Colin McCahon ‘Truth from the King Country: Load Bearing Structures No. I (Third Series)’

Martin Edmond
Posted on 7 March 2024

This is a work from a series of thirty or so small paintings Colin McCahon made in 1978 and 1979; they all show a black tau cross before a predominantly ochre landscape beneath a turbulent sky. The earlier works in the series, of which this is one, bear the subtitle load bearing structures; later ones feature the five or the seven wounds of Christ. They are said to have been inspired by one of the railway viaducts on the Main Trunk Line. The Mangaweka viaduct is often mentioned; however that is in the Rangītikei, not in the King Country. If there is a single inspiration for the series, it is more likely to have been the Makatote viaduct south of Erua.

If you’re driving from Horopito north on Highway 4, you pass under the southern end of the viaduct and head down the hill to a hairpin bend at the bottom; then climb up the other side to the top of the next ridge. Halfway down there’s a place where you can pull over. Toetoe grows luxuriantly here; the bush is mostly rimu, which has that characteristic yellow[1]green colour to its foliage, with a few other big trees, like tōtora and tōwai, rising above the understory. From the rest area, if you look back up, you will see the massive T-shaped structures of the pylons and the bridge before the bluffs on either side of the gorge of the Makatote River, which is a tributary of the Manga-nui-o-te-Ao, which in turn flows into the Whanganui.

Colin McCahon

Truth from the King Country: Load Bearing Structures No. I (Third Series)

synthetic polymer paint on canvasboard

title inscribed, signed and dated ’78 verso

227 x 305mm

$75 000 – $100 000


Colin McCahon, Victoria University Library, Wellington, 22 June – 19 July 1981, Cat No. 9.


Colin McCahon Database ( cm000866.


Private collection, Tasman district.

Private collection, Auckland.

View lot here

Marti Friedlander, Colin McCahon’s Studio (c.1978). Marti Friedlander Archive, courtesy of E.H. McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and the Gerard and Marti Friedlander Trust.

McCahon liked to go for long drives into the landscape. He was in the habit of stopping at vantage points and spending some time, hours perhaps, in front of a particular view. This was not simply in order to memorise it; he wanted to log the changes of light and therefore the passage of time. Most of the works in this series recall a dusky, dusty orange-black late afternoon sky: you do often see this precise shade of ochre swirling in the air as the sun sets over the dissected hill country to the west of Hauhungatahi, the small volcanic cone which is an outlier of Ruapehu.

I’m not suggesting that McCahon was painting this actual place; rather, that the landscapes of the series are reminiscent of that country; while the tau cross which stands before the bush-covered hills and the ochre skies is both an interdiction and a gateway through into what lies beyond. King Country is Pākehā usage for what Māori call Te Rohe Pōtae, the area of the hat; that part of the central North Island, defined by the circle of the rim King Tāwhiao’s hat when placed upon a map, where Pākehā could not go and where no more land would be sold. This border, Te Aukati, was in fact breached, by agreement, when the Main Trunk Line was put through.

What does McCahon mean by ‘truth’? Here I always think of the prophetic movement Māramatanga, the way of light. Māramatanga comes from the same source as the Rātana movement; they share a prophetess, Mere Rikiriki, who is said to have given to Wiremu Rātana responsibility for the world of political action; and to Enoka Mareikura, custodianship of the spiritual realm. Be that as it may, Māramatanga consciously seeks to unite with all other prophetic movements in Aotearoa. The truth McCahon is speaking of may be found there; but, if so, to reach it you must somehow answer the questions asked by that resounding black tau cross. To paraphrase Justin Paton: whose land is this and upon which side of its borders do you stand?

Martin Edmond