Dear Colin, Dear Ron: The Selected Letters of Colin McCahon and Ron O’Reilly

A long friendship in art and ideas through letters.

By Peter Simpson

Publication date: April 2024
NZ RRP (incl. GST):
Extent: 528 pages
Format: Flexibind with jacket
ISBN: 978-1-99-116552-7

Buy Dear Colin, Dear Ron

This substantial book of letters selected by esteemed Colin McCahon scholar Peter Simpson shines a light on one of the most remarkable relationships in New Zealand art.

The painter Colin McCahon and the librarian Ron O’Reilly first met in 1938, in Dunedin, when McCahon was 19 and O’Reilly 24. They remained close, writing regularly to each other until 1981, when McCahon became too unwell to write.

Their 380 letters covered McCahon’s art practice, the contemporary art scene, ideas, philosophy and the spiritual life. Dazzling in their range, intensity and candour, the letters track a unique friendship and partnership in art.

The book is illustrated with 64 images, all discussed in the letters. Simpson’s selection represents the first time these letters have been transcribed and collected in what is an act of great generosity to future scholars. It adds a new dimension to an understanding of McCahon and his career and is a rich and lively addition to any art lover’s McCahon library.

O’Reilly’s son Matthew O’Reilly and McCahon’s grandson Finn McCahon-Jones contribute insightful essays that round out the unique perspective the letters afford.

Look inside Dear Colin, Dear Ron

Review highlights

  • Newsroom, book of the week, reviewed by Martin Edmond. “A magnificent achievement in scholarship. It is also a typically handsome and accessible production by Te Papa Press.”

  • RNZ Nine to Noon, reviewed by Lynn Freeman. “The transcription of all of these letters I think in itself is a gold medal achievement. … It’s beautifully illustrated, just a lovely, lovely book. … You will learn so much, and as an anatomy of a friendship it is actually beautiful.”

  • Art New Zealand magazine, reviewed by Michael Dunn. “[A] remarkable publication. … The inclusion of colour plates of some of McCahon’s paintings referred to in the letters greatly helps the reader to follow the often detailed discussion between the correspondents. … Viewed overall the letters provide fresh information not only about McCahon and O’Reilly but also about the art world at that time.”

  • National Business Review, reviewed by Nevil Gibson. “Simpson’s transcription and editing of the handwritten correspondence are extensive and exhaustive. … This degree of scholarship doesn’t detract from the readability of a primary source that is unmatched in New Zealand art history.”

  • New Zealand Arts Review, by John Daly-Peoples. “The book is  a masterpiece of academic scholarship and shows a daunting level of  hard work … to make the contents of the letters fully accessible to contemporary readers. … [The letters] provide a fascinating insight into a relationship which is both personal as well as verging on the philosophical and spiritual as they both try to understand  their own and each other’s motivations and ideas.”

About the author

Peter Simpson was Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Auckland for 30 years. He is one of this country’s most experienced and prolific writers on art. He has curated three significant exhibitions of McCahon’s art and among his many books are a major two-volume work on McCahon. He writes regularly for Art New Zealand and major art catalogues. In 2017 he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.