Early Years

Len Lye was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1901. His father died when Len was only two. His most vivid childhood memories came from the time he lived at the lighthouse at Cape Campbell (at the top of the South Island). This gave him a lifetime interest in the patterns of waves and the forms of nature and marine life. Unfortunately this period came to an abrupt end when the lighthouse-keeper who had become his step-father had to be committed to a mental hospital.

Len had a loving mother but she struggled to support herself and her two boys. He had to leave school at 13 because the family could not afford to send him to high school. But with great skill and determination, he educated himself through public libraries. As a teenager he was able to enrol for some part-time art classes, but as an artist he was mostly self-educated. By his late teens he appears to have known more about international developments in modern art than anyone else in New Zealand.

Despite the many challenging experiences of his youth, Lye was known for his good humour, independent spirit, and creative flair. As his classmate Gordon Tovey put it: “What a spark he was!”

He became one of the first modernist artists in New Zealand. Growing up in the South Pacific region gave him a different set of interests from modern artists overseas. For example, he studied Maori and Aboriginal art and Pacific tapa design.

He lived in various parts of New Zealand until he left for England in 1926. During those years, however, he made several visits to Australia, and spent approximately one year in Samoa.

Photo Gallery: Early Years

Cape Campbell lighthouse where Lye lived as a boy
Len with his younger brother Philip, 1918
A page from Lyes Totem and Taboo notebook, circa 1924
A drawing of Samoan tapa patterns from Lyes sketchbook
Lye in Sydney, c. 1925