Colin McCahon ‘Agnus Dei’

Ben Plumbly
Posted on 7 March 2024

1969 was among the most productive years in Colin McCahon’s career as a painter. It was also a year in which he painted hit after hit after hit. From the monumental Practical Religion: the resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha to The Lark’s Song to The Canoe Tainui, artistic breakthroughs were numerous. McCahon now found himself in the unique position of having two dealers representing him, Peter McLeavey in Wellington and Barry Lett in Auckland, and for the first time in his life his work was beginning to sell well and he had the ability to paint full time.

This incredibly fertile and prolific year of painting was precipitated by a number of factors, both prosaic and transcendent. The recent availability in New Zealand of acrylic paints and the artist’s subsequent move from oils to acrylics is worthy of note. It removed the prerequisite drying times and allowed the artist to move more quickly. In May of that year the artist made the decisive move to his studio at Muriwai beach. If acrylics allowed McCahon to work faster, the new studio granted him the space he had lacked at Partridge street.

Colin McCahon

Agnus Dei

watercolour and pastel on paper

signed and dated 1969 in pencil lower right

1540 x 550mm

$85 000 – $125 000


Colin McCahon Database ( cm001509.


‘Colin McCahon: Written Paintings and Drawings’, Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, October 6 – October 19 1969. Provenance Private collection, Auckland.

View lot here

The receipt of three new publications in this year also radically affected his practice and provided the stimulus for some of his greatest paintings. Matire Kereama’s The Tail Of the Fish precipitated a newfound engagement and interest in Māori mythology, whilst a copy of the New English Bible, a gift from his wife Anne, resulted in one of his most ambition and significant paintings, the aforementioned Practical Religion. Journey towards an Elegy by Peter Hooper, was another gift, this time from his friend John Caselberg. Hooper was a Greymouth-born novelist, environmentalist, teacher, poet and mentor to many young writers.

Agnus Dei (1969) was originally exhibited at Barry Lett Galleries. Inspiration from the various publications manifested itself in an impressive body of work, generically referred to as the ‘Scrolls’. These were pinned unframed and edge to edge, adorning the walls of Barry Lett Galleries in an impressive and immersive installation or ‘environment’, the likes of which McCahon had not created before. Lett is an important figure in this country’s art history who helped revolutionise the role of the dealer gallery and pioneered the presentation of contemporary art in a daring and revolutionary manner. Creating paintings which were environments in themselves was not new, but the overwhelming preponderance of text marked this exhibition as a first for the painter. McCahon himself was nervous about the show, wondering whether it was too ‘literal’ and if there were simply too many words. Each of the ‘Scrolls’ features text which is governed by their rectangular, vertical format. They are all largely unembellished so as there is little distraction from the written word. Some are in pastel, some in watercolour and some in ink but each shares the immediacy and spontaneity of drawing.

Ben Plumbly