Artist and surveyor.
A new biography of Gully, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
John Gully was born in Bath of a family to which also belonged the prize fighter, John Gully (1783–1863), and Sir William Court Gully, Q.C., who became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1895.
Gully was apprenticed to an ironfounder, and his skill in drawing led him from the workshop to the draughting department. After completing this apprenticeship he joined the staff of the Savings Bank at Bath and later became an accountant in his father's business there. During this period he took lessons in landscape painting, but except for a few further art lessons from a Bristol artist called Muller, Gully was entirely self-taught. In his early twenties, he married Jane Eyles, a widow with one child. In 1852, attracted by Hursthouse's book describing New Zealand, he decided to emigrate, sailing on the John Phillips. Landing with his wife and young family in New Plymouth, he took up farming in bush land at Omata, Taranaki. During this period he also painted a little, Mount Egmont being a favourite subject. He soon abandoned farming in favour of clerical work in New Plymouth. In the Taranaki War, he served with the Volunteers, but his delicate constitution suffered from the strain and exposure and, on being invalided out, he decided in 1860 to sail to Nelson where he obtained employment as drawing master at the college, devoting his spare time to painting. In 1863 he was appointed draughtsman and surveyor in the Provincial Service under J. C. Richmond whom he had previously known in New Plymouth. The two men were to become lifelong friends. During the time he was with the Survey Office, and particularly after his retirement in 1878, Gully made many extensive sketching tours, reaching as far south as Milford Sound and as far north as National Park, sometimes accompanied by J. C. Richmond, himself a fine watercolourist.
Gully sent five pictures to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London in 1866. He frequently exhibited in local New Zealand exhibitions and for some years sent to the Society of British Water-colour Artists. In 1871 he exhibited in the Royal Academy. In 1877 Henry Wise and Co., Dunedin, in conjunction with Marcus Ward and Co., London, published a portfolio containing chromolithographs of some of his paintings of New Zealand scenery, with descriptions by Dr Julius von Haast. Gully was dissatisfied with the production, and there was no reprint. A kindly man of genial manner, with interests in music and gardening, Gully enjoyed a considerable artistic reputation in his own lifetime, and his watercolours, many of large dimensions, were eagerly sought after. He died at his home in Trafalgar Street, Nelson, on 1 November 1888, survived by his wife and family of four sons and one daughter, two other children having died in childhood.
Gully was an artist of impressive output, and pre-eminently a landscape painter in watercolours. Particularly after 1868, he often worked on a large scale. His many pencil studies and quick wash drawings, in colour and sepia, reveal that his approach was most painstaking. He carried on the topographical tradition of earlier painters, frequently using many superimposed washes, with a free use of body colour. His insistence on the use of the best materials has meant that his paintings have lasted well. In its uncompromising fidelity to nature, his work is inclined to be overloaded with detail and suffers from a number of conventions of style, but Gully had a fine treatment of skies and distances and handled washes on a heroic scale. His subjects embraced rugged mountain and bush land, placid lakes and tranquil pastures. Many of Gully's works were purchased for galleries in New Zealand and some for Australia, and he is also represented in many private collections. His work can best be seen at Suter Gallery, Nelson, and most other galleries in New Zealand have examples.
by Thomas Esplin, D.A.(EDIN.), Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Home Science, University of Otago.
- John Gully — A New Zealand Artist, Lee, C. L. (1932).