After two successful exhibitions of paintings of natural history subjects in Auckland, in 1966 and 1967, Wellington-born Ray Ching moved to England. At that time Reader’s Digest were seeking an artist to illustrate a book of the birds of Britain, and Ching filled the bill. He undertook the herculean task of completing 230 full-colour plates in less than a year, basing his images on museum specimens with input from ornithologists. Published in 1969, the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds is claimed to be the world’s most successful and biggest selling bird book.
Other books followed, among them a monograph on New Zealand’s national bird, the kiwi, which included some 40 plates of Ching’s paintings and drawings. These were distinguished by their remarkable ornithological accuracy, but another side of his fascination for his subjects was now also apparent. Included were several that showed the true character of the bird, as in paintings of a great spotted kiwi and a brown kiwi captured at speed, and a pair of brown kiwi in conflict, with one protagonist putting the boot into the other and causing it to become uncharacteristically airborne.
Going further, and well beyond the strictures of natural history illustration, in his 2008 exhibition Autobiography. Ching presented images of women and birds floating against background panels lifted from early twentieth-century comics. In several respects, this can be seen as the direct precursor to his Aesop’s Kiwi Fables, a series of 47 large oil paintings which were exhibited in two instalments, in 2010 and 2012 at ARTIS Gallery.
While his reinterpretation of the Aesopian fables in New Zealand was a serious undertaking, Ching was keen to maintain a sense of light-heartedness and levity throughout, which is also apparent in his most recent series, The Voyage. And just as his kiwi fables began with two unlikely friends – a cat and a cockerel – setting out on a journey, from ‘the Old Country’ to New Zealand, this latest voyage also involves a journey, although one to a more mythical destination. The exhibition consists of two full-colour paintings (oils on board) and nine monochrome drawings (in graphite pencil, ink, conté, carbon, oils and liquin), while several of the latter include substantial sections of script, providing further commentary on proceedings.
The Voyage recounts the story of how members of Ching’s imaginary menagerie set out on a quest to find their own Eldorado, an Elysian land across the sea. The images deal with two aspects; the journey and the hazards it entailed, and the arrival. The voyage itself was by no means all plain sailing, as dramatically illustrated in the painting Shipwreck! by a rabbit and fellow avian passengers being cast from their upended vessel. In The Dispute, a pair of warthogs in a rowboat observe an argument between seabirds, while there is confusion in Who’s Got the Longitude? between the on-board monkeys and a parrot. As always there is a strong New Zealand connection; in the rowboat in Delegation from New Zealand a kiwi is perched on the back of a Corriedale, a local sheep breed favoured for its production of both wool and meat.
Several images relate to the voyagers having reached their apparently paradisiacal destination, with two referring to the Land of Cockaigne, a place of plenty in medieval myth where luxury and physical comfort prevailed. Dancers in the Land of Cockaigne I shows a pair of ducks cavorting mid-air and describes how breezes here blew sweet and fragrant, with a perfume derived from myrrh, roses and hyacinths such that a ‘rare, pure atmosphere enfolded the place’. There was a city of gold, surrounded by a wall of emerald and with gates made of planks of cinnamon. In this land, nobody grew old, and there was only one season – Spring. The country abounded in flowers and plants of all kinds, including grapevines which yielded twelve vintages a year, while nightingales and other songbirds gathered flowers in their bills to drop like snowflakes. Inhabitants passed their time with poetry and song, and drank from two springs, of laughter and enjoyment. And as summarised in the text in Dancers in the Land of Cockaigne II, ‘Complaisance is the universal rule’.
At the heart of all his work to date, is Ray Ching’s obvious great empathy for his avian subjects – those from New Zealand in particular. While a conservation message has never been a conscious part of his work, he has stated his determination to contribute to the raising of public awareness of the precarious state of our endangered birds. The Voyage can therefore be viewed as an extension of the artist’s own voyage of discovery, revealing his masterful understanding of the many members of the natural world. At the same time, his subjects’ utopic undertaking could be seen as metaphorical as it is mythical; a search for an Arcadian world untroubled by the challenges facing ours in 2019.
– Richard Wolfe 2019