John Gully


Born in Bath, England, John Gully came from humble beginnings. He was largely self-taught as an artist1, although he did receive some tuition from watercolourist W.J. Muller in Bristol, but it wasn't until he came to New Zealand that he tried to make a living from his artistic talent.2

The Gully family, including wife Jane and four children, arrived in the town of New Plymouth in May 1852,3 having landed in Auckland a month earlier. Gully tried farming and storekeeping but was declared bankrupt in 1856.4 John was painting at this time, mainly scenes of Mount Taranaki, and was also secretary of the Taranaki Institute

John GullyGully, Mr. [John] The Nelson Provincial Museum, Davis Collection: 1138
Click image to enlarge

Like many refugees from the New Zealand Land Wars, the Gully family came to Nelson, arriving in April 18605 and Gully gained a part time temporary appointment as drawing master at Nelson College in April 1861.6  He also held drawing classes and sought commissions. However,  it wasn't until geologist Dr Julius von Haast commissioned him to prepare 12 large watercolours to illustrate his paper:  ‘Notes on the Mountains and Glaciers of the Canterbury Province, New Zealand' presented to the Royal Geographical Society in London in February 1864 7, that Gully began to establish his reputation - and ease his financial situation.8 Gully had met von Haast in Taranaki.

The glacier paintings were based on von Haast's notes, sketches and watercolours.9 Although Gully had never visited the landscapes at this stage, he added a poetic grandeur and sense of space.  The ‘remarkable coloured sketches' remained in the Geographical Society's archives for 110 years, until they were bought by a  New Zealand Government grant in 1974. They are now at the Alexander Turnbull Library.10

Mrs [John] GullyGully, Mrs [Jane], Senior. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Isaacs and Clark Collection: 7207
Click image to enlarge
The Western Coast of Tasman Bay 1885  John Gully, The Western Coast of Tasman Bay 1885. Image courtesy Bishop Suter Art Gallery.
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With a fulltime job at the Nelson Survey office earning £200/year and commissions rolling in, Gully was becoming quite affluent.11  The New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865 was a triumph for Gully, although the year nearly began with tragedy, when he was washed off a boat in the mouth of the Buller River- three men were drowned in the accident.12

By November 1866,  the Gullys had bought and moved into a house at 407 Trafalgar Street South, . A plaque at the site commemorates this. Gully wrote, at that time,  to von Haast that he was ‘up to his neck' in commissions.13 However he did not forget the patronage of his friend and wrote that he was ‘glad to make any sketches for you at half price.'14

Wangapeka Valley 1886 John Gully, Wangapeka Valley 1886. Image courtesy Bishop Suter Art Gallery.
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Gully was also grateful to his friend from Taranaki, James Richmond, who as commissioner of Crown Lands in Nelson was responsible for Gully getting the job in the survey office,15 which he held until his retirement in 1876.16

In the 1860s migrants, businessmen and farmers were all showing a keen interest in New Zealand17 and Gully, astutely, continued to supply the demand for pictures for the growing number of affluent settlers.18  Gully exhibited throughout New Zealand and in Melbourne, London and Vienna and was regarded as a major colonial watercolour artist.19

Richmond and Gully formed a lifelong friendship and went on many sketching trips together. Gully's granddaughter Cora Turnbull wrote of them: "He and his great friend, Richmond, also an extremely good artist......did a lot of travelling around New Zealand by horseback with Maori guides and pack horses....I remember mother (his daughter Fanny) telling us they would disappear into the wilds sometimes for six weeks and how anxious the family sometimes got.20

John and Jane were both excellent gardeners and Cora remembered the beautiful rose garden and the fruit- raspberries, gooseberries etc..21  Gully was very fond of children (he and Jane had six)  and ‘not above vamping and whistling at the piano' with his grandchildren.22

The Gullys' tombstonesTombstones c.1889.[John was buried beside his son John, who died aged 21] The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 40314. Click image to enlarge

Gully died of cancer on Thursday 1 November, 1888 and was buried in the Wakapuaka Cemetery. Richmond wrote of his friend: "We shall not soon see so gentle and generous a nature to fill up his place." Richmond also valued Jane Gully, who died in November 1903: "He had a cheerful home and a fine, sensible wife who made both ends meet and relieved him from the heavy care of a poor man's life." 23

John Gully painted between 700 and 900 paintings in his lifetime.24  His scenes of an unpeopled land and early colonial life provide a visual historical record of early European settlement. At one time he was the most popular, and expensive, artist painting in New Zealand, although his style later fell out of favour.

