The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 3 (June 1, 1940)
The Early Artists — Of New Zealand — IV. — John Gully— — the Turner of New Zealand
Landscape art reached its zenith with John Gully.
Some years ago, I called him “The Turner of New Zealand, the greatest landscape painter of this country as was Turner of England,” a designation which no one has cared to dispute and which has from time to time been quoted in newspapers and periodicals in various parts of the country. His grandson, Mr. Lincoln Lee, who wrote a short biography of the artist, says that “Gully lives as a patriarch painter”; and it is true that his almost legendary figure gleams through the mist of years head and shoulders above his fellows—unapproachable, unchallenged, serene.
He was born at Bath, England, in 1819.1 Of his forebears, none showed artistic leanings; a John Gully (1783–1863) had eventually become very rich by trade. The future artist started life as an apprentice in an iron foundry where he was quickly transferred to the designing branch of the firm. His skill in drawing was not encouraged at any time except for a few lessons which he received from Muller, a landscape painter of Bristol, but they were evidently quite elementary; and apart from these, the man who was to become the greatest artist of his adopted country was entirely self-taught.
After a while, Gully, who had been trained as an accountant, entered the Bath Savings Bank in that capacity, and later took up accountancy with his father. While still in his twenties he married a widow, Jane Moore, formerly Miss Eyles; their home was at Bath and the family consisted of four boys and a girl.
1 1825 according to his son, the late H. V. Gully.
So one day, when his Maori workers had withdrawn from their somewhat feeble onslaughts on the land, he sat down among his unfelled trees and drew the sweeping curves of Egmont, the far sublimity of its cone, the long snow-swathed skirts where the mountain seemed to gather itself from the plain, and the range of hills from which it emerged, madder-purple in the sunset, as if stained with the west country bell-heather. In the foreground he painted his own trees; he saw them now as things of beauty—not as so many difficulties to be wrestled with.
As the light faded and gathering shadows gloomed over the heather-purple hills, smearing with chill greys the snow's far radiance, Gully the artist must have sighed as he packed up his brushes and trudged homeward, for he already knew that as farmer and settler he could never succeed.
It was not very long before Gully gave up the land. He had gone through a period of trial and disappointment; he would now lose the home he had managed to acquire, and a good deal of money. However, he found the life of a pioneer settler altogether too much for him, so he came into New Plymouth and took up his old business of accountancy for which the small tradesmen there provided an opening.
On the outbreak of war in Taranaki he volunteered for active service, but his health was quite unfit for its hardships, and in a short time he was forced to give that up also, whereupon he decided to leave Taranaki for good and to settle in Nelson, the sunniest province in New Zealand. So in 1860 he set sail once more with his family and the little he had managed to retrieve from his unfortunate venture.
Nelson provided the atmosphere that Gully found lacking in Taranaki. It gave him the easier type of suburban life that he required, far removed from the difficulties of a settler. Here he obtained a position as draughtsman in the Provincial Government Survey Office, and also as drawing master at Nelson College; and in a short time was able to maintain a standard of living equal to that “of most well-to-do people in the Nelson of his day.” His home, described as “a relic of bygone days” was surrounded by orchard and garden; and here Gully spent many happy hours cultivating his flowers. Roses were his favourites, of which he was said to possess one of the best collections in the town.
Besides painting and gardening, the artist had a great love of music which he gratified by belonging to various musical societies and by joining a church choir. At this time we may imagine him as rather tall and slender in build, with something “almost Spanish in his appearance,” with “a firm wide mouth, broad receding forehead … and deep-set eyes under strong curving brows.” His sense of humour and the cheerful kindliness of his disposition endeared him to all, as well as the generous nature of his criticisms of the work of others. Among his many friends, Bishop Suter, of Nelson, became a great admirer of his personality, as of his art, and has left many written statements in his praise.
