Spreading her wings

Dame Eileen Mayo (1906-1994) Pigeon in Winter, 1974, relief print on paper. HOCKEN COLLECTIONS,...
Dame Eileen Mayo (1906-1994) Pigeon in Winter, 1974, relief print on paper. HOCKEN COLLECTIONS, UARE TAOKA O HAKENA. GIVEN BY PROF F.N. FASTIER, DUNEDIN IN 1980. REPRODUCED COURTESY OF DR JILLIAN CASSIDY.
Eileen Mayo’s illustrative talents were admired across both hemispheres, writes Robyn Notman.

Admirers of the kereru, will be delighted by this striking print by artist Dame Eileen Mayo, which is on display in the Hocken’s  collection-focused exhibition "Continuity & Change: the Hocken’s art across time". During the Dunedin summer months, these handsome birds are readily seen feeding on the buds, flowers and fruits of both native and exotic trees in the inner city and surrounds. Cherries are a particular favourite. The familiar rushing "whoosh" sounds, like air-brushed velvet, combined with rustling branches, signal the kereru are feasting. 

Born and trained in England, Eileen Mayo emigrated to Australia in 1953, and then on to New Zealand in 1962,  basing herself in Christchurch. By then she had an established career in both England and Australia, as a painter, printmaker, designer and illustrator with a particular talent for depicting plants, animals and natural history subjects.

The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, bought work from her first exhibition in 1929 at the Redfern Gallery,  the managing director of which was Christchurch-born Sir Rex Nan Kivell. Courted by the Australians, he famously transferred, by gift and sale, his exceptional collection of art, books and documents relating to New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific to the National Library of Australia. In 1953, galleries in New Zealand, including the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, received gifts from him of modern British prints, which included works by Mayo.

In 1965 Eileen Mayo came to the attention of Dunedin poet and arts patron Charles Brasch, who had purchased her "lovely Musk Duck" engraving at the Rosslyn Gallery. He wrote seeking a cover design for the literary journal Landfall, which in 1963 had begun featuring cover designs commissioned from artists.  Brasch requested "something bold and fairly simple, allowing space for the essential information".

The commission was timely, as it presented an opportunity for the artist to experiment with abstraction. In 1966 Mayo visited Dunedin, where she saw a show of work by Louise Henderson at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. She noted in her diary how struck she was by Henderson’s exploration of space and movement, shape and colour, and she determined to experiment with these elements in her own work. The resulting Landfall cover, an attractive abstract design featuring magnified snowflakes and using minimal colours, appeared on issue 86, June 1968. Dunedin was the site of further innovation for Mayo. She lived here between 1972 and 1975, having accepted an invitation from John Darby at  Otago Museum to develop the underwater diorama "Five Fathoms Deep" for the Marine Hall. Excited by the creative challenges of this project and relishing the company of the congenial staff at the museum, she created not only a stunning diorama, but also six new editions of prints, including Pigeon in Winter.

Three of the print series represent the artist’s experimentation with semi-abstraction, while the others show her more usual  stylised naturalism. The inclusion of text as part of the print design was also a new development. Always inventive, Mayo cited artists Marilynn Webb and Barry Cleavin, both of whom now live and work in Dunedin, as sources of inspiration during her career in New Zealand.

Pigeon in Winter (1974) is displayed along with other works inspired by nature. A greeting card of the work is available in the Hocken shop.

- Robyn Notman is head curator, pictorial collections, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena.

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