A travelling life, Tony Mackle

Don’t Forget To Feed The Cat: The Travel Letters And Sketches Of Stewart Bell Maclennan
Mary Bell Thornton (ed)
The Cuba Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781988595009

This delightful and beautifully produced book is a worthwhile read on several levels. It is a warm, human account of family life, an interesting travel book, and provides an informed abbreviated account of some of the salient features of major international museums and their collections.

In 1948, Stewart Maclennan was the first appointed director of the National Art Gallery in Wellington. It was a tough assignment, the institution remaining understaffed and underfunded for its mandated tasks for the 20 years of Maclennan’s tenure. In spite of the difficulties, he distinguished himself, retiring in 1968 and being awarded an OBE for his services. The letters were written during a well-earned six months sabbatical trip to England, Europe and the United States from April to September 1958. They reveal Maclennan as a loving husband, father and benevolent “director” of his family. The great rapport and affection between himself and his wife Dorothy and their four children – Don, Ian, Mary and Janet – shine through in the letters, the tenor of which is captured in the book’s light-hearted and humorous title. The letters give an historical perspective of the sense of isolation and distance felt by international travellers and those “at home” 50 years ago. Letters and aerogrammes were the fundamental method of keeping in touch when journeying to England and Europe, before the internet and mobile phones created the “global village”.

On Maclennan’s part, there is a balanced mixture of enjoying the cities and institutions visited, the people met, professional as well as old friends and family members, combined with concern at being away from his family and a longing for the trip to be over. Dorothy is equally concerned for his welfare, but reveals her affection and competence at maintaining the household in his absence. In their replies to their father, his children’s characteristics and sibling rivalries are highlighted, as well as family in-jokes, trials and tribulations, all overlaid with a loving, teasing sense of fun. A cameo view of New Zealand family life in the late 1950s – with climate change evidence gratis. What did happen to those 10-day southerlies in Wellington and frosts in May?   

Ironically, the postal system has gone full circle since that decade and is now becoming as haphazard as outlined in the text. Outward and inward correspondence overlap and there is a good deal of frustration for both father and family for letters and parcels undelivered, missed, or forwarded on from one collection point to another. These delays have the effect of heightening the joy of receiving them and their contents when they finally do arrive.   

From a travel point of view, the letters are interesting for the information they give about flight times, stopovers and the “bunny hops” between cities so fundamental to long distance flying in those days. For readers of that generation, there are echoes of the voice of Selwyn Toogood from the radio quiz show It’s In The Bag, outlining the route of travel prizes: “Singapore to Karachi, Karachi to Athens…”.  Maclennan also recorded his flight times: 15 hours in a Super Constellation from London to New York (now half that). The meals served on some airlines were more appetising and elaborate than the microwaved pre-packaged variety offered today. Though he recorded his travels with photographs, Maclennan also used his considerable talents producing superbly realised pen-and-wash sketches of aspects of the cities visited and their inhabitants. They greatly enhance the book, as do the small gutter pencil illustrations on some of the pages.

The purpose of Maclennan’s trips to visit galleries and museums is also carefully documented and listed in the final section of the book. While a précis of his official voluminous report, it gives insight into the painstaking eye for detail which made him an able administrator and gallery director. He visited approximately 103 institutions, galleries and organisations in Australia, Singapore, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Scotland, The Netherlands and the United States, noting highlights from the collections, as well as lighting, exhibition spaces and labelling. The trip was certainly no junket. Interestingly, the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo is noted as a standout for situation, design and lighting. This museum was to be similarly cited by participants in a directorial trip undertaken in preparation for the building of the aborted new National Art Gallery in Molesworth Street in 1984. Maclennan also visited New Zealand artists John Drawbridge, Michael C Browne and Bill Culbert, studying in London on the National Art Gallery Travelling Scholarship. Years later, his visit was spoken of appreciatively by Drawbridge and Browne.   

An excellently edited and illustrated production, Don’t Forget To Feed The Cat makes a light yet informative read, particularly for those interested in travel, art and family life.    

Tony Mackle is Honorary Research Associate at Te Papa and the author of Stewart Bell Maclennan: The Man For The Job” (Journal Of New Zealand Art History Vol 26. 2005).

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Posted in Letters, Non-fiction, Review
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