In the large garden Gully soon built for himself a studio, “which became the rendezvous of his intimates and family,”1 and here it is delightful to picture the artist at work in his spare time, for only the last ten years of his life were exclusively devoted to painting. He usually worked on several pictures at once, using only the best materials—true ultramarine at a guinea a cake, and paper of the finest and stoutest. He chose large brushes and liked to have plenty of paint mixed in saucers; this he frequently applied with much water, superimposing one wash over another to attain some of his sky effects.
From this happy home, Gully made many sketching tours, one of which nearly ended his career. On January 28th, 1865, he accompanied the Superintendent of Nelson Province to the West Coast, and at the mouth of the Buller River their small boat capsized on the bar. Four members of the party were drowned before help was forthcoming, but Gully was fortunately among the survivors.
1 1825 according to his son, the late H. V. Gully.
Sir James Fergusson provided the artist with some of his finest material by offering to take him on a sketching tour round the West Coast Sounds, using H.M.S. Blanche for the purpose. Here Gully revelled in the sublimity of New Zealand's mountain scenery; and many of his paintings, afterwards lithographed in a folio volume, were secured on this trip.
Gully rarely spoke in praise of his own work; he was modest about it, but he knew its worth. In the late 1870's and early ‘eighties he reached the “peak period” of his art, discarding the conventional forms in which he had formerly worked as a sort of tradition. He loved the “calm, wide” aspects of New Zealand landscape rather than the weird or the wild, and preferred sunshine to storm. “His pictures have more of heaven than of earth in them,” writes his friend, “more of sky than of land, but a passing shower he enjoyed, only it must be passing, or if there was a mist it must be exhibiting signs of haste to lift and get away before the ascending sun or the rising wind.”1
The peaceful happy tenor of Gully's life was clouded towards its end by a long and painful illness, during which, his grandson tells us, the unfailing humour and cheerfulness of his disposition never deserted him, and he would often make little sallies of wit from his bed. He died on November 1st, 1888, having had the satisfaction of selling his work at good prices both in England and in Australia, but without, I think, a realisation of the position his name would occupy among the landscape artists of New Zealand.
Throughout his life Gully was faithful to water-colours; he is only known to have painted one small picture in oils when still a youth. His first New Zealand painting he sold in Nelson for a guinea; but later his work was to command the high prices it deserved, and which were necessary to support his family during the years of his retirement.
He was a well-known exhibitor at all exhibitions of the New Zealand Art Societies, and also in Melbourne. His “Mount Cook and the Southern Alps” was hung at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1871; and in 1886 he sent several paintings of the Kaikoura Mountains, Lake Wakatipu, the coast of Tasman Bay and the Waimea Plains, Nelson, to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition. To his surprise they were all sold. His work was also well known at exhibitions of the Royal Water Colour Society, London.
Nov. 3rd, according to H. V. Gully.
His grandson says that Gully awoke to the new art, and became in later life, more modern in his treatment of foreground, but he seldom introduced figures or cattle which he had never studied. An exception to this generalisation occurs in a beautiful painting of the Wairau Gorge (in the possession of the author's mother). It shows a herd of Jersey cattle on a grassy slope descending to the river. A drover on horseback is also shown, and these animals, although drawn to so minute a scale, are very lifelike, even to the faces with tiny indications of horns.
1 Bishop Suter.
In “Mount Cook and Mount Tasman from the West” Gully drew the giant mountains emerging from a misty veil of cloud, their summits hoary against a stormy sky, the flanks of the nearer ranges glacier-gashed, the foreground, a sombre sweep of sea. Von Haast says that “Mr. Gully, when passing in H.M.S. Blanche along the West Coast was not so fortunate as to have a clear view of this grand panorama, as the weather was stormy, and the sky dark and cloudy.” However, he worked up the scene into several remarkable pictures including “Running for Milford Sound,” and “Captain Cook's Ship Endeavour off the West Coast” (1887)3 No body colour is used either on snow or clouds; the blue of the mist-wrapped mountains is perfect.
