SEVERAL of the Australian birds he painted are seriously endangered now: some no longer to be found in NSW. And as for his depictions of the native flowers: when was the last time anyone saw the once-common Christmas bells around Sydney?In Canberra this weekend an exquisite book of watercolours by the long forgotten, self-taught painter E.E. Gostelow will be launched at the National Library.Gostelow died in 1944, aged 78, a modest man whose surname was continually misspelled – including on his birth certificate and in his obituary.But six decades after his death, his genius as an artist and recorder of Australian wildlife is finally being recognised.”Gostelow’s aim was to paint all the known Australian birds of his time,” says an ornithologist, Stephen Debus, of the University of New England. ”He succeeded, painting over 700 species.”Since then, the number of Australian birds has climbed towards 800 species, thanks to the identification of subspecies and the inclusion of species found on remote Australian islands.But Gostelow’s magnum opus was an amazing personal quest, providing an incomparable snapshot of the diversity of wildlife before habitats were as seriously threatened as they are today.Dr Debus says Gostelow’s bird paintings were way ahead of their time: far more lifelike and accurate than popular field guides including Neville Cayley’s best-selling What Bird Is That?”But he never sold a single painting,” says Christobel Mattingley, the author of For the Love of Nature: E.E. Gostelow’s Birds & Flowers.”He just did them for his love of birds and native flowers, and for the Australian people.”All his paintings were bequeathed to the National Library, but they remained unpublished until now. Some have an added poignancy today. His image of the swift parrot shows a bird with an uncertain future.Gostelow taught in 63 different schools in NSW – including Broken Hill during a great deluge in 1920 which saw rare desert flowers suddenly bloom.But Mattingley’s personal favourite is his depiction of the common galah. ”He has one of the galahs hanging upside down, clowning around the way they do.”Gostelow paid great attention to detail, showing birds in their natural habitat and with their natural attitudes. That’s what makes them so outstanding.”
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