Buller's Birds Of New Zealand: The Complete Work Of J. G. Keulemans
by Geoff Norman (Te Papa Press $150)
Art, history, ornithology, conservation and craftsmanship converge in this exquisite new edition of J. G. Keulemans' 19th century watercolour studies of New Zealand birds, accompanied by Walter Buller's text.
In the introduction, Stephen Fry writes of his first meeting with Sirocco the kakapo, the seriously misguided bird that tried to mate with the head of his friend Mark Carwadine as they filmed the television series Last Chance To See. Sirocco and Carwadine's hysterically funny, if painful, "bonding" went viral, the bird has since become a roving ambassador for conservation and, writes Fry, "Sirocco the kakapo was like a gateway drug that got me hooked on conservation and hooked on New Zealand and its story".
New Zealand's story, before the arrival of man and associated pests, is that of a singing land full of birds "until extinction stalked the islands", first because of those scavengers and then, outrageously, because of humans - the collectors, cataloguers and taxonomists who wiped out species as they methodically shot and stuffed birds by the thousands.
Buller and Keulemans were deemed pioneers for their much-admired collaboration A History of the Birds of New Zealand, first published in 1873 and expanded in 1888. Although a new edition was printed in 1986, this is the first time a collection of Keulemans' 95 prints has been printed in full correct colour since the 19th century, with Norman discovering the original watercolours in the Ornithological Branch of the Natural History Museum in England.
Norman details the careers of both men in an introductory chapter, placing their practices - Buller's in particular - in a historic context, as the country moved from exploitation and a so-what assumption in the 19th century that certain species were simply doomed; evolving towards an ethos of protection and, eventually, legislation that many still believe is not strong enough.
But for many species, the changes came too late: Listed in this rollcall as extinct - although many were already wiped out before Buller's time - are the laughing owl, bush wren, Chatham Island fernbird, North Island and South Island piopios, South Island kokako, New Zealand quail, Dieffenbach's rail, the huia, Chatham Island rail, New Zealand merganser and the Lyall's wren.
Will the kakapo follow? Well, if Sirocco's attempts at mating with a human head are anything to go by, possibly.
We will never know first-hand what those extinct birds looked or sounded like, but here they are within the pages of this beautiful boxed set, its gold-edged pages presented in the same size and order as the originals.
Norman's introduction concludes with an acknowledgement of contemporary artists like Don Binney, Shane Cotton and Bill Hammond, whose painting Camouflage is reproduced, "expressing abhorrence for the collecting mania of the late 19th century". Camouflage features a bright yellow kakapo, stuffed and mounted in a Victorian drawing room, and such an "ornament" is not based on Hammond's imagination. This book truly is a collector's item, this time a benign kind of collecting.