From Reginald Nankivell, born illegitimate in New Brighton, to Sir Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell – the fascinating story of Rex Nan Kivell, “the ultimate outsider”. Our hero used the opportunity of the First World War to get to Europe where he educated and reinvented himself to become a successful art dealer and collector.
Rex was descended from Robert and Elizabeth Nankivell who arrived in Wellington in 1840. A son, John, married Susannah Day. In 1849 the Nankivell and Day families moved to the embryonic Canterbury Settlement on the ship Sisters, becoming pre-Adamites, people who were here before the arrival of the First Four Ships.
George Henry, son of John and Susannah, was born in Christchurch about 1854. He married Annie Welch at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian church on 24 April 1878. George was a South Brighton labourer and fisherman. On 29 February 1896 Harry Hawker, 28, arrived at George’s door. He had rolled through quicksand after the night-time capsizing of the yacht, Waitangi on the Estuary, bringing a tale of the loss of his contemporaries, James Murray, Francis Herbert Stewart and the older, well-known hotel keeper, William Francis Warner. Searchers combed the area and the bodies were found. The funerals were a big event in the small city and Premier R. J. Seddon sent flowers to decorate Warner’s coffin.
A daughter, Alice, was domestic servant for New Brighton grocer, Alfred Henry Wyatt. Later the Nankivells sent her to Cust where, on 8 April 1898, she gave birth to an ex-nuptial child, Reginald.
Entry #2172 in the Criminal Record Book at Archives New Zealand, Christchurch, dated 1 November 1898, concerns Alice Nankivell’s charge of ‘bastardy’ against Wyatt. On 20 May 1899, the magistrate ‘dismissed the charge on merits’, this despite Wyatt’s reputation for seducing his maids. There was no appeal – perhaps because, on 18 May, Alice had married Noah Clegg at All Saints’ church, Burwood.
On 25 August 1899 Reginald was baptised at the Wesleyan church, Woolston. He believed that his grandparents were his parents and that his mother was his aunt. Not till he was 16 did he learn the truth.
Reginald went to the New Brighton Primary School. He began an apprenticeship at the bookbinding firm of Andrews & Co in Cathedral Square which ended in May 1916. Pretending that he was two years older than his true age and describing himself as a bookbinder, he enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He worked at the New Zealand General Hospital, Brockenhurst, Hampshire, and the New Zealand Command Depot, Codford, Wiltshire. He was described as being insolent, stealing and masquerading as an officer. He was discharged in England in 1919.
Calling himself Rex de Charembac Nan Kivell, Reginald claimed to belong to Canterbury’s land-owning gentry, to have attended Christ’s College and fought on the Western Front. He worked on archaeological excavations, visited galleries and exhibitions, became an art connoisseur and collected books, paintings, documents, manuscripts and artefacts relating to the history of New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific.
Rex joined the Redfern Gallery in 1925, became managing director in 1931 and promoted British, European and Australian artists like Sidney Nolan,Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. In 1946 he began discussions with the National Library of Australia about the loan of his pictures, books and other material. In 1959 he sold the collection to Australia for 70,000 pounds($126,574), a fraction of its true value, becoming one of the country’s great cultural benefactors.
In 1953 Rex gifted a selection of British prints to the art galleries of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The gift included works by leading artists of the day. Key works from the Christchurch collection were displayed in an exhibition Graphica Britannica: highlights from the Rex Nan Kivell Gift (13 May 2005 – 28 May 2006).
The Australian government recommended that he be appointed C.M.G. in 1966 and knighted in 1976. He died on 7 June 1977, leaving an estate worth 653,747 pounds($1,184,177). He left his gold watch and bracelet to his chauffeur and watercolours of natural history subjects to Queen Elizabeth II.
The Australian Dictionary of National Biography wrote:
Sir Rex had lived an extraordinary life, shaped in the grand manner to his own exacting design. An archetypal outsider—illegitimate, homosexual, self-educated and antipodean—he acquired a residence in London, a country house in Wiltshire and a villa in Morocco overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. Oliver Stead described him as the quintessential expatriate, obdurate in his refusal to return, yet obsessed with images of his birthplace and its region, his whole identity bound up in his colonial past.
George and Annie did not see their grandson after he went to war; indeed, Rex never again visited New Zealand. George, 81, of 36 Bligh Street, New Brighton, died on 21 December 1934. Annie moved to Halswell where she died, at 77, on 28 April 1936.
This information came from Richard Greenaway – an expert on the local history of Christchurch. Some of you might have been on one of his fascinating cemetery tours. He has an eye for a good story and the skill and patience to check and cross check all kinds of references. He has compiled a wonderful array of New Brighton stories.
- Bromley Cemetery Guide p27
- Sir Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography
- View portraits of Rex Nan Kivell on DigitalNZ
- Search for Rex Nan Kivell images and articles on DigitalNZ
- Search for Rex Nan Kivell at Christchurch Art Gallery
The library has some great photographs of New Brighton capturing its life as one of New Zealand’s premier seaside suburbs, full of life and character. New Brighton residents have been good at recording their local history and the place has inspired novels and biographies.