Pat Hanly: Painter of light

For almost 50 years the late Pat Hanly captured the light and colour of the Pacific in a vast body of work—paintings, prints, murals and glass works. Art News talks to his wife, photographer Gil Hanly, about the early days.
Pat Hanly, Doing It

Art News: In 1957 you left New Zealand for London and Pat joined you soon after. During this time he painted some of his major works (the ‘Fire’ and ‘Showgirls’ series). What was it like for New Zealand artists in London at the time?

Gil Hanly: It was quite different arriving in England—it was in the middle of the Cold War and everyone was living with this four-minute warning hanging over their heads. One of the things we immediately noticed when we got there was how frenetically everyone was living. The feeling was you may only have a few minutes to live – “so let’s live!”. We arrived in London in winter and there was no sun. For three or four months all you could see was this orange ball in the sky through the smog.

Pat got a job as stage manager at the Gargoyle strip club. They hired artists and medical students to work behind the stage, as they knew they wouldn’t freak out with all the nude girls running around. I worked for the theatre company, 
H.M. Tennant, making scenery—they produced shows like My Fair Lady. Pat’s job allowed him to paint during the day and work in the evenings. Unfortunately, as I worked during the day, we only had Sundays together. The point of trying for those jobs was that he had time to visit galleries during the day. I lived in Oakley Street, Chelsea, and Pat lived in Battersea for a while, then he got a room with Bill Culbert at the Royal College of Art. The building had been bombed in the war, and the back wall was gone, so it was pretty basic lodgings. We saw a lot of friends through the college—Bill, Ted Bullmore and Michael Browne. John Drawbridge and Ralph Hotere were in London at the time too, as was Barrie Bates before he transformed himself into Billy Apple.

Pat Hanly, Fire on Earth
Pat Hanly, Fire on Earth, 1960, oil on board. Courtesy of Robert and Elizabeth Ellis
Pat Hanly, Stripper Before a Mirror
Pat Hanly, Stripper Before a Mirror, 1961, oil on canvas on board. Courtesy of Hanly Family Trust. Photo: Gil Hanly

We used to get desperate for the sun, so when we had time off and could afford to, we’d head off on the Lambretta for Spain or Italy, staying in youth hostels. In late 1960 Pat got this scholarship via the British Council and Italian Government to paint in Italy. By now our son Ben was born, so we all went off to Florence for about four months, with around 10 pounds a week to live on. We stayed in an old convent, full of interesting people, and Pat worked on the Showgirls series. It was winter, but we managed trips to Rome and Venice as well.

Back in London, it was then a matter of trying to get a show. We’d trek around the galleries with our folders, showing the dealers, but it was hard work. The Australian artists came into the scene around then with great aplomb. Sidney Nolan had been through, and Brett Whiteley was around at the time. He was supremely confident and came from a wealthy family, so didn’t have to work, and didn’t really care whether they showed him or not—and of course because of that the galleries were begging him to exhibit. From getting to know people like Brett, we picked up a bit of nous, and Pat got his first solo show, exhibiting the Showgirls series at the Comedy Gallery in Haymarket in late 1961. He also submitted one of the Showgirls paintings, which was accepted, for a show in Liverpool, which included David Hockney, Ron Kitaj and Peter Blake.

The nuclear threat seemed to hang over everything though, and we got involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. We joined the Aldermaston Marches and went to a few of the big rallies that Bertrand Russell addressed. By 1962 Pat was involved with the British anti-war group, Committee of 100, and looked at ways of passive resistance and using art to increase people’s awareness. Around this time, he started talking about heading back to New Zealand.

What made it click for Pat was when he got a three-month grant to go and work in Amsterdam. There wasn’t enough money for all of us to go, so I stayed in London working, and he had a cold and lonely time in Amsterdam with plenty of time to think—that’s when he painted the Massacre of the Innocents series. I don’t know why he destroyed so many of them—I felt they were a strong, interesting series—but he felt some of them didn’t do justice to what he was feeling. He painted 30 or 40 works and destroyed quite a few. Ben and I went over and stayed with him for the last week, going around the Dutch galleries, and one day Pat said, “I think it’s time we went home”. When we packed up he left some of the Massacre works in London with his dealer, but the gallery went belly up and we never saw them again. Who knows, they may turn up one day. 

Pat Hanly, Figures-in-Light
Pat Hanly, Figures in Light 6, 1964, oil on canvas. Julian and Susanne Miles Collection
Pat Hanly, Massacre-of-the-Innocents
Pat Hanly, Massacre of the Innocents, 1962, oil on canvas, Sir Miles Warren Collection. Photo: John Collie

You returned to New Zealand in 1962, just as Pat was getting recognition in the United Kingdom art scene—after all, he’d been in that show in Liverpool in 1961 with Hockney, Kitaj and Blake—pretty good company.

All the time we were away, we were both aware of being foreigners—we never felt we were ‘at home’ the way you feel it in New Zealand and Australia—we were definitely Pacific people. Initially I thought he’d made a terrible mistake coming back to New Zealand—I felt it was too soon—but now I think it was the best decision for him—he’s definitely a Pacific artist and much more comfortable at home. Initially we thought we’d go and live in Sydney, so we came back, saw our families in Palmerston North and then came to Auckland.

