ReadingRoom editor Steve Braunias selects the 10 best illustrated books of 2020.

The great age of people watchers – Ans Westra, Marti Friedlander – appears to be over in New Zealand artistic life. It’s as though artists are too shy or too afraid to get up close to give us the Kiwi way of life as it’s lived now. Observations of a Rural Nurse by Sara McIntyre was pretty much the only really good illustrated book of 2020 that photographed people – and even then most of the images were of front porches and washing lines and shop fronts. It’s a wonderful book though and the main image on this page is an indication of the riches within.

The rest of the images on this page are of clouds, flowers, birds, bugs…Well, the New Zealand landscape and the things within are awesome to behold. There was one indisputable masterpiece published this year and it was by the great Jane Ussher. Her book Nature: Stilled is evidence of a true artist at work. All of the books in the top 10 are guaranteed to bring vast amounts of pleasure this Christmas; get thee to a bookstore.

Observations of a Rural Nurse by Sara McIntyre (Massey University Press, $55)

This is the very best illustrated book published in New Zealand in 2020. Sara McIntyre, daughter of the great painter Peter McIntyre, moved to Kākahi in the King Country to work as a rural nurse; as she made the rounds she also took photographs of the small towns and settlements and the people who live there. Her stunning photographic record exists as a kind of artefact of Māori  life hidden away in one of the most mysterious and beautiful parts of the country. Toi Iti, reviewing it for ReadingRoom: “These towns grew in an era directly after the land was taken and the native people subjugated. Built out of decimated native forests and funded on pastures fertilised by decimated phosphorus rich Pacific Islands, there is no escaping the narrative as I thumb through Sara McIntyre’s photographs. It’s both nostalgic and nauseating. But it is what it is and it is a part us. A part of our story. And there is a beauty in that.”

Cloud above Middlemarch, by Whites Aviation, photographed and hand-coloured in 1951

Wonderland: The New Zealand photographs of Whites Aviation by Peter Alsop (Potton & Burton, $50)

Gorgeous. The retro appeals of the hand-coloured aerial photographs produced from 1945-1996 by Auckland firm Whites Aviation (their downtown offices were on the corner of Elliot and Darby St) make this an ideal Xmas gift for the nostalgist in your life. Wonderland is New Zealand from the air, without people in it, a white settler’s paradise of snow and tussock and sand and plain, everything at peace in a calm and pastoral land. The pictures descend south from Cape Reinga, Ahipara, 90 Mile Beach and other Northland spots to such locations as Piha, Mt Ruapehu, the Mahia peninsula, Castlepoint, Picton, Takaka, Lake Tekapo, Te Anau, Lake Matheson, Stewart Island and much else. Whites had a simple and brilliant formula: big black and white photographs, hand-painted by a team of colourists who applied oil thinned with turpentine using a small amount of cotton wool wrapped around the end of a thin grapevine.

Study skins of five crested penguins, photographed by Jane Ussher

Nature: Stilled by Jane Ussher (Te Papa Press, $70)

A masterpiece. Jane Ussher is rightly best-known and loved for her portraits published in the Listener (and this year in ReadingRoom) but Nature is an astonishing gallery of things that fly, that creep, that swim, that crawl, collected in Te Papa’s natural history collection. She used a Hasselblad camera and hired LED lights to give the effect of diffuse natural light. She writes, “All of the photography was done with maximum depth of field to deliver the information hidden in the shadows. And no flash, obviously.” The detail is incredible. Every single image has a reverential silence, almost a holiness; we see bamboo coral, dogfish, moths from the GV Hudson collection (see below), kaka, tui, snipes, locusts, seahorses in preserving jars, moss, oysters, the dear old dead to the world huia … We see life, up close, preserved for all eternity.

New Zealand’s most enigmatic moth, the so-called “frosted phoenix”, last seen 60 years ago; only eight specimens survive, including this female specimen given to GV Hudson and painted for his 1928 book The Butterflies and Moths of New Zealand. It features in An Exquisite Legacy

An Exquisite Legacy: The life and work of New Zealand naturalist GV Hudson by George Gibbs (Potton & Burton, $60)

George Hudson (1867-1946) can be considered the father of the New Zealand moth. As a pioneering naturalist, he amassed what may still be New Zealand’s largest collection of insects; he specialised in Lepidoptera, and his masterpiece was The Butterflies and Moths of New Zealand, published in 1928. His enduring legacy is less as a collector than as a very fine painter of insects. An Exquisite Legacy is a kind of greatest-hits, with many full-page reproductions taken from Hudson’s seven books. There are small delights, too, in the text: “Hudson enjoyed collecting beetles, and maintained that beetle-hunting was a suitable hobby for an old man and pursued it until the day before his death.”

