John Gully 1819 - 1888


In January 2017 I visited the wonderful Suter Art Gallery in Nelson. The Gallery opened 118 years ago and underwent a major redevelopment in 2016. It incorporates a café, a gift shop full of artistic delights, a 150 seat theatre and a spacious gallery. The Suter has the largest collection of watercolours by 19th century artist John Gully. Gully always insisted on using the best materials, so his paintings are even now in good condition. I found close study of Gully paintings to be a fascinating and useful experience and was drawn to learn more about the artist.

New Zealand artists of the 1840s and 1850s had a job to do: selling the newly opened land as the location for a fresh successful life. As the century moved on, towns became established and a New Zealand social identity evolved. Artists looked to infuse their landscapes with a new depth of feeling. Hamish Keith in his book The Big Picture says ‘From a colonising art, the painting of landscape became a civilising art.’

At this time the Romantic Movement was pervading the arts of Europe. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats were eulogising daffodils and nightingales in poetry. In art, nature and pastoral scenes became a focus. John Constable was painting peaceful countryside under glorious skies. William Turner was using his watercolours to paint landscape, but landscape infused with light, expressing emotion and spirituality. News of such developments filtered across the globe. John Gully and his contemporaries viewed the Romantic Movement with fascination, but learning to paint their New Zealand landscape with such intensity was challenging. Gully met this challenge bravely.

The atmospheric qualities of his watercolours were much admired by his contemporaries, who felt he effectively captured the rugged beauty of his adopted land.He was probably the most popular artist of his era in New Zealand – an impressive achievement for someone with no formal training. John Gully was born in Bath, England in 1819 and at the age of 13 became an apprentice in the design department of a foundry.

With his apprenticeship completed, he entered the business world of Bath and developed an interest in the pastime of painting. A genial man, he married Jane Moore, a widow with an infant son and they emigrated to New Zealand in 1852. Their early years in New Plymouth were a struggle, but in 1860 the family, now with 6 children, moved to Nelson and John’s fortunes changed. He bought a house in Trafalgar Street and built a large studio. The geologist Julius von Haast commissioned him to paint 12 watercolours of the Canterbury mountains to illustrate a lecture he would deliver at the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1864. Gully became parttime drawing master at Nelson College for a period and then in 1863 his friend J.C. Richmond, a politician and amateur painter, assisted him in finding a position as draughtsman at the Nelson Provincial Survey Office.

In 1865 Gully exhibited at the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin. He won a silver medal and sold all the paintings he exhibited before the exhibition even opened. With this success he became one of New Zealand’s foremost watercolourists. He exhibited in Nelson, then went on to show in Melbourne, where his popularity led to an ongoing association with the Victoria Academy of Arts. In 1878, at the age of 60, he was able to commence life as a full-time artist.

In 1884 the town of Nelson commissioned Gully to execute a painting ‘which may be the first picture to be accessible, so far as arrangements can permit, to all inhabitants of and visitors to Nelson.’ The result was The Western Coast of Tasman Bay. In 1886 he exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London and with
the Society of British Watercolour Artists. His last big exhibition was the Wellington Industrial Exhibition of 1885. In 1889, a year after his death, he was celebrated with a special showing of his works at the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin.

John Gully often made sketching trips, sometimes accompanied by his friend J.C. Richmond, another fine watercolourist. In 1874 he journeyed by yacht from Golden Bay to Milford with then governor, Sir James Fergusson. A quote from his diary gives a glimpse of the artist’s attitude: ‘Sketched hard all day. Governor fishing. Wine very good. I’m quite happy with the scenery, which is grander than any seen yet.’

He ventured into the South Island mountains, to Milford and intothe central North Island, returning with many pencil studies and quick wash drawings in colour. From these he developed his large watercolour paintings, altering the landscape to achieve a more awe-inspiring and romantic effect. Mountains became loftier and craggier, valleys became shrouded in mist. Accurate drawing of the landscape was sometimes less important than creating splendour.

Human figures were included only to enhance the grandeur and scale of the scenery. This reflects the awe of settlers, coming from a gently undulating ‘green and pleasant land’ to a terrain of alps, canyons, geysers, and impenetrable forests.

Gully painted almost exclusively in watercolour, using a painstaking method of building his painting. He applied many superimposed washes, sponging out areas between layers, dabbing in colour to create warmth or shadow and occasionally scratching back to the paper. He made free use of body colour. Body colour or gouache has been used for over 600 years. It is paint consisting of pigment, water and a binding agent. It is similar to watercolour in that it can be rewet and can fuse with the paper. It dries to a matte finish. The lighter tones contain white. Gully’s compositions were clearly defined: a foreground, a mid-ground and a distant ground. He often used rocks or a rugged path as a lead-in.

Gully was an integral part of a colonial art world, eager to discover and display a unique identity. His images of the grand New Zealand landscape had great public appeal at home, in Australia and in Victorian England. He had the honour of having a watercolour hung at the British Royal Academy. It might be said that his work
engendered in new settlers a pride in and love of the wild landscape, a landscape as yet unaffected by urbanisation. John Gully stands among New Zealand’s foremost watercolour artists and his work remains popular today.

Franz Josef Glacier, by John Gully
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki,
gift of Mr Norman B Spencer, 1967/19/2

In the Southern Alps, by John Gully 1881 457 x 601 mm
Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936,
Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa

Western Coast of Tasman Bay, 1885 by John Gully
Collection of The Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakatū
Purchased by public subscription in 1885 as the first painting
for a public art collection in Nelson.

Watercolour NZ
Follow us on Facebook Contact WNZ

Copyright © Watercolour New Zealand and its contributors. All Rights Reserved.