Born in Wellington in 1939, Raymond Ching is widely considered the greatest contemporary bird painter, and he enjoys considerable standing for his depiction of other subjects.
As a young schoolboy, a class visit to a museum saw him chance upon a collection of stuffed hummingbirds, which bewitched him with their beauty and inspired a lifelong love and fascination with birds, feathers and flight.
In the 1960s Ching began to exhibit and sell paintings of birds. His first exhibition, Thirty Birds at John Leech Galleries in 1966 was of highly detailed watercolours using a drybrush technique, and was an immediate sell-out.
Through his sell-out out exhibition Ching was discovered internationally by Sir William Collins of Collins publishing. A keen ornithologist, Sir William was scouring the world for bird painters to produce a prestigious series of books. Sir William visited Ching in New Zealand and on returning to the UK took some of Ching's work to his friend, Sir Peter Scott, who then telegraphed Ching inviting him to call on him at Slimbridge.
Within a short time, Ching moved to London. Before Collins had a chance to produce the book discussed with Sir William, Ray was introduced to The Reader's Digest who, with Collins, had been planning a major book on the birds of Britain.
Almost every bird artist in the British Isles had been assessed and rejected as not having what was required to produce a breakthrough in field guides. The book, in addition to containing all the accurate information on the birds of Britain, should have the style and drama to appeal to those who had never picked up a field guide in their lives. The publishers had begun to despair of ever finding anyone with the graphic excitement they believed necessary, and the project had been almost abandoned when Ray appeared on the scene.
Deeply impressed with the originality and uniqueness of his work, the publishers quickly realised that here was the artist for the book. They asked him how long he would need to paint the 230 full-colour portraits required. The publishers believed the project entailed as much as six years' work, and had earlier thought to spread the commission among six artists, each to take a year. Although he had arrived in England with the intention of getting on with his own book, the offer struck a nerve in the young colonial wanting to make his mark. "I can do them all myself and in under a year!" he rashly declared. It was a huge effort and by the end of the year he was ill, exhausted and penniless.
Published in 1969, The Reader's Digest Book of British Birds has become the world's most successful and biggest selling bird books, translated into over ten European languages and countless editions in hardback and paperback. It remains in print and has had an enormous influence on both bird lovers and artists, the images often being copied and illegally reproduced as the original work of other artists.
Before the book was published Ray had moved to Rye, East Sussex. There he continued to paint, primarily birds and other animals. He works in oils and watercolours, usually on a gessoed masonite panel or canvas which assists with the high detail. The style of his art might be described as conservative realism, most images having an almost photographic quality, although he is often comfortable leaving out detail in the backgrounds.
Ching's work is primarily of birds, but has included other wildlife landscapes and portraits. His most recent venture was painting Aesop's Fables using New Zealand flora and fauna.
Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum
National Museum of Wildlife Art, USA
Solitaire Lodge, Rotorua, New Zealand
Estate of Daniel M. Galbreath
The Amin Shah Gallery