Wanted: shell paintings by Frank Sargeson’s imprisoned lover

Steve Braunias presents part three of his possibly endless saga about the shell painter who went to prison for having sex with writer Frank Sargeson.

Len abides. Until very recently, the only remaining public record of the life and times of Leonard Hollobon (1889-1992) had him relegated to the role of some poor schnook who picked up the great New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson on the wharves of Wellington one night in 1929, had sex with him, was arrested (his crime was to be gay when homosexuality was against the law), put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to five years hard labour at New Plymouth gaol. This version was established by Michael King in his masterful biography of Sargeson. And that’s where the story of Hollobon ended – in jail, his name spelled wrong in King’s book (“Hollobin”), and nothing more about him was ever heard.

But now he’s everywhere, sort of. My recent investigations at ReadingRoom – a long piece, and a sequel starring Marcus Lush – have brought Hollobon into the light, and created new interest in his work as a painter of lonely scenes on the inside of mussel shells. The feature image of this story is of two of Hollobon’s shells in the home of New Zealand poet Lyn Davidson – who lives in Edinburgh. Len abides; Len travels.

I got curious about Hollobon when I read the Sargeson biography as part of my research before interviewing CK Stead and Kevin Ireland for a profile in the Herald. Stead and Ireland are among the last living authors who knew Sargeson as a friend; the interview was conducted at Sargeson’s weird old shack, now kept as a museum, at 14 Esmonde Road. We talked about Sargeson throughout our two hours there and one of the subjects was Sargeson’s arrest for his encounter with Hollobon, and how it was the turning point in his life.

Then going by his real name of Norris Davey, Sargeson got off with a suspended sentence. But he was so traumatised by the experience that he laid low on his uncle’s farm in the King Country for five years (his own term of imprisonment), finally emerging to take up residence in Takapuna with his new name and his new mission to become New Zealand’s first professional writer.

Good for Sargeson. It was Hollobon, though, who attracted my interest. What happened to him? What was his story? History, and of course journalism, often treats people as bystanders, with cursory regard  - their lives are reduced to an incident, it’s rightly or wrongly reported, and the person themselves disappears into a kind of oblivion.

An interview with his niece Merle Pash has brought Hollobon back to life. And the discovery made by broadcaster Marcus Lush that he owns two of Hollobon’s shell paintings has, in turn, brought out more of his shells.

One reader, who preferred not be named, sent in photographs of a Hollobon work of his favoured image – a sailboat at Mitre Peak – on a board, and his signature on the back of it. This was unusual: Merle had said that after his arrest, Hollobon’s father Jesse, also an artist, strictly forbade him to sign his artwork with the family name. But the board was created in 1962. Jesse Hollobon died in 1945. His wishes and his command had passed their use-by date.

Front and back of the board painted and signed by Len Hollobon. Photo: Supplied.

By strange coincidence, poet Lynn Davidson (her first collection was published this year by Shearsman in the UK, and Victoria University Press here) chose to post images of her Hollobon shells on Twitter this week, and to wonder who had created them. She was instantly referred to my stories at Newsroom. I got in touch with her, and she said, “I was given the shells many years ago by a friend. It was early 2000s and we were both living in Island Bay. When I moved to Edinburgh three years ago I got rid of lots of my worldly goods, but the painted mussel shells stayed with me. I love them.”

I love them too. The lonely scene, the delicate colours, the unpeopled land…Okay. ReadingRoom ought not operate as Trademe but if anyone has a Hollobon shell they want to sell, for the love of God get in touch. I’d be thrilled to possess this fetching little object which comes close to kitsch but has something else going on, something beautiful, that qualifies it as the very thing that Frank Sargeson worked hard to make: a work of art.

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