Colin McCahon

Cover design for the novel Coal Flat by Bill Pearson

Cover design for the novel Coal Flat by Bill Pearson by Colin McCahon

Artwork Detail

The novel Coal Flat by Bill Pearson, was published by Paul's Book Arcade, Hamilton in 1963. The cover image and text was designed by Colin McCahon for the publisher’s Blackwood and Janet Paul for Paul’s Book Arcade, Hamilton McCahon handwrote the book’s title, publisher and the author’s name. Bill Pearson noted that the painting for his novel’s cover was based on drawings that McCahon had made years earlier at Blackball, on the North West Coast of the South Island.

Colin McCahon’s design for Coal Flat is the only occasion where he designed the slip jacket cover for a novel

Written by his close friend Bill Pearson (18 January 1922 – 27 September 2002), Coal Flat is considered to be one of New Zealand’s finest realist novels. It was an influential commentary on New Zealand during the 1950s and few other books of the period treat local life with such an ardent eye for place and character.

Written over a 12-year period, Coal Flat is an intense account of provincial New Zealand life as always fostering insular communities. Pearson regarded New Zealand as a conformist and judgemental nation that denied individuality. His novel is based on working as a teacher at Blackball, 25 km northeast from Greymouth; where had Pearson grown up. Blackball’s businesses were then coal mining and timber milling. New Zealand’s Labour Party was founded there.

Pearson’s experience as a teacher working in Blackball for some years before joining the New Zealand Army in 1942 were a key experience for his book. Pearson chose to excise the fact that his book’s protagonist and his own alter-ego, Paul Rogers, was homosexual. Yet, Rogers appears to live a double life, where public and private experience are separate.

This duality was the case with Pearson who lived his life as a closeted man; given that homosexual acts were illegal until 1986. In fact, homosexuality itself was regarded as an illegal reality, making life in New Zealand stressful and constraining. Such homophobia was a reality that Pearson discussed with his close friends Frank Sargeson and Eric McCormick. Colin McCahon understood the bloke’s world that Pearson was critiquing; one where men toiled on the land. The Cover design for Coal Flat encapsulates McCahon’s vision of a West Coast mining town.

Colin McCahon and Bill Pearson were close colleagues from the 1950s. McCahon made sketches at Blackball sometime during the late 1940s or early 1950s. While visiting this mining town, where Coal Flat is fictionally based, McCahon saw the damage which clear felling of the local indigenous forest had brought to Blackball’s landscape. He saw how much coal-mining had altered the shape of the community’s topography since 1890. McCahon’s was fascinated with the changing appearance of landforms; either through the action of nature or the effects of industry.

McCahon selected black and white gouache so as to reinforce how much the blackness of coal identifies not only the coastal town of Blackball but “Coalflat” after which the novel is named. The black palette visually echoes the ‘black gold’ then supporting the town’s economy.

While almost every painting McCahon created in 1962 is connected with ways to unite abstraction with issues of the spirit, Cover design for Coal Flat addresses the book’s narrative about coal being one of the West Coast’s most significant industries. During 1962 there were already many rumours that the Blackball State Coal Mine would close. It did, in fact, close within a year (1964) of the publication of Coal Flat.

Cover design for Coal Flat is a painting of a remembered place; a coastal place which help transform New Zealand’s political parties and which had once been one of its most productive industrial provincial towns for 2 generations. In the 70 years of the mine’s operation, almost all of the surrounding landscape had been completely altered through industry. This physical change to topography because of industry is the true subject of the painting.

Cover design for the novel Coal Flat by Bill Pearson
Production date
gouache on paper
296 x 531 mm
Credit line
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Dr Donald Stenhouse and Mr James Courtney, 2018
Accession no
Copying restrictions apply
New Zealand Art
Display status
Not on display

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