A sketchbook can be described as a supply of paper conveniently held in a folder or binding. It can be a small note book or a flamboyant colourful scrap book. Artists have used sketchbooks for centuries for recording ideas and thoughts, and once back in the studio they use these working drawings to produce finished works. Anything and everything can go into a sketchbook, which will develop into a collection of items, ideas and thoughts – not necessarily just visual impressions. It is for exercise and experimentation; developing as an artist, and for recording progress or passion for a subject. A sketch book can contain observations, including the documentation of the external world such as nature studies and sketches recording an artists travels, or invention that traces the artists’ digressions and internal journeys as they develop ideas. Te Papa has many sketchbooks that complement our works on paper collection. As a conservator I work on not only the finished art but the ephemera associated with the artist and their work. In the past sketchbooks lacked the status of finished artwork and may have been broken up to release drawings, or used only for its excerpts to accompany an exhibition. This attitude has changed and sketchbooks are now used in displays alongside finished art and are considered as informative as the final works in understanding the artist’s practice. I like how a sketchbook tells us more about the personality and habits of the creator, in whether it is tidy and ordered or soiled with cuttings and notations throughout – details about the development of ideas and concepts, through to scribbles, shopping lists and dates.
This is a valuable exercise to not only stabilise the books and illustrations but to research the contents and make it available. The degree of finish of the work found in sketchbooks varies widely from artist to artist, with some having simple drawings and lots of notes, others containing highly worked images. One aim of the project is to uncover more connections between our art collection and the sketchbooks. The first collection of books I cared for and treated was that of John Gully, who was born in England in 1819 and immigrated to New Zealand in 1852. With his many occupations; farmer, solider, surveyor and topographer, he was actively involved with settlement and exploration of New Zealand. Gully’s work with noted Geologist Julius Van Haast established him as a famous artist, with his paintings of West Coast New Zealand in 1863. He exhibited at the British Academy in 1871, which he felt was the highlight of his career. He became a full time artist in 1879 and concentrated solely on his painting. Gully’s sketch books were conveniently pocket-sized and could be described as more like note books with loose pencil sketches and observations of colours. They were well used, being soiled and stained and bearing the curve of his body. His personality is shown with comments about Sandfly Bay and friendly banter between travelling companions.