Words on the great Don Binney by, Barbara Speedy
Director, The Diversion Gallery, Picton
Manunui, Queen Charlotte – Don Binney’s later bird paintings
I was fortunate to have known and worked with Don – and become close friends – from the very late 1990s, the beginning of this period of resurgence of the birds, some years after they had disappeared from his work, to the regret of many collectors and art lovers.
It’s worth noting that a contemporary artist’s early career tends to get a lot of attention from art historians – those works are the focus of tertiary study, or theses, or books on the significance of works of the artists of that era. Their late work is sometimes overlooked, until some years after they have passed away, when a new cohort of arts writers and historians look at the bigger picture, the lesser known, and the importance of later works.
This painting, Manunui, Queen Charlotte has special significance, to me personally, and to the artist.
It reminds me of how we quietly introduced Don Binney to Marlborough and particularly the Sounds, thinking he’d find a response here. We effectively seduced him with the Sounds landscapes, and of course, its birds.
For Don, it represented a period of searching for new territories to respond to, and often these were landforms that reminded him of the Waitakere Coastline in the days it was sparsely populated.
He found something in Marlborough that seemed to belong more to the birds still, than to people. He’d become increasingly disillusioned with the effects of human occupation on the Waitakere Coast, and my understanding is – his later works of that area were as much based on revisiting his early works as visiting the coast itself. (An aside – you can read in his own words of his 50 years of engagement with that Coast, in the lovely volume Drawing the Waitakere Coast). He began exhibiting with The Diversion Gallery in Marlborough in 2001, although his first solo exhibition with us was not until 2002, and that was when his engagement with Marlborough really began. By the time Manunui Queen Charlotte was painted in 2005, he felt he was starting to get to know the Marlborough Sounds and its inhabitants. The title of that exhibition Deep Sounds reflects his sense of growing familiarity with this place and the different, mainly sea birds within it.
So, effectively, it marked a high point in a new era of painting birds, after an absence of many years. And Manunui, Queen Charlotte ultimately proved to be the largest of his Marlborough Sounds series of the 2000s, and one of very few oils – most of the Marlborough works were in pencil or other dry media
There are only a few featuring Sounds birds, however – interestingly, in 2003 he explained “the birds find their way into paintings of places where they have actually shown themselves”. There was a small gannet, against the dark hills of the Kenepuru Sound, and a black fantail – Dark Morph, Marlborough – which flitted in at Portage Bay – ‘oooh, I know I’m in the South Island now’, he said. That was when I learned that the black fantails are exclusive to the Mainland. I learned a lot about birds from Don. There was also a shag that held its ground on the jetty at Bay of Many Coves as he watched and drew. Like many of this era, they were notably within or physically linked to the landscape, their habitat; whereas his earlier works featured birds fixed in a separate visual compartment, the sky, above and separate from their habitat below. These later birds from 2000-2012 were more realist, not emblematic, and the produce of over 50 years of observing, drawing and painting, which adds a deceptive sense of effortless to them, most notably in this work.
In his later career, Don Binney found travelling with oils awkward, so in Marlborough he carried watercolour paper, and his favourite French pencils, producing detailed drawings of the overlapping ridgelines that were often reminiscent of his Waitakere heyday.
By the time he did this painting, he’d visited a number of times, for exhibitions at The Diversion and other occasions. We arranged a short retreat at The Portage Hotel, leading to a series of the Kenepuru Sound in soft winter light; on a later trip he went to stay at The Lazy Fish Resort way out in Queen Charlotte Sound. That became a favourite haunt, and the foundation of a series.
He talked about getting to know the Sounds through his detailed pencil drawings, some from the Lazy Fish, some from boat trips across to Bay of Many Coves, and towards the northern entrance to Cook Strait. In the artist statement for Deep Sounds, anchored by this painting Manunui Queen Charlotte, he said: “I am only beginning to feel my way over these waters … their own colours and spatial qualities are starting to suggest.’
The Queen Charlotte, Seaward drawings led directly to Manunui, Queen Charlotte – you can glimpse that gap of light to Cook Strait beneath the bird. The first was a study in black pencil, on fine paper, in 2004. He said drawing on this was like skating on ice, compared to the heavy toothed watercolour paper he preferred, to let the light in.
Then followed the colour pencil works Queen Charlotte, Seaward I, and II. You can see how they translated through to the light in the painting, the sense of the eye skimming horizontally across the water to the far coast.
He worked carefully, and the word prolific would never be applied to him – he was constantly under pressure to produce works featuring birds, but as he said on a number of occasions: ‘I’m not a short order cook.’ Ultimately, that desire to escape commercial city pressures led him to Marlborough more often, and for the last six years of his life his only solo exhibitions were with The Diversion – and all his works he showed to and discussed with me. He liked the portability of colour pencil, and he played his cards close to his chest about the nature of upcoming exhibitions. Thus, when a bird painting was revealed, it was without apparent fanfare.
