This essay originally appeared in New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2018).

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.

These works come 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.

Milford Sound had its origins in sketches Gully made on a trip south in 1877. Contrasting a lone boat against looming peaks, the painting captures the feelings expressed by one visitor, who wrote that ‘the stupendity and grandeur of our surroundings and own significance and littleness were fully brought home to our minds’.1 Similarly, in Gully’s In the Southern Alps a lone rider makes his way along a ridge into the mountains and an oncoming storm.

While these 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 backgrounds 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.

Rebecca Rice

1 ‘Round the Sounds in the Hawea’, unsourced article pasted into WM Hodgkins’ Sketchbook, vol. 3, Hocken Library, University of Otago, cited in Julie King, ‘In pursuit of sublime landscape’, Art New Zealand, no. 47, Winter 1988, pp. 99–100.


  • Title: In the Southern Alps
  • Creator: John Gully (artist)
  • Date Created: 1881
  • Location: New Zealand
  • Physical Dimensions: Frame: 873mm (width), 745mm (height), Image: 601mm (width), 457mm (height), Support: 601mm (width), 457mm (height)
  • Provenance: Gift of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, 1936
  • Subject Keywords: Landscapes (Representations), Mountains, Horses, equestrians, Southern Alps, Romantic
  • External Link: Te Papa Collections Online
  • Medium: watercolour
  • Art Genre: landscape
  • Support: paper
  • Depicted Location: Southern Alps
  • Registration ID: 1936-0012-189

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