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Nan Kivell, Sir Rex De Charembac (1898–1977)

by John R. Thompson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell (1898-1977), by Robert Buhler, 1969

Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell (1898-1977), by Robert Buhler, 1969

National Library of Australia

Sir Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell (1898-1977), art dealer, collector and cultural benefactor, was born on 8 April 1898 at Christchurch, New Zealand, son of Alice Nankivell. His Christian name was registered as Reginald. Cornish in origin, the Nankivells of New Zealand's Canterbury Plains were small businessmen, not the patrician landholders Nan Kivell alluded to in later revisions of his family history. He was raised in the home of his grandparents George and Annie Nankivell whom he sometimes referred to as his parents. His primary education at New Brighton Public School was not followed by study of the classics at Christ's College Grammar School, as he subsequently alleged. In an interview towards the end of his life, he said that his interest in collecting had been stimulated in his childhood by 'Sidney Smith', a dealer in antiquarian books. Nankivell began reading history and geography, especially works on European voyagers in the Pacific.

Overstating his age by two years and describing his occupation as bookbinder, Nankivell enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 31 May 1916. His service in England (1916-19)—on the staff of No.1 New Zealand General Hospital, Brockenhurst, Hampshire, and at the New Zealand Command Depot, Codford, Wiltshire—was undistinguished and marked by delinquencies such as insolence, stealing and using a travel warrant, and masquerading as an officer. Although he claimed to have been gassed on the Western Front, he never saw action. An extended period of leave (October 1917 to May 1918) gave him an opportunity to pursue his growing antiquarian interests. Discharged from the N.Z.E.F. on 13 May 1919 in England, he was employed as a judge's marshal for some years. He worked on the La Tène archaeological excavations in Wiltshire and presented (1930) the objects he unearthed to the Devizes Museum. His subsequent assertion that, for this work, he was appointed to the Danish Order of Dannebrog apparently lacked foundation.

As early as 1918 he had begun to style himself Rex de Charembac Nan Kivell. This form of his name reflected his creation of a new persona. He resolutely discarded his modest antipodean origins to emerge as an up-and-coming gentleman art-dealer in London in the 1920s. He began to visit galleries and exhibitions by contemporary artists, honed his skills of discrimination and connoisseurship, and developed a taste for the best of modern European art. At the same time he began to collect books, paintings, prints, documents, manuscripts and artefacts relating to the history of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. These twin interests were to dominate his career.

In 1925 Nan Kivell joined the Redfern Gallery. By 1931 he had assumed control as managing director. His association with the Redfern, maintained in partnership with Australian-born Harry Tatlock Miller, continued until his death. The gallery promoted contemporary art, assisting a number of British artists who became major figures. Nan Kivell helped to bring to England the work of important European painters, and he encouraged some young Australian artists, including (Sir) Sidney Nolan.

Prompted by conversations with Maie, wife of R. G. (Baron) Casey, to whom he was distantly related, Nan Kivell considered making parts of his Australasian collection available for use in Australia. In 1946 he commenced discussions with London representatives of the Commonwealth National Library (National Library of Australia), Canberra. Three years later the first consignment of his pictures, books and other material reached Canberra on loan to the library. Although he was unfailingly generous in honouring his commitment to allow the library full use of his collection, he was cautious in defining any agreement concerning its ultimate disposition, or in stating terms for its donation or sale.

Part of the difficulty was that the collection was not exclusively Australian and that Nan Kivell felt an obligation to the country of his birth. More to the point, the collection represented a bargaining chip in his quest for a knighthood, which he saw as a key to his social and professional advancement in Britain. Eventually, in 1959, he sold his collection to the Australian government for £70,000, a fraction of its true value. This modest price, combined with his later gifts to the N.L.A., established him as one of the country's greatest cultural benefactors. Despite a number of invitations, he never visited Australia and never returned to New Zealand. In 1953 he had donated hundreds of contemporary prints by British artists to New Zealand institutions for the fine arts.

On the recommendation of the Australian government, Nan Kivell was appointed C.M.G. in 1966 and knighted in 1976. He died on 7 June 1977 at Paddington, London, and was buried with Anglican rites in the parish churchyard at West Lavington, Wiltshire. His estate was sworn for probate at £653,747. Bequests included water-colours of natural history subjects to Queen Elizabeth II, and his gold watch and bracelet to his chauffeur. His collection—which includes more than 1600 original drawings and paintings, over 3000 prints and some 5000 books, as well as maps, photographs, manuscripts and artefacts—has exercised a substantial and enduring influence on Australasian historical and artistic scholarship. A number of major paintings from the collection were placed on permanent exhibition in the National Gallery of Australia in 1992. Robert Buhler's and Bryan Kneale's portraits of Nan Kivell are held by the N.L.A.

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.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Thompson, 'Self-Made: Towards a Life of Rex Nan Kivell', in Paradise Possessed (Canb, 1998)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 30 Jan 1957
  • Art New Zealand, 66, 1993, p 78
  • Times (London), 21 June, 5, 27 Oct, 15 Nov 1977
  • Bulletin, 3 Aug 1982
  • H. de Berg, interview with Rex Nan Kivell (transcript, 1970, National Library of Australia)
  • Nan Kivell papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

John R. Thompson, 'Nan Kivell, Sir Rex De Charembac (1898–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nan-kivell-sir-rex-de-charembac-11219/text20003, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 27 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell (1898-1977), by Robert Buhler, 1969

Rex De Charembac Nan Kivell (1898-1977), by Robert Buhler, 1969

National Library of Australia

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Nankivell, Reginald
Birth

8 April 1898
Christchurch, New Zealand

Death

7 June 1977
London, England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation