Buller's Birds of New Zealand: The Complete Work of JG Keulemans - review

by gabeatkinson / 13 December, 2012
JG Keulemans’s timeless illustrations for Buller’s Birds have never looked better.
A kea (left) and a kākā

I've never weighed a book before and one doesn’t value books by weight, but at 2.9kg (according to my kitchen scales) this hefty volume is more than value for money. Buller’s Birds of New Zealand: The Complete Works of JG Keulemans by Geoff Norman combines high-quality Victorian book values with 21st-century printing technology, and the result is a timeless treasure. It’s a tribute to the London-based Dutch ornithological illustrator Johannes Gerardus Keulemans, who provided 95 handcoloured prints for three different editions of Sir Walter Buller’s books on New Zealand native birds between 1873 and 1906, and it’s the first time all the art works have been reproduced in one place.

But although these bird prints were first published more than 100 years ago, they will be familiar to many generations of New Zealanders. That fantail from the second edition that appears on page 129? Until the early 1990s, it was the fantail on our one-dollar note. Before the fantail, it was the brown kiwi on page 109 that graced the country’s first official banknotes, and also appeared on school writing pads during the 1950s and 1960s.

An extra pleasure of this book is that many of the images have never looked so good, as Norman tracked down a set of artist’s watercolour proofs for the second-edition prints that are more luminous than anything we’ve seen reproduced before. Are all the illustrations perfect renditions of each bird? Well, no, but that they’re as good as they are is testament to the prolific Keulemans’s skill as an artist, for they were produced from lifeless museum specimens, supplemented by Buller’s sketches and field observations.
Buller's Birds of New Zealand by Geoff Norman
Norman lets the bird images stand as fine works of art, but he also provides an incisive introduction that combines history, biology, printing techniques and art history to put the book in context, and he has chosen delightful brief excerpts from Buller’s original text to accompany each image.

The result is a remarkable – and sometimes poignant – insight into New Zealand birdlife during the 1800s. We may no longer have living huia or piopio, but at least, in those days before photography, we had artists of Keulemans’s calibre to craft their portrait. This is a coffee-table book in the finest sense – a classic big-boned beauty that reminds us why we like e-readers, but love books.


Writer and broadcaster Alison Ballance’s Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction won the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2011 Science Book Prize.


To read a first-hand account of the rediscovery of the takahē, click here.
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