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Object: Three huia (Heteralocha acutirostris)

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Title Three huia (Heteralocha acutirostris)
Production Keulemans, J. G. (artist), circa 1900, London
Medium summary watercolour and gouache
Materials watercolour, gouache, paper
Classification watercolours, works on paper
Dimensions Image: 529mm (Height) x 724mm (Width)
Overall: 780mm (Height) x 830mm (Length)
Credit line Purchased 1993 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds
Registration number 1993-0029-6

The name of Sir Walter Lawry Buller is synonymous with A history of the birds of New Zealand, but the artist who produced its famous illustrations is less well known. Johannes Gerardus Keulemans was born in the Netherlands in 1842, and in 1869 he settled in London, where he became a highly popular illustrator of natural history publications.

Buller first published A history of the birds of New Zealand in 1873, having secured Keulemans, who was already establishing a name for himself, to do the illustrations. Keulemans never visited New Zealand, but drew from stuffed birds and specimens provided by Buller. For each illustration he first produced a drawing for Buller’s inspection, then a coloured painting, which served as the basis for the lithograph.

Three huia was painted for Buller’s 1905 Supplement to the birds of New Zealand, but was never published. It may have been exhibited in the Fine Art Court of the New Zealand International Exhibition, 1906-07, as part of a display of the original watercolour studies for Buller’s book. This would have been a rare context for Keulemans’ work, which was highly valued for its scientific accuracy but not, until the later twentieth century, for its artistic qualities.

Keulemans was conscious of the paradox posed by his profession. He considered that most birds were not suitable to be printed in colour, as ‘you cannot draw them true to life and at the same time perfectly in harmony with the rules of the art of painting’.(1) Nonetheless, this watercolour, which depicts one male and two female huia (the latter distinguished by their longer, curved bills), demonstrates his ability to blend scientific description with a lyrical touch.

The huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was highly prized by Maori and Pakeha. Its white-tipped tail feathers were worn by Maori chiefs as status symbols, and the birds’ unique beauty and unusual features made them attractive to European collectors. In 1892 the government set aside two islands as public reserves for the conservation of the indigenous fauna and flora, and extended the provisions of the Wild Birds Protection Act to the huia, but this was not enough to save them. The last sighting of a huia in its natural environment was in 1907.

Rebecca Rice

This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. Cited in Tony Keulemans and Jan Colderrey, Feathers to brush: The Victorian bird artist, John Gerrard Keulemans 1842–1912, CJ Colderrey, Epse, The Netherlands, and T. Keulemans, Melbourne, 1982, p. 39.

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