In 1876, the year of John's retirement as a draughtsman, it was proposed that the city should buy a Gully painting for the public Art Gallery in Nelson being proposed by Bishop Suter. This eventually happened in 1885 and a public subscription raised funds to commission and purchase The Western Coast of Tasman Bay.25  The Suter Art Gallery's collection of Gully paintings largely dates from his retirement to his death.  Gully developed a friendship with Bishop Andrew Suter, who purchased a substantial collection of his work; 23 paintings formed the nucleus of the Suter Art Gallery's collection.26

John Gully's studio

Gully studio

The glazed gable from Gully's studio, salvaged and sited at Nelmac. Nelson City Council

John Gully lived in a small house and studio on the site of what is now 407 Trafalgar Street South from 1866-1888. The house has a replica of the studio built into it. The original studio, with skylights just bellow the eaves to maximise natural light, was demolished at the end of 1995, as it was unsafe. The glazed gable at the top was salvaged and stored at Nelmac nursery, with a view to possible future installation at the adjacent Founders Park. However, this never happened and the remaining pieces of the building slowly deteriorated and were discarded from either the nursery or Founders. In 2013 there was a plan to recreate the Gully Studio at Founders park, however this has not yet eventuated.


Edited December 2023

Sources used in this story

  1. McLean, Fred (2001). John Gully, painter: a biography. Wellington: N.Z. p 9
  2. McLean, p 46
  3. Gully, John Sidney (1984). New Zealand's romantic landscape: Paintings by John  Gully. Wellington, N.Z.: Millwood. p 13 
  4. McLean, p 35
  5. McLean, p 41
  6. McLean, p 51
  7. The artist and the historian: the romantic landscape(1985, September) Journal of the New Zealand Federation of Historical Societies 2(3), p.13-15
  8. Gully, p 25
  9. The artist and the historian: the romantic landscape
  10. Paul, J. (1977/1978) Twelve watercolours of glaciers in the province of CanterburyArt New Zealand,  8. p.56-59
  11. McLean, p 87
  12. Gully, p 30
  13. Gully, p 33
  14. McLean, p 90
  15. McLean, p 106
  16. Gully, p 66
  17. McLean, p 67
  18. McLean, p105
  19. The artist and the historian: the romantic landscape
  20. Gully, p 89
  21. Gully, p 61
  22. Gully, p 99
  23. Gully, p 99- 100
  24. Gully, p103
  25. Gully, p 89
  26. The Suter Art Gallery. John Gully Collection:

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  • Excellent presentation on John Gully last night - Nelson Historical Society/ Suter event

    Posted by John, ()

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Further sources - John Gully


  • Gully, John Sidney (1984). New Zealand's romantic landscape: Paintings by John  Gully. Wellington, N.Z.: Millwood. 
  • McLean, Fred (2001). John gully, painter: a biography. Wellington: N.Z.: F McLean.
  • Lash, M. D. (1992.). Nelson Notables 1840 - 1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson Historical Society, p 14


  • McLean, F. (1991, January 18) Gully ends life as good amateur. Dominion, p. 10
  • McLean, F. (1991, January 17) Expos bring some fame if not fortune. Dominion, p.9
  • McLean, F. (1991, January 16) Fame mounts in the far south.  Dominion, p.13
  • McLean, F. (1991, January 15)  A new decade brings a new beginning.  Dominion, p.13
  • McLean, F. (1991, January 14) John Gully sets sail for NZ's greener pastures.  Dominion, p.10
  • Paul, J. (1977/1978) Twelve watercolours of glaciers in the province of Canterbury.  Art New Zealand. 8, p.56-59
  • The artist and the historian; The romantic landscape (1985, September) Journal of the New Zealand Federation of Historical Societies,2(3) p.13-15

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