany their father as he also became an amateur vet, and would be called to operate on injured horses.

Kelliher’s fortune allowed him to purchase a large part of Puketutu Island in the Manukau harbour and breed horses and buy art, amongst other occupations. With his interest and skills, Jim was employed at times to paint portraits of the horses, and for several years he would paint the gardens and these images would be turned into Christmas cards for Sir Henry’s businesses and family. Over the years Jim would also work as a selector for the Kelliher Art awards, helping to hang and organize many of these – although not entering as Sir Henry would often buy the paintings before Jim could put them forward.

As the Kelliher empire involved hotels throughout the country, Jim would be employed to design and paint large scale works for the new establishments, as well as design details right down to the menu cards.

Mural work became a huge part of Jim’s output for over 30 years with hundreds designed and painted, and many different media employed. In the 1948 New Zealand ‘Studio’ arts magazine he “courageously explored the technical possibilities of various media, and has devoted himself for the past 12 years to direct wall painting and interior decoration”. Jim’s murals had by the early 1940’s encompassed a ranges of different techniques, including low and mid- relief scenes carved into materials like soft-board and stone. An image from the Sparrow Collection at Auckland Museum depicts a number of figures engaged in different sports activities raised from the textured background of stylized greens and sporting fields. The works would be painted to add depth or further highlights to the textured areas.

One of the few remaining intact mural works by Jim still viewable in a public situation is the massive glass chip design at the Parnell Pools in Judges Bay, Auckland; from 1957. Designed as part of a major refurbishment to the pools by the City Architects office team at Auckland Council after Chief Architect Tibor Donner’s fact finding tour of the America’s and Europe in 1956. Ralph Wilkinson, an English trained architect was the responsible for much of the design work while the embedded Vitrolite glass chip mural technique may have come from Tibor’s observations during his travels, although Jim had been working with italian terrazzo importers in Auckland, and experimenting with mosaic and embedding works (one of his early mosaic pieces was recently included in the ‘Italian’ exhibition at Te Papa).

Two other pieces made in embedded glass were installed at the Devonport Naval Base in 1958, but thankfully, have not succumbed to that old military dictum “if it doesn’t move, paint it”. These still exist inside the gates of the base and are part of a memorial, with Christ depicted parting the waves.

It was also around this time that Jim began developing a new technique which would result in the magnificent Maori Land Court mural in Haupapa St, Rotorua amongst numerous others. The process as described by Turkington in ‘Building Progress’ derived from experiments with layered Formica, which it seems were then sealed in further layers of resin coated kraft paper, this then being pressed together locking in the colours and images.
This is just one of the many developments that James would employ in a career of innovation, but alongside the public and commercial work was the ongoing maturing of his own painting. With the construction of Lloyd Ave, he would spend hour upon hour in the garage studio painting and sketching, working up ideas into oil and turpentine on canvas and board. During breaks for lunch or a cup of tea he would sometimes leave the painting by the kitchen table (always upside down) returning to look at it in different lights before heading back to work on another piece, or leaving the house on the way to teach at the Society of Arts evening classes. In this way he was also able to canvas opinion from family and friends, dropping in for a chat or serious political discussion – of which there was plenty. A Lois White, Archie Fisher, Louise Henderson, John Weeks, etc, were often around for cups of tea or the more serious intake of ideology and spirits; the talk, comradie and fervor embracing them all – across art, culture, politics and life in general.

Over the years, from the 20’s to the 70’s the names, friends and topics may have changed, but the passion and debate never ceased. James and his close comrades in arts and life actively sought and campaigned for a more just life after enduring a world of real horror and pain; the desire to see this happen and give their children a better life was often ridiculed and their ideology vilified in the media. Socialism and Communism had been the promise of a better tomorrow in the turbulent decades of the early 20th Century, but much of the ardor and compassion was used for political ends, and as such the hope that the ideology had held was crippled and manipulated to a point where by the 1951 Watersider’s strike many were afraid to commit or be associated with what was now seen as a doomed and deadly experiment.

But although his political and social beliefs were considered outspoken and radical, those that got to know the man – who had been amongst the bombardment, suffering and hypocrisy at Passchondale and the Somme; they came easily to understand the strength of his convictions.

It was this passion and depth, tied up with the Irish gift of humor that was attractive and appreciated, and enabled him to work and engage with a wide range of people. His friends and clients crossed all strata’s of society from Freddie Maeder and Henry Kelliher at one end to Archie Fisher and Lois White at the opposite. And even though Jim had access to wealth and society, it was his long held belief that the family should move to communist Russia, though unsurprisingly this idea wasn’t shared by Emily or his two daughters, Patricia and Margaret.

Well loved by their devoted parent, the girls enjoyed a mostly normal life, occasionally giving their parents cause for small alarm, and in turn being upset when a young man’s parents warned him against getting involved with a known ‘communist’ and the relationship ended.

When the work for Formica began in earnest around 1960, Jim had officially he had been able to collect a pension for five years but he continued working long hours and often. He was still teaching (silk screen printing, 9am – 12noon Fridays) at The Society of Arts, in addition to being a ASA councilor with Bart Gillespie, Arnold Wilson, Louise Henderson and Ruth Coyle, etc and painting mainly canvas’s but also the occasional mural and wrought iron piece as far afield as the Pacific Islands. A major piece for the inter-island ferry ‘Wahine’ was designed and constructed and fitted prior to the maiden voyage in August 1966. Another known large work was for the Rotorua Land Court building (designed by Frank I Anderson in 1963.) Multiple other designs were conceived and produced over the years of the early 60’s, from signage for Whitcomb & Tombs to wall size murals in multi-national boardrooms.

These are now highly collectable and rare works, some like the Wahine mural are now at Wellington Museum of  Land & Sea, having survived the salt water and salvage. Sadly though, most of his earlier mural work, especially the wall paintings have been destroyed or plastered and painted over – as in the case of the de Bretts/Commercial Hotel murals as late as 1984; others have been lost like the ‘Coutt’s the Chemist’ murals in Whangarei even though the local museum was involved with appraising them before removal. A huge mural painted on the ceilings of a ward in the Wilson Home (for disabled children) depicted in a lengthy article by the ‘Woman’s Weekly’ is also long covered over.

Painting still took of much of Jim’s time as a retrospective exhibition was mounted by friends from the Auckland Art Society in 1978. Many of his paintings from the previous five decades of work were retrieved from numerous collections for the exhibition including the almost iconic “Murphy the Spudman”. A number also depicted Jim’s lifelong passion for the horse, and the rural landscape of his youth. Often undated, the style of work across the decades shows an evolution and engagement with ideas other than the traditional, particularly in his murals from the later period. The looseness and freedom of expression of the mural works (now mostly lost) wasn’t usually translated to the canvas though some works like ‘Cathedral’ from 1965 gives a hint of the range and depth Jim’s work covered. Other works in the family’s collection reveal a huge knowledge and interest in abstraction and different movements from early on, though this was not generally evident as these works seem to have been seldom exhibited.

Jim passed away peacefully at home in 1979 leaving a vast catalogue of work which spans a countries growth and changes through several turbulent decades. Although probably considered as traditional, his paintings reflect a view of the nation, sometimes idealised, which came from his long held belief in striving for something better.


Gregory J Smith
Lost Property 2 (September 24th – 6th October at The Depot Gallery)