Review: Ray Ching New Zealand bird paintings

Reviewed by Keith Woodley

Ray Ching New Zealand bird paintings is one for anyone with an affection for birds or art.

A byword for detailed bird paintings, Raymond Ching is a name known to many New Zealanders. He is a superb draughtsman with impressive skills at rendering texture. Such qualities no doubt help explain his high profile, though I suspect the prices his work have realised since at least the 1970s played no small part in cementing him in the consciousness of many kiwis. How many homes in this country have had Ching prints on the walls?

Born in New Zealand, he moved to the United Kingdom in the late 1960s and has mainly lived there ever since, although periodic visits have kept him in touch with New Zealand bird life. I once encountered a group of wildlife artists at an event in London, all of whom knew Ching. Two words seemed to recur in conversations: obsessive and eccentric.

Field sketches are an essential part of his process, as is the use of taxidermy specimens. He appears to have a voluminous collection of such items, much of it dating from his arrival in the UK. In 1968 he bought at auction an entire collection of thousands of mounts and study skins. This then required transporting to his studio, which he organised by hiring 20 London taxis.

To eccentric one could also add prolific. There is clearly a strong compulsion at work: how else to explain the extraordinary productivity of the man? During more than six decades of books and exhibitions, there has come a steady output of richly detailed and intricate works, not just of birds.

Mammals also feature regularly as do portraits of people. Early works include a remarkable portrait of a young Kiri Te Kanawa. More recently there have appeared more surrealistic images, often juxtaposing people and wildlife, sometimes as contemporary fables. All of it beautifully rendered.

But birds remain the predominant theme. This splendidly produced volume is a collection of paintings and sketches from the last 50 years. More than half the images have appeared in earlier books but there are many from the last ten years making their first appearance here.

It is a selection of species rather than comprehensive coverage – though most bird families are represented. Multiple images of some species are shown, others just the one. Matuku/bittern and tētē/grey teal are present as fledglings. The kāhu/harrier is represented only by a few lovely pencil sketches, which, given how ubiquitous they are along almost any road in the country surprises even the artist.

“I don’t know why it should be,” he writes, “that over the years I should have painted so few of these fully adult birds, but none could I find for inclusion in our book.”

There is variable, sometimes cursory text, for most species, often augmented by illuminating accounts and reflections from earlier authors such as Walter Buller, W.H. Guthrie Smith and Edgar Stead. There are also interesting comments from the artist about his work. His observation about the shag family, for example, will have any bird artist nodding in agreement. Their habit of posing with wings stretched out to dry, make them the perfect models. Kererū, on the other hand, are a source of tribulation: “Its curiously small head and large ‘shoulders’ have caused me about as much trouble in drawing as almost any bird I can think of.”

It is interesting to compare earlier work with the more recent: from the tightly detailed compositions of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Buller’s shearwater or pied stilt through to looser, sketchier but still detailed contemporary work. A 1979 oil of takahē, for instance, has tonally richly rendered plumage — you can almost feel the silky texture — while in a study from 2013, more thinly diluted oils have produced a surprisingly intimate portrait.

Of the few overt eccentricities depicted here, one falls victim to a perennial problem for publishers of art books, where images are spread across two pages. In a portrait of two kōkako, one bird holds in its bill a tin of house paint, the other a long brush, the full effect of which is lost in the page fold.

Notwithstanding this blemish, publishers Potton and Burton are known for high production values and this volume is no exception. It is one for anyone with an affection for birds or art.

Reviewed by Keith Woodley