Sometime around 1977, Pat and I were introduced to Peter McLeavey by Wellington bookseller, John Quilter. We had expressed interest in contemporary New Zealand art and John told us about Peter’s gallery in Cuba Street and the significant role he had played in supporting local artists, particularly Colin McCahon.
So one Saturday morning, we had our first interview with Peter at the gallery. I say ‘interview’ because it went a little like we were applying to adopt an orphan. Peter was courteous, even courtly, but clearly wanted to tease out sense and sensibility. As was always his practice, he talked little of himself but of his artists. And although McCahon’s presence loomed large over the meeting, Peter produced from the Tardis storeroom a series of works by other artists as the subtle questioning continued. Spectacular canvases from Ian Scott, brooding scapes by Toss Woollaston, the playfully arcane work of Lois White and, finally, a triptych by McCahon.
We looked at that work a few times over the following weeks but neither our budget nor our capacity to face up to The Good News Bible each day allowed us to take the plunge. We preferred the lucid economy of Gordon Walters and the conservative precision of Lois White. We were, of course, absolute beginners but happy to jump in the game and learn.
Over the next years I got to know Peter a little better. He liked to talk about family – mine and his. He liked to talk about movies; he once delivered the most telling, accurate one line assessment I’d ever heard. I told him that I’d seen ‘Schindler’s List’ just recently and with that gentle certainty of the man who has final cut, he told me; ‘That film was made for spiritual tourists.’
I think Peter was an instinctive educator. An elegant, determined thinker who enjoyed collaboration – able to share and shape but without a hint of didacticism. He could be coaxed to tell you about his latest show but he’d much rather that you told him your thoughts and opinions.
My enduring memory of Peter is seeing him at The Dowse Museum’s Arts Ball, hosted by James Mack, back in the 80s. The theme for the evening was ‘Flight’ and I encountered Peter, dressed in formal black tie, grinning broadly, as he swung on a rope suspended from the ceiling. I greeted him when he resumed his feet and enquired as to how his apparel for the night met the brief. He fingered the lapel of his dinner jacket, raised an eyebrow and said, ‘Winged‘.
Over the last few years, I haven’t seen so much of Peter as I’d have liked – neither one of us being as light on our feet as we once were. But I hold my memories of him in high value. He made a difference to our lives for the better.