John Gully, like many landscape painters of the nineteenth century, was influenced by the famous English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Painters of the Romantic school often produced landscapes of picturesque lakes, lofty mountains, and mist-shrouded valleys. These images were intended to arouse feelings of awe in the viewer, at both the vastness of nature and the majesty of God’s creation.
John Gully painted watercolour landscapes around New Zealand, particularly of lakes and mountains in the South Island, including Mt Cook (now known as Mount Aoraki) Milford Sound, Westland and the area around Nelson.
Gully developed his paintings from rough pencil sketches or preliminary wash drawings, which were altered when translated to the full-size canvas. It was not uncommon for him to exaggerate the scale of a painting, or add in foreground details in order to make a landscape more picturesque, even if this meant that the finished scene was not totally accurate.
Gully was known to paint landscapes from sketches by other people, including the geologist and explorer Julius von Haast and the painter John Rochfort. He also used photographs to paint from, including those of the nineteenth century photographer Alfred Burton.
In keeping with the Romantic tradition, Gully’s landscapes show little sign of human presence. Where you do see people, the grandeur and scale of the landscape completely overshadows them. Though not necessarily a conscious intention of Gully’s, this could be seen as a reflection of the colonization process in New Zealand, ‘many colonial landscapes – which depict ‘empty’ countryside that is apparently uninhabited, apart from occasional European figures as ‘spectators’ – could be seen as expressions of the settler-society’s desire for control of the land’ (1).
It could also be argued that painting images of New Zealand’s natural beauty instilled a sense of national identity in the colonials who had Gully’s paintings on their walls: ‘it can be justly said that John Gully’s work helped to establish in the minds of newly-settled gentlefolk from Victorian England a taste and love for the wild exotic beauty of New Zealand.’(2).
There has been debate about Gully’s merit as an artist, both during and after his lifetime. The public loved his work, considering it to be of superb quality. His conservative images of lakes and mountains were very appealing to the Victorians and he received high praise both in New Zealand and Australia. In 1865 he was awarded a silver medal at the Otago Exhibition and had the honour of having one of his watercolours hung at the British Royal Academy. Gully was thought by one critic to be the ‘greatest landscape painter of this country, as was Turner of Europe’ (3).
However, Gully’s execution was often hurried (he would refer to his churning out of ‘pot-boilers’), and it seems he was often more worried about the financial rewards his paintings would bring than the paintings themselves. One critic at the 1871 Christchurch Exhibition condemned the ‘poor perspectives, weak figure work and clumsy shading’ found in his paintings (4).
The watercolour paintings of John Gully were built up in carefully planned layers, with the foreground, middle ground and background all clearly identified by the appropriate scenery. Like Turner, Gully painted on the colours in layers, sponging out his first workings, applying washes of colour to create a sense of light and atmosphere, and then scraping off the surface to recover the white of the paper.
Gully’s paintings capture the details of the New Zealand landscape before major colonisation and urbanisation, and represent the response of a colonial artist to the influences of European painters like J.M.W. Turner.
(1) McCarthy, Conal. (1990). John Gully. In Treasures and Landmarks: an education kit. Wellington: National Art Gallery.
(2) Docking, Gil, and Dunn, Michael. (1990). Two Hundred Years of New Zealand Painting. Auckland: David Bateman. Revised edition. p 54.
(3) Docking and Dunn. (1990). p 52.
(4) McLean, Fred. (1991). Gully Ends Life as Good Amateur. The Dominion. 18 January.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).