Birds of Tasmania Susan Lester
These last blessed few
(count ’em!) return each year
to breed in the vanishing habitats of lutruwita,
where their native moon is hung.
About the project
Susan Lester was commissioned in the 1980s to produce 200 paintings of Tasmania’s birds for a limited-edition book to commemorate the Examiner newspaper’s 150th anniversary. Sue worked for four years to produce the exquisite, detailed paintings. She collaborated with well-known ornithologist and Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery curator Dr Bob Green, and spent much time observing the birds in the bush and drawing museum specimens to ensure accuracy.
As she delivered the paintings, the Examiner’s parent company ENT was caught in Tasmania’s political bribery scandal, and company chairman Edmund Rouse was jailed. The book project was abandoned and the paintings forgotten.
Almost a decade later, an accountant in Hobart’s WIN commercial television studio, previously owned by Rouse, found the paintings and took them to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. TMAG curators helped identify the collection and the extraordinary story of its commission and loss. WIN generously donated the paintings to TMAG, and 40 were displayed in the Bond Store in in a stunning exhibition.
A remarkable and poignant radio documentary, produced by Frances Green and Libby Lester, A Promise Lost / Lost Birds of Tasmania about Sue and her work is now available as a podcast on the ABC’s RN Earshot website.
On 30 January 2022, Sue died after a short, intense battle with cancer.
With the support of TMAG, Sue’s family and OUTSIDE THE BOX / Earth Arts Rights, in conjunction with Warner Design, have now created Birds of Tasmania by Susan Lester, bringing to life the full suite of 200 paintings. Curiously, TMAG only hold 199 of the original 200 works. The mystery of the missing 200th painting of the critically endangered Swift Parrot is ongoing.
Susan Lester was born in Hobart in , the daughter of a land surveyor and librarian — Neville and Jennie — who at the time were living in the bush in the Western Tiers where Neville worked for the Hydro Electric Commission. The family eventually moved to Devonport, where Sue completed her schooling.
Sue trained as a radiographer at the Royal Hobart Hospital, then returned to the North West Coast, where her son, Ben, was born.
She began painting birds while working in a souvenir shop in Devonport’s Rooke Street, studying the works of the great natural history illustrators such as Elizabeth and John Gould to develop her technique. Even these earliest attempts sold well in the shop. Her first exhibitions in Strahan and Launceston were sell outs and she quickly attracted the attention of local media and collectors. Among these was Edmund Rouse, who commissioned the book of Tasmania’s birds. Sue delivered the final paintings to Hayes Prison Farm, still believing that the collection would be published.
When the book was finally abandoned, Sue — again living in Hobart — returned to radiography. She continued to paint birds in her spare time. With her partner, Greg Smith, she spent much time in the Tasmanian bush, on long bushwalks in the South West and through the highlands, and at the house they built together at Tods Corner at the Great Lake.
The paintings she produced through this time continued to be eagerly collected. However, she was never able to dedicate herself to painting full time again.
About the book
In keeping with Sue’s exquisite paintings, Birds of Tasmania by Susan Lester is a truly bespoke publication. In the tradition of the folio volumes by significant bird artists of the Victorian age, many of the paintings are reproduced as full-page colour-plate illustrations and are supported with historical commentary — including from Bob Green’s original accompanying notes — and the current conservation status of birdlife in Tasmania.
A book of this scale has been a major undertaking and required considered design and production management. Throughout 2022 we worked hard to bring both these wonderful birds and Sue’s artistry to life in readiness for release to a wider audience this year.
As a prelude to the release of the Birds of Tasmania publication, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery remounted the original 2001 Bond Store exhibition in the Salon Gallery from 1 December 2022 – 12 February 2023.
Birds of Tasmania
After selling out within weeks of its release the book has been reprinted and new stock is now available. Full details and specifications can be found on our shop page.