Susan Lester’s ‘delicious’ bird paintings to celebrate in the book that almost never was

When media mogul Edmund Rouse was embroiled in a political scandal and imprisoned for attempted bribery in 1989, it threw his businesses into turmoil.

A lesser-known victim of Rouse’s disappearance was budding artist Susan Lester, who was commissioned by the businessman to paint 200 detailed Tasmanian birds to be published in a special two-volume book to mark 150 years from The Examiner newspaper.

It was an enormous task, one that would take four years out of Lester’s life and launch his career from emerging self-taught amateur painter to professional artist.

Lester was a self-taught painter.(Provided: Libby Lester and Peter Lord)

“It was an amazing opportunity for an artist because it was basically a commission for 200 works and a full-time job for four years,” said her sister Libby Lester.

“She was banking everything on this book.”

It was touted by Rouse’s ENT media company as “one of the most comprehensive illustrated works of Tasmanian birds ever published”.

Shortly after Lester delivered the paintings to Rouse, the 1989 state elections were held and the incumbent Liberal government led by Robin Gray lost its majority.

The Greens held the balance of power and Rouse offered Labor MP Jim Cox $110,000 to cross the floor and support Gray instead of Labour’s Michael Field, who would create a deal with the Greens.

Among his extensive local, national and international business interests, Rouse was chairman of Gunns, a Tasmanian logging company that did not want to see Green MPs wielding any power in the state.

Mr. Cox reported the attempted bribery to the police and Rouse was arrested and jailed.

“Sue heard no more of the book and gave up trying to find it,” Prof Lester said.

A woman in hiking gear stands on a steep ledge in a thick desert, looking up at a mountain
Lester has spent a lot of time in the Tasmanian wilderness.(Provided: Greg Smith)
a newspaper article detailing Edmund Rouse's accusations
The Edmund Rouse short story appeared on the front page of The Canberra Times.(Provided: The Canberra Times)

Susan Lester returned to radiography, a profession in which she had been trained, and painting again became a private hobby.

It remained an important hobby for her, even in the weeks leading up to her death last month.

The Royal Hobart Hospital radiographer was just two weeks away from retirement when she lost a battle with a short and intense illness.

His family is determined to finally have his paintings published as a book to share with the public, with help from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and donations through a crowdfunding website.

While 199 of the works have been found, one painting remains missing – the swift parrot.

a purple and blue and black bird sitting in the grass, has a red crop
The swan swamp was one of 200 birds painted by Lester.(Provided: Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania)

A scientific mind

The work of this passionate nature lover was known for its scientific precision.

“Mom had a scientific mind and she also had an artistic mind, and that’s very rare in a person,” her son Ben Ritchie said.

painting of two small birds with long pointed beaks in a grove
The eastern thorn beak.(Provided: Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania)

“I think those two sides of her fought a bit internally.

Libby Lester, an academic at the University of Tasmania, said her sister learned to paint and draw.

Her art started to get serious when she was in her twenties and working in a gift shop in Devonport.

“She had a lot of free time and started painting birds to sell in the shop,” Prof Lester said.

“At first they were selling like hot cakes, she couldn’t keep up with the demand.”

Lester then held several exhibitions and as her reputation grew she was approached to paint a series of maps.

That’s when she caught Rouse’s attention.

A black and white photo of a woman with a bird on a stick and brushes
Lester used real birds to ensure his accuracy.(Provided: Libby Lester)

“A Freezer Full of Dead Birds”

Lester received a base salary from Rouse for the project and put all other arts and work on hold.

“It just never paid the bills, she had a dependent child and she was a single mother on and off,” Mr Ritchie said.

a painting of a brown owl
Ben Ritchie says that during his childhood there were times when owls lived in the house.(Provided: Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania)

“She was told she would get royalties for the book.”

She took the commission very seriously, spending a lot of time in the bush studying birds and working with Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery naturalist Bob Green.

“My childhood was always full of dead bird freezers and birds on sticks,” Mr Ritchie said.

“I was in first grade, and I came home and all the curtains were drawn, and you saw big golden eyes looking down at you on the curtain rods and they were staring at you.”

With many connections in museums and the Parks and Wildlife Service, injured or stuffed birds would be loaned to him.

an old image of a woman with pigtail braids holding a young boy in a sweater, a piano in the background
Lester with his son Ben.(Provided: Susan Lester)

The paintings found

Mr Ritchie said his mother had failed to recover the paintings from Rouse’s ENT company.

“She felt a huge sense of loss when they disappeared and the book didn’t appear,” he said.

“As an active and professional artist, she wanted to be compensated for this art.”

She was still painting, but it was never to be a professional activity again.

“She was so upset…she rarely talked about it and she had lost a lot of confidence in that part of her life.”

two small spotted birds perched on a branch
Spotted pardalotes.(Provided: Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania)

Around the year 2000, an accountant at a commercial television station in Hobart, formerly owned by Rouse, found the paintings in the back of a safe.

“The accountant recognized they were something of value but had no idea what they were, where they came from or why they were gathering dust in this old studio,” Prof Lester said.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) was approached about the paintings, and they were eventually identified and donated by the ENT.

“She was lost and didn’t know what to make of the series of events, including when the paintings reappeared,” Prof Lester said.

TMAG exhibited around 40 of the works and have had them since – although they have not been exhibited.

“Sue and I discussed how I could help get them published. Sue felt she didn’t want to risk being disappointed again,” she said.

A passionate explorer

Her lack of confidence in her art following the Rouse affair was not characteristic of the brave bushwoman.

a woman in hiking gear looks towards a large rocky mountain
Lester at Federation Peak, a grueling mountain in southwest Tasmania.(Provided: Greg Smith)

“She was very adventurous,” Professor Lester said.

She and her partner Greg Smith have built a house in the bush at Tods Corner in the central highlands of Tasmania.

She continued to paint birds and took adventurous walks in the bush.

“Sue did very well having an aneurysm while climbing to the top of the Federation and essentially returned to emergency brain surgery,” she said.

His family is raising funds through an online crowdfunding website to publish the paintings.

“We see it as a nice collection of endemic Tasmanian birds plus something to commemorate Sue,” she said.

The campaign has so far raised over $8,000.

“I think she would have been cautiously delighted and a bit anxious,” Prof Lester said.

a painting of a black swan
Lester’s family plans to publish the collection of paintings in book form.(Provided: Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania)

Painting has always played a big part in Sue’s life, even in her final weeks.

“She kept asking Greg to get his painting supplies from the lakes,” she said.

“She wanted to paint with her granddaughters.”

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s senior curator of art, Jane Stewart, said the museum was delighted to support the project.

“We are happy to help his family and friends publish them so that more Tasmanians can enjoy these delightful works,” Ms Stewart said.

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