Walter Buller Blind

by Jennifer Hay first published in Auction N˚1 catalogue, 25th Nov 2015

Walter Buller Blind, a triptych on loose canvas panels, is from W.D. Hammond’s acclaimed series of ‘Buller’ paintings from the 1990s that reference the carte blanche killing frenzy of the English ‘collector’ of exotic birds, Sir Walter Lawry Buller (1838 – 1906). Buller, a Victorian ornithologist and lawyer, traded in thousands of rare native New Zealand birds, his dark obsession driving many species to the brink of extinction.

Hammond’s allegorical interpretation of these events came about as a result of a journey to the sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands in 1989. This vast and strange landscape is shaped by the elements, and the birds that inhabit the area exist in a world ruled by beak and claw. Hammond’s observations, coupled with reading Buller’s abundantly illustrated A History of the Birds of New Zealand (first published in 1873), compelled him to visualise the story of these birds in this major body of work, along with his concern for environments under threat, the vulnerability of life in a precarious world and the complex relationships between humans and nature. Pre-historic New Zealand has been an abiding interest of Hammond’s, whose works often imagine a primordial New Zealand before the arrival of humans. As he says: ”The Auckland Islands are like New Zealand before people got here. It’s birdland.”¹

Like scenes in an unfolding drama, the Buller paintings signify misdeeds conducted in a paradise lost and offer a strange interpretation of post-colonial politics. As with many of Hammond’s works, these paintings evoke a stage set and have a theatrical emphasis on costumes. Works from the same year such as Shag Pile (from the collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu) and Staten Landt (in the Alex Baird Collection, College House, Christchurch), are both painted on Victorian wall fabric, the opulent patterns mingling with the designs depicted on the birds. The gold Victorian wall fabric upon which Shag Pile is painted recalls suffocating velvet-lined parlours filled with exotic curios, a black-humour equivalent of that modern status symbol, the shag-pile rug. Other paintings dating from 1994 are painted on Kauri wood panels, metal, plywood or vinyl wallpaper. The varied media upon which Hammond paints augment and relate directly to his compositions, some recalling Oriental screens while other canvas fragments resemble flags or remnants of a message from a forgotten civilisation.

Walter Buller Blind is a cynical word play on both the medium used, canvas ‘blinds’ (as if torn from a birdwatchers blind used in the field of observation), and the blindness of Buller’s folly, his inability to see his own cruelty and the far reaching consequences of his grim trophy hunting. It depicts three separate stages, -like a film zooming in on its subject—in this case, Buller’s unwitting prey, who exist in an indeterminate space. In the first panel, the diagonal sequence of birds stare into the distance, in the second they are getting closer and are on the move, while the third depicts a unit of watching and waiting birds reminiscent of the composition of Waiting for Buller,showing birds poised on precipices or scanning the horizon. Viewers can relate to the work as either the observed or observer.

The raggedy canvas edges and sepia tones lend the work a melancholy aura, offset by a typically ‘Hammondian’ sense of humour and characterization of the figures. Here, tribal birds are sartorially hip; theleader in his modern day plumage, a red Adidas tracksuit, while his partner is attired in a fern embellished dress with wishful transparent wings, anticipating Hammond’s later celestial bird figures of the 2000s. Interestingly, these print dresses acknowledge the artist’s mother and aunts, who wore fern-patterned dresses in the 1950s. In his words, ”the paintings started with the clothing, the dresses with ferns on them. On top of the dress, I wanted to put a passive head, a head that did not show any human qualities, any personality.”² This quiet passiveness, though, only adds to their air of dignity, and creates a sense of empathy for the birds, who seem to sense an oncoming encounter with the inevitable.

Throughout the evolution of Hammond’s signature Buller paintings, and enduring into his later works of complexity and decadence, a pervading sense of unease at the passing of time remains evident. As befitting an artist who likes a “good story,” Walter Buller Blind epitomises the imagery and symbolism of this creative period, combining the visual paradox of flat perspective and infinite space in the same picture plane with the subject matter of maligned and elegant birds, unable to fly to safety. It is a testament to the provenance of these works that the three panels, each canvas being signed and dated individually, have remained together. Read together, as they should be, this sequence of paintings creates a unique whole and contributes to the greater unfolding of W. D. Hammond’s extraordinary oeuvre.

Footnotes
  1. Gregory O’Brien, Lands & deeds : profiles of contemporary New Zealand painters (Auckland, N.Z.: Auckland, N.Z. : Godwit 1996., 1996), 58.
  2. Ibid., 59.
Read more about Bill Hammond