One of the most popular and successful New Zealand artists of the late nineteenth century, John Gully arrived in Taranaki in 1852. After unsuccessful attempts at farming and shopkeeping in the province, Gully was evacuated to Nelson with other settlers following the outbreak of hostilities with Taranaki iwi in 1860. It was there, first as drawing master at Nelson College and then as a draughtsman in the provincial survey office, that his artistic career took off.
This paintings comes from the latter part of Gully’s career when, after retiring from surveying in 1877, he was able to dedicate himself to his art and search out suitable subject matter. It was a period in which areas of New Zealand were opening up to travel, and it coincided with the emergence of an arts infrastructure — Gully had been a foundation member of the Otago Art Society in 1875. Both were vital factors in his success.
In Gully's painting In the Southern Alps a lone rider makes his way along a ridge into the mountains and an oncoming storm, his tiny form contrasted with the vastness which surrounds him. While such manifestations of the sublime are late echoes of those found in the works of JMW Turner, Gully’s watercolours might not have induced feelings of terror before nature in their viewers. Indeed, colonial audiences were just as likely to feel a swelling of patriotic pride when presented with views of the landscapes over which they could now claim possession.
Gully’s approach to landscape was underpinned by a remarkable facility with his chosen medium. He worked by establishing his atmospheric back grounds through the application of broad, wet washes, and then built up detail in the foregrounds. These would become dense with pigment and vigorous brushwork, and even scraping and scouring of the paper. If such an approach passed from artistic fashion in New Zealand soon after his death, Gully’s public popularity has endured.
Adapted from an essay originally published in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).