Arts / Action

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.

W.H. Chong From The Swift Parrot is Missing (Poem for Sue), 2022

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.

On , 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, are now working to make the collection available as a book later this year. Dr Eric Woehler OAM, convenor of BirdLife Tasmania, is also providing his expertise to the project.

Thank you to everyone who has helped this project come to life, and we look forward to updating you on progress in coming months.

Black and white photograph of Susan Lester working in her studio using real life birds to ensure accuracy.
Black and white photograph of Susan Lester working in her studio using real life birds to ensure accuracy.

Susan Lester

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 Sue Lester will be a truly bespoke publication. In the tradition of the folio volumes by significant bird artists of the Victorian age, the paintings will be reproduced as full-page colour-plate illustrations on the finest of paper and be 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 is a major undertaking and requires considered design and production management. Throughout 2022 we will be working hard to bring both these wonderful birds and Sue’s artistry to life in readiness for release to the wider audience.

It is the Lester family’s intent that funds raised from the sales of Birds of Tasmania be used to support education and conservation initiatives in the ornithological field.

Pre-order Birds of Tasmania

You can register your interest now to pre-order your copy prior to public release. We will also provide occasional updates on the progress of the publication as it develops.

Register

Products

OUTSIDE THE BOX / Earth Arts Rights has designed and produced a boxed card set of 12 cards featuring a selection of Susan Lester’s watercolours. You can buy the boxed set now!

Proceeds from sales of the boxed set will support the publication of the Birds of Tasmania book and ornithological conservation.

Exhibition

Exciting news! The Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery is presenting works from Susan Lester’s Birds of Tasmania collection in the Salon Gallery from .

Painting of a masked owl perched on a tree branch by Susan Lester. Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Masked owl
Painting of a purple swamphen nesting in grassland by Susan Lester. Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Purple swamphen
Painting of two spotted pardalotes perching on a branch by Susan Lester. Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Spotted pardalote
Images: All bird images courtesy of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery