In Memoriam: Donald Hall Binney

(24 March 1940 – 14 September 2012)


My relationship with Don began vicariously through his art, acquiring cards produced by the Native Forest Action Council entitled Last Flight of the Kokako.

I then purchased several posters supporting environmental causes and was privileged to be involved in my firm’s acquisition of Ahuahu Northward II.

This culminated in my purchase, as an impecunious lawyer, of Hauturu in the Wake, (deferring payment of goodwill for a partnership).

As was recorded about Don in Art News, in 2004: “Art and life run in extremely close parallel as he combines his passions for bird-watching and painting. Over the years, he has made thousands of notes and drawings documenting the bird life and many of those observations have led to paintings.

Describing his observational process and its significance for him, he notes, “My day is informed, my morning given some structure, because of an appearance, a little epiphany that I have not made but has happened for me ... the birds appear like little celebrations in the calendar”.

“Diary Note: Tuesday January 6, 2004 South end, Kohimarama Beach, 11, Torea-Pango (variable oyster catcher), 4-5, questionably immature; loudly calling in unison, heads down.

‘Don’s observations of birds and their environment, like the one above, have provided him with inspiration and direction for more than 40 years”.

‘He once commented, “... as an orthithologist I’ve always been thoroughly involved in the way in which the land, the environment the creatures lives in, modifies the creature. The creature of course also modifies the land – it’s symbiosis really, isn’t it?”’

Don’s paintings have been described as “moments of visual experience. These are translated from fleeting, flighty and unexpected encounters – drawing on a sense of place, time, history and occasion – into painterly compositions that engage us in a wider investigation of the changing cultural landscape, the importance and significance of nature and universal concerns about the world around us”.

In his book Don Binney Nga Manu/Nga Motu – Birds/Islands Damian Skinner posed this question to Don: “Let’s take a painting: Hauturu Rata, for example. What sort of preoccupations were you concerned with at this time? Because this work does seem quite different in some ways from your earlier work”.

Don’s answer: “That work celebrates the realising of a lifelong desire to go to Little Barrier (Hauturu), where you have the yellow-crowned parakeet, the whitehead and the hihi (stitchbird), which you’re not going to see up in the Waitakere Ranges or in the Dome Valley. You’ve got to go out to that island to spot them and there they are, and there is that steep slope of the Thumb track behind them”.

Fellow Trustee Judy Hanbury gave a eulogy at Don’s funeral which picks up the story from that point: “Don’s first visit to Hauturu came about in April 1977. As an 11-year-old, he had read H. Guthrie-Smith’s ‘Birdlife on our Distant Shore’ and had been fascinated by the mystique of his writing about the stitchbird, in particular, and its uniqueness to Hauturu.

“By the time we enjoyed a series of visits to Hauturu, the groundbreaking cat eradication had been completed, saddlebacks had been reintroduced and were flourishing, and the island was a safe haven for kakapo, albeit an interim one.

“We were able to appreciate the island as the precious natural treasure-house that it is.

“One ranger’s suggestion, that Hauturu warranted a group of ‘Friends’, set us thinking and we resolved to establish the Hauturu Supporters Trust, launched in 1997. We were thrilled when Don agreed to be Patron of the Trust.

“Hauturu themes had featured in Don’s work over several decades. Last year provided a further example of artwork supporting a cause. In November, Don was invited by the Parnell Gallery to introduce a small number of fellow artists to Hauturu. Don didn’t undertake the rigours of landing, but accompanied the group on a circumnavigation of the island. The exhibition of 27 paintings and works on paper that resulted (including 3 by Don) generated a much appreciated donation to the Hauturu Supporters Trust.

“One appealing work captures Don in typical pose, seated by the boat’s rail, leaning slightly forward, one hand firmly on stout stick, hat (wide-brimmed) still worn at a slightly rakish angle, intent on observing the western shore, and the instantly recognizable cluster of gnarled old pohutukawa on Te Titoki Point.

It is Don’s wish that his ashes be scattered at sea just off this point.”

Don’s contribution to the trust was huge in every sense. i most valued the intellectual discourses we shared at our annual christmas party. i realise now that i would spend most of the ensuing year in reflecting on what he had said and ensuring that his wisdom was incorporated in the decisions taken by the trust. i often think of don as our “alter ego”.

May he rest in peace, accompanied by the sound of the dawn chorus.

David McGregor – Hauturu Supporters Trust Settlor Trustee

Did you know?
Hauturu is home to the only self-sustaining population of the unique hihi (stitchbird). It provides the platform for this species’ recovery, through reintroductions to other safe islands and to protected mainland habitats.