I remember well that moment of first encounter with Manunui, Queen Charlotte. I arrived at the Binney home in Parnell and initially he showed me various colour pencil works which would feature in the exhibition. These were always more than mere drawings, they were detailed, with colour laid in as carefully as his paintings.
I didn’t know he’d done a painting, let alone one featuring a bird, or anything of scale, because I never pressured him. ‘There’s something you might like to see up the stairs,’ he said without ceremony. ‘Just go up, in the studio on the right’. He left me to go and look alone. What a privilege that was, and what a discovery.
The space was small, cramped really, tucked in an awkward attic area under the slope of the roof. Natural light poured down from a skylight. Manunui, Queen Charlotte was set on an easel, wedged between the walls and his trolley of paints and brushes, hardly room for the artist. Don preferred this rather humble place to paint, although he had a larger studio available. Manunui was a breath-taking sight, with all that airy light, and the gannet sweeping through.
Compared to many works of that period, this was of substantial scale. He no longer worked on massive scale, so this was significant. His birds of this decade – many of the later ones landbound – often had a serenity to them, this one perhaps most of all, skimming the water.
It still has those classic Binney hallmarks. The lines of the wings, the body, the head, are echoed or reflected in the landforms of its habitat, but there’s a sense of peace or freedom about it, a different energy to the paintings of his youth.
Taking a decent photo of it was almost impossible because the skylight fell only over the middle section, so the edges remained dark. On no account was I allowed to move it – it was still wet. So I persuaded him to let me take some photos of him beside the work. You can see in the portrait of him with the painting, his quiet pride in this work. That deceptive simplicity. The essence of light. The effortless creation of depth across an expanse of water. Over 45 years of studying and painting birds, went into this.
I’ve been thinking recently how far ahead of his time Don Binney was, not just about environmental matters but also about identity. Birds have come to represent who we think we are.
Even back then, in the 60s and 70s, he connected so well it created a fierce demand – so much pressure, he rejected the birds and turned to other media, other subjects. When I first met Don Binney in the late 90s, he told me he gave up painting the birds because everyone demanded them, and defined him only as a bird painter.
But he agreed he missed it hugely, that time of observing, encountering, and painting. He came back to it in the early 2000s – after reflecting on our conversation – and for the next dozen years produced paintings that had a different energy, an observation, a re-engagement with something he loved.
It’s there in all these later birds – he was painting these for himself, and for the birds themselves. There were still causes, sanctuaries, protests, and he contributed to them, and perhaps his biggest motivation was simply to get us to stop and look at them, linked into their habitat.
Interesting to note – the later birds were often gannets and other seabirds, compared to the earlier subjects who dwell in the bush or on the edge of the land. I don’t recall seeing many gannets – or seabirds even – in his earlier works, yet they frequently populate this later period. Gannets over Cape Kidnappers, hovering over Rakino Island, wheeling above their roost at Muriwai, and whipping through the Queen Charlotte Sound. There’s a great segment with Jeremy Wells in the programme Birds where they sit on the cliffs above the Muriwai coast and observe the birds, and talk about why he depicts them as he does. Manunui, Queen Charlotte was unusual, also for its proportions. Long and narrow, it emphasised the speed of the bird whipping past, which is how you see them when you’re out on the water in the Sounds.
The other big difference in this period was the way he depicted the birds. Less stylised. More realistic. He knew them well, and he wasn’t always using them as an emblem. It was their territory, he said, and he the observer.
For the subsequent solo exhibition, Seaward Paths to Erangi, Don Binney wrote:
‘The sky, the sea, the land is all there and you are there on its terms … we are beholden to old forces that endure. Is it then folly or a trivial act to try to describe it in words … or drawing, or painting? To describe, yes. To celebrate, no. It is appropriate to celebrate that which you find awesome, unique, healing.’
We’ve just had the first exhibition of Don’s work since he died six years ago, from the studio collection, and I have to say the response was an avalanche from around New Zealand. The purpose was to seed fund a major book on Don’s life and work. It’s well overdue, but we’ve now secured a great writer in Gregory O’Brien and publisher in Auckland University Press. Flight Path won’t just be about bird paintings and his early works, it will also be about drawings, and key paintings like this from his later career. That is the monograph he wanted, comprehensive, and this is why it has taken so long to bring to fruition.
I’d like to thank Bruce and Ewen from Webb’s for their interest in the story behind this work and his late career paintings. When the book Flight Path is published, we’ll see the full context and significance of this series of works. Until then, I hope I’ve been able to offer a few insights into a distinctively different period of one of New Zealand’s best loved artists.