Landscape painter John Gully was born in Bath, England in 1819. He was largely self-taught, though he did take a few private lessons. After reading Hursthouse’s ‘Account of the Settlement of New Plymouth’, Gully emigrated to New Zealand with his wife and three children in 1852.
Gully originally settled on a small block of land in Omata, Taranaki, working in various jobs including farming and clerical work. During this time he advertised as a painter of ‘views’ of properties to send back to England. He eventually ended up bankrupt and so took some art pupils. In 1860 driven out by the land wars of Taranaki Gully moved with his family to Nelson.
He was appointed part-time art master at Nelson College, though because he was self-taught and not schooled in the classical style, he was not popular with the principal.
Eventually in 1863 Gully got a full-time job, with the assistance of his friend, politician and amateur painter James Crowe Richmond, as a draughtsman at the Department of Lands and Survey. Gully and Richmond painted landscapes together at Milford Sound, Lake Manapouri, and other locations.
In the same year he successfully applied to illustrate a paper that was to be presented to the Royal Geographical Society by the famous explorer and geologist Julius von Haast. Haast had reservations about Gully’s skill, but both the paper and Gully’s twelve illustrations of lakes, mountains and glaciers in the South Island were a great success and established Gully’s reputation.
Gully sold the watercolours he submitted to the 1865 Otago Exhibition before it even opened, and when it did open, he gained a silver medal. Gully’s large watercolours became immensely popular at the Art Society shows, even if some were based on sketches by other artists, or on photographs. ‘His “two views of Mount Cook from the West Coast,” carefully drawn on the spot by John Rochfort excited favourable comment. It was generally opined to the best watercolour in the [1865 Otago] exhibition’ (1).
At the height of his popularity, Gully exhibited at the 1871 Christchurch Exhibition, but his work was coolly received, one painting being described by a critic as ‘muggy in the extreme’, another ‘very crude’, and yet another was accused of having ‘unreal ideas’ (2).
In 1871 a work of Gully’s, Mount Cook and the Southern Alps, West Coast of New Zealand, was included in the British Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. Gully saw acceptance by this group as the high point of his career. This was a considerable achievement for a self-taught artist from the colonies. Gully had thought that success in England would confirm his ability and was particularly anxious to sell his work on the English market. ‘I shall no doubt find out whether I can paint or not, for [England’s] the place to take it out of a fellow if he has any conceit’ (3).
Gully accompanied Governor of New Zealand, Sir James Fergusson, on a trip aboard HMS Blanche to Milford Sound in 1874. His intention was to make sketches for a book on New Zealand scenery, though the weather was too bad to draw most of the time. In the end Gully painted some scenes from photos taken by Alfred Burton, the eldest of the famous Burton Brothers.
In 1877 Gully published a portfolio of chromo-lithographs, with text written by Sir Julius von Haast. Gully was not happy with the way his paintings reproduced – ‘he could not see that his work, too weak to reproduce well, was bound to produce a “washy” effect’ (4). Nevertheless, the portfolio sold quite well and is now a collector’s item.
The next year Gully retired from his job as a draughtsman and turned to painting full-time. He continued to paint and exhibit, his last big exhibition being the Wellington Industrial Exhibition in 1885. John Gully died in 1888, in Nelson.
(1) McLean, Fred. (1991). Fame Mounts in the Far South. The Dominion 16 January.
(2) McLean, Fred. (1991). Expos Bring Some Fame if Not Fortune. The Dominion 17 January.
(3) McCarthy, Conal. (1990). John Gully. In Treasures and Landmarks: an education kit. Wellington: National Art Gallery.
(4) McLean, Fred. (1991). Gully Ends Life as Good Amateur. The Dominion
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).