Page 1: Biography
Acres, Thyra Avis Mary
Artist, writer, illustrator, conservationist
This biography, written by Jill Holt, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Thyra Avis Mary McNeill was born on 26 March 1910 in Wellington, the eldest of four children of Jane Louisa Beatrice Thompson and her husband, Alan McKenzie McNeill, a journalist. In 1913 the family moved to Auckland, where Alan became a land agent. They rented homes in Mount Eden, Ponsonby and Remuera, with enchanting gardens that would have a formative influence on Avis’s development as a writer and illustrator of natural history fantasy.
From 1915 Avis was a pupil at St Cuthbert’s College, where she enjoyed English, French and art. In 1924 the collapse of a business venture her father had started forced her to leave school and find a job. She wrote show cards for shops for a while, then copied drawings for architects, and later decorated furniture. After learning pen-and-ink sketching at night school, she sold a cartoon series, ‘The Adventures of Twink and Wink, the Twinkle Twins’, and other illustrations to the Auckland Star ’s children’s page. At 20, with Nora Spence, a work colleague and friend, she set up a successful business painting on parchment and decorating household items.
On 14 August 1935 Avis married George Audley Johnston Acres (known as Bob) in St Mary’s Cathedral, Parnell. Bob was born in London and had worked in newspaper advertising before coming to New Zealand for health reasons. The couple bought a chicken farm near Hamilton and Avis became active in the Anglican community and the New Zealand National Party, and served as secretary–treasurer of the local Plunket Society. She also had oil painting lessons with Ida Carey and exhibited and sold paintings.
In 1950 Avis and Bob moved to Taupō, where she focused on her art and writing while he helped set up the Taupo Times, which he then managed. After seeing the book Gumnut babies, by Australian May Gibbs, Avis produced a comic strip featuring two pohutukawa fairies called Hutu and Kawa, who lived in the bush with friends such as Willy Weka and various pixies and elves. The strip was accepted for the New Zealand Herald ’s children’s page and appeared weekly from September 1950 until July 1960. Between 1955 and 1957 three popular Hutu and Kawa books, notable for their accurate rendering of New Zealand fauna and flora, were published by A. H. & A. W. Reed, the second in 1956 appearing at the same time as another of Avis’s books, Opo, the gay dolphin. She also wrote several nature study booklets, which Reeds published for schools.
Despite their fantasy, the Hutu and Kawa books conveyed an understanding of ecology and a strong conservationist ethos. In Hutu and Kawa find an island, Acres described the terrible impact of the possum on native trees and birds. In the same book she incorporated traditional Māori knowledge on making the sail for a canoe. To ensure that the details in her books were accurate, she undertook research in museums and libraries, and in the field. Her first three books sold extremely well, but sales of the fourth were disappointing. Although children loved the fairies, sections of the education and publishing worlds were ambivalent toward the mixture of fantastical narrative with accurate illustrations and information. Reeds decided against publishing further stories and her work was subsequently turned down by other publishers. However, in 1990 Heinemann Reed republished the Hutu and Kawa books.
Over the years Avis Acres continued to contribute to the household income. As well as selling paintings, she published articles on endangered species of birds and an identification guide to common New Zealand birds, and she wrote radio scripts and a play. Her bird sketches appeared in the Weekly News and her stories in New Zealand Horse and Pony. For many years she wrote and illustrated factual articles on birds for the junior section of Forest and Bird .
In the 1960s Avis and Bob moved to Levin, and then to Te Horo, where Avis illustrated a column and Bob was Ōtaki correspondent for the Levin Chronicle. They retired to Tauranga in the 1980s. Bob died there in 1993 and Avis on 15 October 1994; there were no children of the marriage.