Recently I had the rare pleasure of going behind the scenes at Auckland Art Gallery with the staff of the Conservation Research Centre, Sarah Hillary and Annette McKone, and the current Marylyn Mayo intern, Eleanor Vallier, to see the efforts being made to preserve and as far as possible restore Colin McCahon’s fabled painted glass windows from the former Convent in Upland Road, Remuera (Chapel of the Sisters of our Lady of the Missions), since converted to a private dwelling.
The chapel for which in 1965 Colin painted four large, multi-panel windows (East, West, North and South) and added other objects, including a major painting called The Way of the Cross (a three-panel version of the Stations of the Cross, six metres wide), has now apparently been converted to a swimming pool. The windows were removed to storage at Auckland Art Gallery decades ago and were rumoured to be in a state of serious disrepair, which is in fact the case. Ordinary enamel house paint on glass could not withstand year after year of sun and rain unscathed and the panels became sadly deteriorated.
This commission led Colin McCahon to many other glass and metal projects for Catholic churches and schools and to a permanent change in the imagery of his paintings. Series such as Still Life with Altar (1967) and Visible Mysteries (1968) would never have happened without his research into Catholic iconography and symbolism required for the window paintings. Similarly The Stations of the Cross became a recurrent theme in his painting, in such works as The Fourteen Stations of the Cross (1966), Series C: Walk (1973), The Shining Cuckoo (1974), Walk with Me (1974), Clouds (1975), Rocks in the Sky (1976) and Angels and Bed (1977). Examples of several of these series are held in the Auckland Art Gallery’s collection.
Because of their significance, it was therefore deemed worthwhile by the Gallery to preserve at least some of the windows from further deterioration so that in future they may be exhibited in some form, not as fully restored windows (they are beyond that possibility) but as objects in the archaeology of a major project in McCahon’s career. Eleanor Vallier, as the Marylyn Mayo intern at the Gallery, has undertaken this delicate and complex task on the thirteen panels of the East Window.
Peter Simpson is a writer, curator and editor, who has written several books on Colin McCahon and is currently writing another to be published by Auckland University Press in 2019, McCahon's centennial year.