Leonard Mitchell and the War Memorial Library Murals

In October 1955 Wellington artist Leonard Mitchell was commissioned to paint three murals for the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library, then under construction. The murals were the largest commissioned in New Zealand up to that time and they needed to be completed for the Library’s opening in February 1956.

Self portrait with Pat, in the studio while painting Lower Hutt Memorial Library murals, 1955 (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1990-0005-1)

War and Sacrifice and The Four Freedoms

These two murals (Their Sacrifice and Preserved Freedom) were installed in the Memorial Hall at the front of the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library. The first represents the armed services and others who contributed to the war effort. The second depicts the freedoms of worship and speech and freedom from fear and want.

The murals are linked by two trees. The battle-scarred tree on the left in War and Sacrifice represents future growth and the tree of life on the right of the Freedoms mural symbolises humankinds ultimate fulfilment.

mitchell mural 3
Lower Hutt War Memorial Library Mural ‘Their sacrifice’ painted by Leonard Mitchell, 19? (Hutt City Libraries Collection)
mitchell mural 4
Lower Hutt War Memorial Library Mural ‘Preserved Freedom’ painted by Leonard Mitchell, 19? (Hutt City Libraries Collection)

Human Endeavour

This mural is inside the Library and depicts real people from Lower Hutt. The subjects were selected by Ron Muston, the Library’s architect, to represent a cross-section of the city’s population. A wide range of occupations are represented including, actress, shop assistant, butcher, grocer, and business people. Probably the best known subject is Walter Nash, local MP and Leader of the Labour Party. The artist included himself and the architect.

None of the men or women in the mural are named. This was intentional. Muston said at the time, “we got people to pose on the understanding that they would not be publically named, they were painted because they represent types”. However there has been considerable interest over the years in the actual subjects and most have now been identified.

mitchell mural2
Lower Hutt War Memorial Library Mural ‘Human Endeavour’ painted by Leonard Mitchell, 19? (Hutt City Libraries Collection)

Painting the murals

Mitchell started by drawing detailed sketches of the various people. These are now held by the Alexander Turnbull Library.

mitchell mural sketch
Peter Bleakley, fitter for the New Zealand Railways workshop (Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: B-125-022)

Initially it was thought that the murals would be painted directly on to the walls but Mitchell insisted they be painted on canvas. This made the task more difficult because  the canvas didn’t arrive at his studio until late December and the murals were unfinished when they were collected for installation. Mitchell completed the murals on site with assistance from his father Leonard Cornwall Mitchell and his brother Frank.

Mitchell finished off the painting just as the first guests arrived for the official opening on 28 February 1956.

mitchell mural 5
Official opening of the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library on 28 February 1956 (Hutt City Libraries Collection)

For more information about Leonard Mitchell and his work visit www.leonardvictormitchell.co.nz

Human Endeavour
Human Endeavour
Their Sacrifice
Tier Sacrifice and Preserves Freedom


  1. I was deeply moved by these images, as a child visiting the library, from the late 1950’s. The combination of the absolute silence in the foyer, and the powerful images created a feeling of great reverence.

    1. I was born the year the murals were commissioned. 1955. Growing up in the Hutt the library was a focal point and so were these depictions of life. I was always happy to see the ballerina painted and included. I was a ballet student and the depiction of the ballerina as being recognised as part of a very male dominated work, was encouraging and inspiring. I now live in Ak but visit my Grandchildren in Hutt regularly. Next visit in Oct, will be taking them for a visit to the library.

  2. Excellent summary – thanks. Would have been useful to add the recent book on Mitchell & his work, and its Hutt Library reference so that reserves could be placed etc etc.

  3. My uncle, Peter William Barlow (1906-1987) is portrayed in the mural. He is the gentleman seated second from the right reading a letter. Uncle Peter was Manager, BNZ Lower Hutt from 1952, and lived at 24 St Albans Grove. He was a JP and also Treasurer of the St James vestry. He was also involved with Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, Masonic Lodge, golf and bowls. (His son Peter, my cousin, was principal of Hutt Valley High School from 1980-1989).

Leave a Reply