Newton Road’, c. 1974–75, photograph taken by Richard Collins; Colin McCahon and unknown woman on the corner of Karangahape Road and Newton Road, Auckland. © Richard Collins

Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? Vol. 2 1960–1987 by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $79.99)

Like volume one, Simpson’s epic work includes over 300 illustrations in colour, with a generous selection of reproductions of McCahon’s work (many never previously published), plus photographs, catalogue covers, and other illustrative material. Martin Edmond, reviewing it at ReadingRoom: “Simpson’s McCahon was conceived as a single book which grew, during the research and the writing, into the two volume work which this publication completes. The first part, There Is Only One Direction (AUP, 2019), takes us from the painter’s birth in 1919 to the year 1959, when he and his family sold the small house they owned in the bush at Titirangi and moved in to Auckland city: first to Newton, later to Grey Lynn. Part two covers 1960 to 1987 when, prematurely aged and after years of ill health, during which he did not paint, McCahon died. Both books approach the subject chronologically and both focus upon the work; the life is treated, not as figure, but as ground…Simpson gives us the opportunity to re-frame the artist as someone both stranger and more familiar than we knew.”

Boundary Road, Ida Valley, by Grahame Sydney, from Landmarks

Landmarks by Grahame Sydney, Owen Marshall & Brian Turner (Penguin Random House, $75)

The vast skies, the wide plains, the jagged ranges: Grahame Sydney is the painter laureate of Central Otago (his co-author Brian Turner is its poet laureate) and Landmarks is a sequel to the classic, and hugely successful, Timeless Lands, by Sydney, Turner and Owen Marshall, published in 1995. Landmarks is another sumptuous coffee-table souvenir but the book has a shadow hanging over it. Mike White, writing about it for Stuff: “At the book’s heart is Central Otago, its tors and tussock and straight roads stretching to improbably shaped mountains…But paradise has begun to change in the past quarter century. Summer’s fawn paddocks have turned green along the valley floor, as dairying has replaced sheep farming, and pivot irrigators have crept steadily closer to Sydney’s home and studio in Cambrian Valley, near St Bathan.”

Dick Frizzell’s copy of The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli: “Where did Fuseli pull all these horror cliches from?”, he scoffs

Me, According to the History of Art by Dick Frizzell (Massey University Press, $65)

Picasso. Manet. Duchamp. Hockney. Gaugin. McCahon … All the masters and all their masterpieces feature in the craziest and most enjoyable book of the year: all the paintings are copies, made by the irrepressible Frizzell, in his attempt to demystify art. It must be said that the guy does a good Matisse. He used wax crayons and gouache to replicate the silkscreen weaves in his copy of a Warhol, and it’s a very credible imitation. Mind you, his McCahon kind of sucks. Throughout, he writes a lively kind of memoir, too, with glimpses of a committed artist at work: “I painted late into the night, listening to Marcus Lush on ZB…”

Orange dahlias by Karl Maughan, 1994

Karl Maughan edited by Hannah Valentine and Gabriella Stead (Auckland University Press, $70)

Like Dick Frizzell, Wellington painter Karl Maughan is a fantastically popular commercial artist – his paintings hang in grand hotels and corporate offices, and in the homes of the CEOs of grand hotels and corporate offices. This luscious survey of his work goes back to his first garden paintings, in 1986, taken from eight rolls that he shot at his mum’s house in Ashhurst. Over 30 years of creepy paths, menacing shadows, sensational colours….I love his work. It’s so pretty. I have a Maughan print in the front lobby of my Te Atatu estate and it’s like a garden is blossoming indoors. His book bursts with that kind of vitality and beauty.

Entrance to the attic, the ‘Lodge’, building 55, Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland, the former premises of the “mental hospital” where Robin Hyde was a patient. From Shining Land by Paula Morris and Haru Sameshima

Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde by Paula Morris and Haru Sameshima (Massey University Press, $45)

Quality text, quality images: the twain met in the year’s most original and creative successful illustrated book, as novelist and saviour of New Zealand literature, Paula Morris, and photographer Haru Sameshima roamed hither and yon to evoke and describe the short, anguished life of Robin Hyde, author of The Godwits Fly. Redmer Yska, reviewing it at ReadingRoom: “Robin Hyde ended up, via hospitals and police cells, back at her childhood home on 92 Northland Road in Wellington under the iron gaze of an old Scottish night nurse. Welcome to rehab, 1927 style. We get the view from that same green bedroom, over a white balcony, up to the mist-shrouded Karori Hills, on page 21 of Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde the gorgeous new co-pro by Paula Morris and photographer Haru Sameshima…This sumptuous book, part of a new series published by Massey University Press, gives us Hyde in a fresh and moving way. Sameshima’s astonishing photos bring these biographical settings to life, many remarkably unchanged from the time she walked through them.”

Tranquility, by Llew Summers

Llew Summers, Body and Soul by John Newton (Canterbury University Press, $65)

lllustrated with more than 200 photographs of the late, great Christchurch artist’s great big public sculptures. His nephew, Wellington writer John Summers, reviewed the book for ReadingRoom: “Uncle Llew’s sculptures were at Dad’s, they were everywhere: outside Linwood High School, in the Botanic Gardens, on the university campus. My high school had one too. All were reminders of him, of what he did..I took his achievement for granted over the years. It’s in reading John Newton’s book with all its beautiful images of Llew’s work that I truly begin to see the full extent of what he did, and just how his technique and craft improved year by year. Among his observations, Newton is exact in noticing what a fine woodcarver Llew was. The honey-tones and fine grain of Totara and Kauri hold life still in his carvings.”

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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