Peter McLeavey – The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer

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Thursday 19 December 2013
Ron Brownson


I devoured Jill Trevelyan’s biography of Peter McLeavey in a sitting. This fascinating book about the life and times of New Zealand’s renowned art dealer is a magnetic text filled with treats about art and artists. Many Aucklanders may be unaware of McLeavey’s significance but Wellingtonians sure know who he is and what he does. Peter is recognised on the city’s streets.

Since 1968, Peter McLeavey’s life has been dedicated to promoting our visual artist’s achievements. I reckon he has achieved more positive outcomes for New Zealand’s cultural scene than many MPs. Growth within the arts has occurred hugely over the last 40 years and Peter’s professional life has helped foster this creativity.

Peter is the pre-eminent New Zealand art dealer. No question! He has been a catalyst for numerous artists’ success. Not only has he had the longest term as an art dealer in Australasia, he has worked longer with more artists than any New Zealand curator or collector. Simply put, Peter has not only helped create a national foundation for our contemporary art scene he has been one of the key reasons why our visual art scene is as vibrant and international in its outreach.

Peter initiated his vocation as art dealer on 4 September 1968 with his first exhibition – M.T. Woollaston: Paintings, drawings and watercolours. Jill Trevelyan deftly sets the scene quoting McLeavey, 'It was a big thing for me, the gallery opening, but I didn’t want to push it as a big event. I was taking it one day at a time. I thought to myself, Don’t pump it up too much because it might not last.' The first artwork Peter sold was purchased by scholar Margaret Orbell and artist Gordon Walters. News spread of the show’s success and Milan Mrkusich conjectured, 'If sales keep up it could mean exhibiting in Wellington would be worthwhile for artists in other centres.' Jill is good at progressing Peter’s story as a narrative intertwined with close relationships to artists.

His family is brought into focus also and this is one of the searingly honest features of this book – it shows that the artist’s family has been integral to the Peter McLeavey Gallery. His wife and children knew at all times Peter was ambitious for the gallery to succeed and there was a cost to the family for the dealer’s dedication and obsession with work. His wife Hilary saw her partner’s personality and drive clearly and this honesty contributes to the impressive integrity of the biography because it mixes good with bad, negative with positive in fair measure. I felt that I was closer to the reality of the McLeavey family than I often feel when reading art-related biographies.

Jill Trevelyan keeps away from much art commentary and her book concentrates on the work and life of the art dealer rather than the art itself. For me, there is much creativity in Peter McLeavey himself. While he never claims to be an artist, he had a talented artist’s ability to make art look terrific in the simple and austere architecture of his premises. Everything was always about the art, it always came first.

No other New Zealand book so convincingly reveals our art scene’s milieu as it has been lived by one of its key figures. Here is the biography that Peter McLeavey well deserves. The Wellington art dealer is the real deal. A mutual friend called Peter 'a bona fide saint'.

A review of: Jill Trevelyan, Peter McLeavey – The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2013 

Image credit: 
Marti Friedander 
Peter McLeavey 2000 
gelatin silver print 
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Marti Friedlander
with assistance from the Elise Mourant Bequest, 2001