1 Feb 2021

Bill Hammond, one of nation's most influential artists, has died

7:15 pm on 1 February 2021

Christchurch-born artist Bill Hammond, noted for the environmental and socially-aware themes of his work, has died aged 73.

He was considered one of New Zealand's most influential contemporary painters.

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Photo: Auckland Museum

Olivia McLeavey, whose family gallery in Wellington represented Hammond since 1987, confirmed the death to RNZ News.

McLeavey, who was told of the death by Hammond's widow, said he died on Saturday evening.

Arts writer and curator Hamish Keith was among the first to pay tribute to the Lyttelton-based artist, describing him as "a marvellous artist and a very lovely man".

He told The Panel Hammond's death was not only a great loss for his family but also an enormous loss for the art scene in this country.

He said one of his best known works was Waiting for Buller. It was poignant because Walter Buller was the country's first ornithologist, who published A History of New Zealand Birds in 1873.

"But Bill's painting is about birds waiting to be discovered - hanging about to get named. If you just run that through the nature of us and art and finding ourselves and what we're really about - that was a brilliant summing up of the uniqueness of being here and not anywhere else."

It was not well known that Hammond was also a jugband percussionist, and for a time he was also a toymaker, Keith said.

He can remember the first time he saw some of Hammond's work at an exhibition at the Brooke Gifford Gallery in Christchurch in the 1980s.

"I walked into that show and I was completely blown away ...he just made things out of of who we are and where he was. An extraordinary artist."

Keith said artists like Hammond were "always ahead of the curve" and his work had "a compelling magic".

He had a brilliant command of technique and was a "painter's painter".

"You can't fault his work in technical ways. It was never crude, rude - it was always up to the mark."

Listen to the full interview from The Panel

Keith said Hammond had been part of an art scene that was now given much more prominence within New Zealand society.

Department of Conservation director general Lou Sanson said New Zealand has lost a great advocate for native wildlife.

"We join the rest of the country in mourning the sad loss of Bill and our thoughts are with his family and loved ones."

He said Hammond's inspiration for his 'bird people' work came on a joint trip with DOC and the Royal NZ Navy to the Sub Antarctic islands in the early 90s where he came across a copy of Buller's book.

"Inspired by the birds in rata trees on Auckland Islands, he went on to create his iconic series so well loved by many.

"We will have this art forever and he leaves us with an incredible legacy," Sanson said.

Exhibited from 1980

Born in 29 August, 1947, Hammond attended the Ilam School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury from 1966-1968.

Although it wasn't until 1980 that he began exhibiting his paintings, it didn't take long for the New Zealand art community to take notice, the Independent Guide to Contemporary New Zealand Arts says.

He tackled social and environmental issues, with his work often containing messages about humanity and its status as an endangered species.

He had a strong interest in music, seen in much of his early work. A shift in Hammond's practice came in the early 1990s after he returned from a trip to the remote Auckland Islands, where there are no people and birds rule the roost.

His work included themes of environments under threat, and the vulnerability of life in a precarious world.

Hammond had his first solo exhibition at the Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington March, 1987. More than 20 other exhibitions at the gallery followed.

One of his best known works, Fall of Icarus, is displayed at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

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Photo: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū