Tabernacle by Don Binney, 1966

Experiencing the Art

As you ascend the stairs, you see a pīwakawaka flying over a church or “Tabernacle”. Reaching the top, you find there is not much room to stand back from the artwork. You feel like the pīwakawaka is flying over your head. You can feel what the artist, Don Binney, felt in the awe of New Zealand nature. You can read the writing on the church in the painting, which proclaims the service times, subject to the will of God. The pīwakawaka feels like a spirit of the land, in the way Binney has painted it. The a pīwakawaka is often seen as a spirit messenger. In the South Island, it is seen as the harbinger of death, while in the North Island it can be a sign of change. What do you think were Binney's intention was, having a harbinger of change flying over a church?

Viewing the artwork, it is clear that it is painted with great skill, using different textures and thicknesses, each layer painted slowly and meticulously over time.

Reflecting on these textures in his paintings, Binney said in an interview that “the illumination comes from striating the paint with a fan-shaped brush while the paint is carrying a fair quotient of oil... As a painter, I've always been very interested in the marks that brushes and knives can make in paint. I'm very interested in areas that carry a high quotient of gloss, of striation, compared with areas that may conversely be flat, textural, dry or arid, if you like, in quality. There's this alternation of gloss and flatness, of surface texture and physical flatness."

About the Artist

Don Binney (1940-2012) was a keen ornithologist and environmentalist. This is reflected in the majority of his paintings, of which Tabernacle is an excellent example: most of Binney’s works feature New Zealand birds painted larger than life, against the backdrops of the New Zealand landscape. He aims to mix spirituality with the natural landscape, to show we should protect it.

Binney was the head of painting at the Elam school of Fine Arts for a number of years, retiring in 1998 after 24 years of teaching. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to art. His first wife was Dame Judith Binney, the prominent New Zealand historian.

Tabernacle in the University's Art Collection

Tabernacle by Don Binney was an important purchase for the University. Tim Beaglehole, who oversaw the University’s collecting in the 1960’s, enlisted the help of well-known New Zealand artist Colin McCahon in purchasing a Don Binney for the collection. The work that McCahon chose reflected his own artistic style, as it was a challenging work with religious overtones. McCahon thought the subject was tough, but probably the best Artwork in the

current showing from Binney. The painting did end up costing a lot to acquire, consuming half of the total acquisition fund for that year.

Tabernacle also played an important role in the formation of New Zealand Art, being published in 'An Introduction to New Zealand Painting' to high acclaim. happened at a time when New Zealand was finding its own national identity, and Binney’s use of hard lines and clear light helped cement the style of regional realism in New Zealand.


Tabernacle has a relationship with another painting in the Victoria University art collection— Ian Scott’s Jump over girl, which takes elements from Don Binney’s style of the 1960s. As Robert Leonard puts it, ‘”Replacing Binney’s birds with dolly-birds lifted from advertising, fashion mags and men’s mags, Scott created lolly-coloured Pop Art Binneys, Playboy Binneys” The more you explore the art collection, the more you can see the interconnected nature of it, reflecting New Zealand art history.

Tabernacle by Don Binney

  • <p>Don Binney, <em>Tabernacle</em>, 1966, oil on canvas, Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection. Image courtesy of Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection.</p>

Story By Lucinda Brown

Museum and Heritage Studies, 2021