Rex Nan Kivell

book coverFrom 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.


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.

14 thoughts on “Rex Nan Kivell

  1. Gallivanta 12 March 2013 / 8:32 pm

    What an extraordinary piece of history.

  2. Jan England 30 September 2015 / 8:40 am

    Alfred Henry Wyatt (Rex’s birthfather), was my great grandfather and his family knew of his indiscretions. However, we have only fairly recently caught up with the infamous Rex Nan Kivell and his generosity in gifting many works of art etc. A large collection is held in Canberra. Thank you for the blog which has further enlightened us. Jan England

    • Mo-mo 30 September 2015 / 9:06 am

      You’re welcome, Jan. Glad you found this information useful.

    • Annette Wilkes 13 May 2016 / 10:20 pm

      It is a long time since your grandfather’s indiscretion with our relative Alice whose mother never wanted her to go and work for him. I knew, visited and corresponded with Rex who was my grandmother’s cousin. He was a very kind man. When viewed in the light of the times of his birth and upbringing in Christchurch it must have been very traumatic to find out that you had an illegitimate father- not to mention the bravery that his mother exhibited in taking the matter to court in those times. We have never been surprised that he did not return to New Zealand, nor that he tried to dismiss his humble origins and used impression management to make his way in the world. Without his generosity and talents the historical and artistic legacy of Pacific and Australasian heritage objects would not have been available as a collection for study and enjoyment. Thank you for ‘coming out’ on this issue, and we would be most grateful if you could contact Oliver Stead, a “Nankivell” scholar and curator of paintings at the Alexander Turnbull Library to inform him that your family have acknowledged the truth of ‘little Reggie’s” paternity. Annette Wilkes

  3. Sue Jones 2 October 2015 / 12:23 am

    We have a 1935 Bentley car which in 1953 was owned by Rex – does anyone have any photos of him with the car or details of him with the car. At that time the car was registered to his Gallery in Burlington Gardens, Bond Street. thanks – Sue at

    • Nat Williams 12 October 2015 / 6:36 pm

      Hi Sue,
      I am the James & Bettison Treasures Curator at the National Library of Australia in Canberra where we have Sir Rex’s remarkable Australasian collection. I was put onto your query Jan’s sister Jill who lives in Australia. Hello to Jan if you see this.
      There are some photo albums in Nan Kivell’s collection which show a Bentley of the period,I think, but it is a convertible. The photograph also features a rather glamorous woman and an Alsatian dog. The car rego number is SS 4880. Email me with a photo of your vehicle and I can compare it. Also he moved his gallery from Bond St to Cork Street in 1936 so it seems odd that he was still using his old address.

      • Sue Jones 12 October 2015 / 10:03 pm

        Hi Nat If you can let me have your email I would be delighted to send you some photos of the car – it was & still is a drophead with the reg nr of SS4880 still on the car. would love to see the other photos


      • Nat Williams 12 October 2015 / 10:59 pm

        Hi Sue,

        My email is I’ll look out the photos and send them. It would be great if you could identify the models of the ones I send. From memory there’s 3 or 4 different cars over the years. I look forward to seeing the pics of his old Bentley. He was a man with expensive tastes!


      • Paul 12 October 2015 / 11:02 pm

        Are these images avaibale on the NLA website?

      • Nat Williams 13 October 2015 / 11:43 am

        Hi Paul,

        No, the photos haven’t been digitized at this stage. Sorry.


  4. Jan England 7 October 2015 / 4:06 pm

    Hi Sue, the car must have been shipped from England, maybe after Rex owned it, or do you have more information? How grand it must be. Regards Jan

    • Sue Jones 7 October 2015 / 9:02 pm

      Hi Jan

      Once Rex made it to England he never returned to NZ or Australia although it remained in his heart. The car was delivered to his Art Gallery in London.



  5. Jan England 8 October 2015 / 8:51 am

    Thanks Sue, are you in the UK? I was presuming you were in N.Z. like me and wondered how the car would have come to be here as I knew Rex did not return to the home of his birth place. Thanks you for the chat.

    • Sue Jones 8 October 2015 / 9:01 pm

      Hi Jan,

      Yes in North Wales but my sister has lived on N. Island NZ for over 20 years and sadly I have yet to visit.



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