It is quite apparent that Gully loved the sky, and that his treatment of it was “truly poetic.”4 In his skies he approaches nearer to Turner than in any other aspect, and his power to render the most subtle effects of atmosphere and of light, in a climate where these offer every gradation of colour in perpetual change, did not fall short of genius. He did Mitre Peak and Mount Cook against clouds rose and copper from sunsets which streaked their icy summits with colours even purer and more flaming. Here is something that transcends technique, for in looking at almost any one of his paintings you are immediately transported far away beneath heights of mist-wrapped peaks, down among the broken lights and shadows of some translucent river, or out into the broad plains of sunlit distance; but wherever it may be, there is a soul behind the picture, an elusive something, beckoning you into the heart of that perfect thing which it mirrors—it is the soul of the real New Zealand.
Her glory of mountains, her placid river reaches, her ravines deep with the green wealth of bush, her ineffable heights of gleaming glacier and windtossed cloud, her skies shot through with the fire of sunset, her hills blue with the peace of summer or wrinkled hoar beneath the icy touch of winter, her atmosphere, her very self—all these have been caught by Gully's art in such a way that no other interpretations of New Zealand can at all compare with his.
Modern criticism of Gully finds in his sketches and unfinished work (mainly in the possession of his family) grounds for supposing that he lost some of the freshness of a first impression in the completed pictures on which his fame rests. It is known that he did spend much of his time on foreground detail, making use of the notes which he had jotted down on the spot in order to preserve truth to nature. But art is still so young in the country of his adoption, its tendencies having leaned of late towards a retrograde style of impressionism, that it is unsafe to judge such mastery of landscape technique by standards lower than those established over sixty years ago. That is to say, that art in New Zealand has in a hundred years produced some notable painters, but it has also given rise to a fair number of daubers, and it is the daubers who do most of the talking, and whose efforts clutter the walls of some of our galleries to the exclusion of the “masters.”
The largest collection of Gully's work is in the Suter Memorial, Nelson, where over thirty pictures show the development of his powers from the earliest to the latest periods. The galleries of all the capital cities have also secured representative examples, of which the Dominion Museum and Art Gallery (Wellington) is said to possess two of the best.
That Gully was well able to catch the spirit of native vegetation in some of its most characteristic forms is shown in a painting of open country round the Motueka River, where flax, cabbage palms and toe-toe grasses form a foreground backed by misty purple hills. The graceful sword-like leaves of these plants give a particularly New Zealand flavour to many of his studies whose river reaches, wild ravines and towering mountains could scarcely be those of any other country. Raupo fringes the shores of his “Lake Taupo”; pungas (treeferns) smother the foreground of his “Gorge of the Manawatu”; and in countless studies Gully showed his understanding of the most intricate details of plant life, as well as of the sublimity of great mountains and the evanescent glory of the sky.
The late J. P. Firth was among Gully's many patrons. He purchased two other large pictures in addition to the Wairau Gorge. These paintings are before me as I write, and are of exquisite beauty. Unfortunately they are not named, but the treatment of water into which the surrounding hills sink without a ripple to mark their submergence and the limpid calm of their reflections equal anything of gallery standard, and show that, although undated, they belong to the peak period of his art.
Gully was one of the few men who could really paint snow. He knew the colour of its shadows, neither blue nor grey, but a perfect mingling of both. He knew how to make his clouds rise from it and his mists cling to its cold whiteness, which he attained without the use of body colour. And above all, when his peaks were outlined, his skies washed in, tender as pearl or faint from the passion of sunset, he could call down the mountain mist upon the scene, winding its luminous veils of mauve among glacial ravines, or trailing them upward to mingle with the brooding clouds.
Such art is above the criticism of lesser men. Modern methods can no more emulate his achievements than can the thistle by intensive cultivation become a rose; and when the daubs of futurist anad impressionist are alike discounted, the masterpieces of John Gully will remain upon the walls of those fortunate enough to possess them.
3 In the Auckland Art Gallery.
4 Lincoln Lee.