Pat got pretty positive about the place—Peter Tomory had started at the Auckland Art Gallery, Colin McCahon worked there as well, and Hamish Keith and other people we knew were active in the arts. I was pregnant again and we’d moved 15 times in the past 10 years, so we just wanted to stay in the same place for a while. My father offered us a low interest loan so we could buy a house and stay in the country, and we bought Windmill Road. Our first daughter Tamsin was born the day we moved in.

The gallery scene was quite different here compared to the United Kingdom. Peter Webb had opened a gallery for a short time, and the only other one was Ikon Gallery, up in Symonds Street, run by Don Wood and Frank Lowe. Pat had his first show there, showing paintings he’d done in the United Kingdom, which we’d taken off their stretchers, rolled up and shipped to New Zealand in a container. The opening was bizarre—Pat couldn’t believe it—there were all these people in duffle coats, with beards and smoking pipes, reading poetry and lying around on the floor. In London the galleries didn’t involve artists in their openings—it was their occasion and they wanted things to be respectable. Selling work in Auckland was pretty hard back then, and Pat only made a few sales. Interestingly, at that stage it seemed that it was mainly European people—like restauranteur Otto Groen—that ‘got’ Pat’s works and were buying them.

Did Pat have to change his style and approach once he returned to New Zealand to paint?

He had a real block when we got back. He did works I wasn’t that keen on, like Welcome to Mt Eden, trying to cope with being back and the change of light. There were abstracts, but they weren’t working, and he was floundering around without any real direction. He didn’t really get his breakthrough until we were on the beach one day and he started to look at the people in the light, on the sand, which was almost a ‘eureka’ moment. After that he started his Figures in Light series—one of his best breakthroughs, I feel. He finally accepted the shock of New Zealand light—the fact that you could ‘see’—he would go to the top of Mt Eden where you could see for 50 miles! Try that in England. Now it’s a lot cleaner there, but there’s a funny, warm light in Europe which you don’t get here.

But he was still worried about what he was doing, and about being too influenced by what he was taught at art school—he’d get huge blocks when he couldn’t work and he’d get cross and grumpy. He had a room in Grafton where he worked, and he blacked it all out and blindfolded himself and painted, trying to unlearn what he’d learnt at art school. I’ve always thought he had a terrific skill of laying on paint. If you look at his work he knew absolutely what he was doing—he had absolute control of his brushstrokes. He enjoyed the period painting in the black room where he didn’t know what was happening, then putting the light on to see what he’d done.

Clockwise from top left: Pat Hanly working on Prelude to a Journey, 1977, Old Customhouse, Auckland; Pat Hanly outside his studio in Windmill Road, late 1980s; two New York murals, 1981
Pat Hanly working on Golden Age, 1981, School of Architecture, University of Auckland

In the 1970s Pat started painting murals—for Birkenhead Hotel, Christchurch Town Hall, Auckland Medical School and Auckland Airport. How did this work come about?

He was offered a tutoring job by Peter Middleton at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture in 1963. He really loved it, and did it for 30 years. He really loved trying to shake the students out of their academic preconceptions and getting them to look at things as if they’d never seen them before. Over time, the architects came back to Pat when they’d designed a building they wanted to incorporate murals or stained glass into. He seemed to oscillate between his ‘people’ works and the larger abstract paintings, but he really enjoyed the freedom of the larger works. The rainbow mural he designed for Christchurch Town Hall had Miles Warren worried it wouldn’t work, but it came together well. Pat said about the Auckland Airport mural, Prelude to a Journey, painted in 1977: “I wanted to make people feel good before they left on a trip”. (For more information about the creation of these works, see Barry Lett’s essay ‘Working with Pat Hanly’ in the book Hanly.)

Pat Hanly, Rainbow_Pieces
Pat Hanly, Rainbow pieces proposal (for Christchurch Town Hall Mural) 1971, watercolour

In 1980 we applied for a grant to travel to the United States and investigate community art, including murals there and in Mexico—many inspired by the art of Diego Rivera. But the only time we could leave without jeopardising Pat’s Auckland job was during our summer, so we went then and it was diabolical—everywhere was under snow. So we sloshed around New York photographing some works, and also visited Chicago, Buffalo, San Francisco and New Mexico.

We then flew to Mexico City where Pat spent five days gazing at the Riveras, and I saw the Frida Kahlos. We contacted sculptor Helen Escobedo, who had previously been in Auckland for the sculpture symposium organised by Jim Allen and Robert Ellis. Her work Signals, which is now at the Parnell Rose Garden lookout, and Michio Ihara’s Wind Tree, now in Wynyard Quarter, came from that event. She took us around Mexico City and to the university, showing us huge sculptures and mosaics, many which had been created for the Olympic Games. When we got back, Pat gave lectures on outdoor art using the slides I’d taken during that trip.

Hanly, edited by Gregory O’Brien and published by Ron Sang Publishing, will be released on 21 August 2012

Published (and continued) in Art News Summer 2012

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