Gordon Gee was employed at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens from 1956 to 1974 as a sign writer. During this time he prepared many thousands of labels for plants throughout the conservatories and grounds of the Botanic Gardens together with descriptive signs depicting plants of special seasonal importance.
His skill as an artist was recognized and he was encouraged to produce drawings and paintings of specimens at the Gardens. According to colleagues, when he was painting in the conservatories he had to take salt tablets because he sweated so much in the hothouse atmosphere. Prior to working at the Gardens, Gordon had worked as a commercial artist in Christchurch. His trademark was to paint a little bird somewhere on his work.
Christchurch City Libraries has digitised a collection of 285 of Gordon’s illustrations from the Christchurch Botanic Gardens Archives.
The Cactus House Diorama and controversy
Gordon Gee painted the diorama to depict the desert landscapes from Africa to the Americas which can still be seen on the walls of Garrick House where the Garden’s cactus collection is displayed. The work took about three months and the scene was outlined in charcoal first. In A Garden Century the diorama, completed in 1958, is described as
a good example of what can be achieved by modern display techniques. It has been designed so that the scene merges almost imperceptibly into the background, special attention being paid to the accuracy of dimension and colour to give a true representation of a desert scene.
Not everyone was happy with Gordon being given this task. A letter was received from Mr D. S. Page (President of the Art School Representative Council, Canterbury University College) complaining that
an unqualified designer has been commissioned to execute a mural in the new glass house in the Botanical Gardens. The letter suggested that
a qualified artist in this field be approached with the commission or if this was too costly
the School of Art be approached with view of senior students under the supervision of Mr Russell Clark and Mr W. A. Sutton execute the mural.
The Director of Reserves responded that:
Mr Gee is a commercial artist of over 35 years’ experience, and originally he studied in the Canterbury School of Art, so that the criticism that he is unqualified has not foundation whatsoever. During the twelve months in which he has been employed by the Department his work has given every satisfaction and of his artistic ability there can be no doubt, for when time permits he has been encouraged to do watercolour sketches of some of the rarer glasshouse plants when in flower with a view to building up a collection of such paintings which would be a valuable asset to the Gardens. These illustrations have been very faithfully done.
A letter was also received from Mr P. Hanly (Pat Hanly the well known New Zealand artist):
Approximately a year ago a capable Artist was asked by the Architects planning the new glasshouse in the Botanical Gardens to prepare drawings for an appropriate mural to decorate a portion of its walls, the outcome of which was rejected by the Parks and Reserves Department. It has been suggested that the commission is to be undertaken by a member of the Parks and Reserves staff …
I am familiar with the decoration and illumination of this employee and am perturbed that the Department will allow an amateur without knowledge of mural application and techniques to proceed with what is surely an important adjunct to a fine modern building …
To allow what may prove to be an unsatisfactory project is, I hope, contrary to the Council’s intentions and if allowed to proceed with first determining the true ability of the present choice of Artist may reflect unfavourably on the Council’s administration.
The Director of Parks and Reserves submitted sniffily:
The correspondent, M. P. Hanly, who was employed by the Reserves Department for a short time as a motor mower driver in the City area, appears as though he knows more about the affairs of the Reserves Department than I do …
It is apparent that he has been in conversation with Mr Mackenzie of Hall and Mackenzie, Architects for the new plant houses. Mr Hanly, so far as I am aware, has no qualification or standing whatsoever as an authority on art and I take exception to his statements, particularly in respect of the criticism of the Department’s employee.
The diorama was touched up in the 1980s because of flaking, and Merv Holland who followed Gordon Gee as signwriter at the Gardens was able to use Gordon Gee’s original paints.
Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs
Gordon Gee’s illustrations were used in Lawrence Metcalf’s Cultivation of New Zealand Trees and Shrubs which was first published in 1972. This classic text has been republished several times, most recently in 2000 as New Zealand trees and shrubs: a comprehensive guide to cultivation and identification.
Biographical information about Gordon Gee supplied by Sue Molloy, Botanical Resources Coordinator, Botanic Gardens. For more information please contact Sue Molloy at 03 941-7584.
The illustrations were digitised by Christchurch City Libraries from the Botanic Gardens collection.