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The three copies of McCahon's painting on display in the Otago student union. From the front page of the Evening Star, 26 October 1961.

The three copies of McCahon’s painting on display in the Otago student union. From the front page of the Evening Star, 26 October 1961.

Two Otago graduates have just owned up, after more than fifty years, to a prank involving a Colin McCahon painting. McCahon is hailed as perhaps New Zealand’s greatest painter; his works attract premium prices and are held in major international collections. Among the McCahon oils held by the Fletcher Trust Collection, Auckland, is Painting 1958, notable for “its large dark and light forms and the sense of gaps or spaces between”.  This uncompromisingly abstract work is not to everybody’s taste, and when it first came to public attention in 1960 it attracted much derision from  those who did not appreciate “non-representational” painting.

The painting was already notorious when it went on display in the University of Otago student union cafeteria in 1961. In 1960 it was a joint winner of the inaugural Hay’s Art Competition, sponsored by Hay’s Department Store in Christchurch. This was an important event for artists, as New Zealand then had few prizes or scholarships for art, and the existing Kelliher Prize was limited to realist landscapes. As the judges of the Hay’s prize could not reach agreement, they awarded the competition jointly to McCahon and two others. Hay’s, which now owned the painting, offered in 1961 to gift it to Christchurch’s Robert McDougall Art Gallery, but city councillors rejected it, as well as the two other prizewinners, as unfit for exhibition. Since nobody seemed willing to display the painting in Christchurch, the Otago student union was offered as a venue by the OUSA ladies’ vice-president, Jocelyn Wood (now better known as Emeritus Professor Jocelyn Harris of Otago’s Department of English).

The painting prompted a lot of discussion at Otago, not least in the pages of Critic. Ian Devereux and Jimmy Boyne, then masters students in chemistry, devised a scheme which would demonstrate very clearly the opinion of many students on abstract art. Thinking along the lines “any child could paint that,” they made three copies of the painting (retitled “Light on in the flat downstairs” by one wit). This was a top secret operation, carried out at night in one of the chemistry labs. They had to keep returning to the union to check the original, then rush back to their own work. They discovered that oil paints were too expensive for impecunious students, and completed the work using Dulux white house paint and Fletcher’s bitumastic roof sealer, painting over plaster of paris to give the required texture. They thought their scheme was foiled when one of the chemistry lecturers, Arthur Williamson, caught them at their painting one night, but Williamson appreciated the prank, and even offered a donation towards materials.

When Devereux and Boyne, in the dead of night, finally placed their paintings next to the original, they were disappointed at how different they appeared – the sheen of McCahon’s work made it stand out from the others. So they carefully wrapped the original and hid it in a cleaner’s cupboard. They hung their three copies on the union cafeteria wall, together with a notice inviting viewers to pick out which was the original. The cafeteria was abuzz with discussion of the paintings over the next couple of days. Boyne and Devereux could hardly contain their laughter over some of the comments they overheard: one professor commented “I can tell it’s the one on the right because of the power of the brushwork.” A feature story on the prank appeared in the Evening Star newspaper: the pranksters were particularly amused that the reporter assumed they must have been art students, although he or she did manage to detect that the true original had been hidden. The story also made it much further afield, with one of Devereux’s extended family reading about it in Portsmouth, England.

After a couple of anxious nights spent worrying about the safety of McCahon’s original painting, Boyne and Devereux returned it to display. The three copies found homes, although they were not all appreciative. Devereux kept one copy for himself, but it was irreparably damaged in transit during a move to the North Island. They gave one copy to one of their chemistry classmates, Claire Parton, as a wedding gift; she immediately passed it on to her father, Prof Hugh Parton, head of the Department of Chemistry. For many years this copy hung in the departmental library as an exemplar of the ingenuity of chemistry students. The third copy went to Arthur Williamson, who kept it in the garage as his wife refused to have it in the house. Meanwhile, the original passed through the ownership of various well-known businesses, ending up with the Chase Corporation. An employee there rescued it from being used as packaging and it was purchased by the Fletcher Trust at auction in 1987.

McCahon was, unsurprisingly, not impressed with the prank. His lawyer wrote a letter to the OUSA threatening legal action, but as they had no idea who had carried out the prank nothing could be done. Other than the perpetrators and a couple of the chemistry staff, until now nobody has known the identity of the copyists. James Boyne went on to study medicine and has recently retired as a GP in Milton. Ian Devereux worked for the DSIR, completed a PhD at Victoria University of Wellington and then set up a very successful business, Rocklabs, which manufactured crushing and sampling equipment used by mining and geology businesses all over the world. They have been reminiscing recently over their Otago student days and decided to go public about their 1961 exploits. I am most grateful to them for sharing their story!