Artwork Detail

Watching For Buller
Paramount Winner, 1994 Wallace Art Awards.

Watching for Buller is the defining work in a major series which grew out of Bill Hammond’s participation in a government–sponsored artists’ visit to the Auckland Islands in 1989. There Hammond discovered the extraordinary density of bird populations relatively unscathed by human interference, and was struck by the comparative depletion of bird species on the main islands of New Zealand. This powerful revelation provided material which Hammond has continued to refine and rework for more than two decades. He began to strip urban references from his paintings to reveal the land beneath – a land ravaged by urban growth and agricultural industry. In 1994 he remarked that the Buller paintings actually began with an interest in clothing, and dresses decorated with fern motifs. The birds’ clothing is a reference to the still-present Victorianism of provincial New Zealand, and especially the fern-mania that was a constant preoccupation of Victorian artists and designers, which found its ideal destination among the prolific ferns of New Zealand.

Born on a remote mission station in the Hokianga, Walter Lawry Buller (1838-1906) had a deep hunger for recognition in England. He was a lawyer by profession but channelled his ambition into science – his book describing New Zealand bird species, A History of the Birds of New Zealand (London 1972-73), gained him the praise and reputation he craved. Lavishly illustrated with hand- coloured lithographs by JG Keulemans (1842-1912), the handsome volume typifies the Victorian obsession with collecting and classifying specimens. Buller carried on killing native birds even after it was generally recognised that many species were threatened with extinction, and in contempt of laws passed to protect them. The birds who watch for Buller in Hammond’s painting are also awaiting their death and departure from the earth, just as human spirits take the form of birds before departing for Hawaiki in the Maori tradition. As much as providing a commentary on how humans have oppressed native species in this country, Hammond’s anthropomorphic birds suggest how human expression has been stifled by the grim conventions of a utilitarian social ethic, in a nation defined mainly by its agricultural interests.

Catalogue text:
Published on the occasion of the Twenty Wallace Art Awards Paramount Winners Exhibition.
14 February to 22 April 2012 at The Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre and 2 August to 30 September 2012 at the Wallace Gallery Morrinsville.
Oil on Canvas
1000 x 1200 mm
Signed and dated
Accession number

Part of 1 highlight set