Kiwi pho­tog­ra­pher Gil Hanly

Peace ac­tivist, pro­tes­tor, pho­tog­ra­pher – all three can be used to de­scribe Gil Hanly, who has spent much of her life us­ing her cam­era to doc­u­ment the events that have shaped New Zealand. Now in her 80s, she talks about her ex­tra­or­di­nary life and ad­ven­tur


For more than 40 years, Gil Hanly has been doc­u­ment­ing turn­ing points in our na­tion’s his­tory. Her pho­to­graphs have cap­tured the best and the worst in us. The unity and joy, the frus­tra­tion and anger, the serene and the ugly.

She was there at the Spring­bok Tour protests in 1981 to shoot a na­tion di­vided; she was asked by Green­peace to doc­u­ment the sink­ing of the Rain­bow War­rior in 1985; she was there on Bas­tion Point, as Ngati Whatua fought to re­tain its pre­cious land; and she marched with Maori from Ngaru­awahia to Wai­tangi in the 1984 land hikoi. She shot the Queen Street ri­ots and doc­u­mented the out­rage over the killing of Teresa Cor­mack.

It’s been said that if you had a protest and Gil wasn’t there to pho­to­graph it, then it wasn’t re­ally a protest.

Of late, it’s her pic­tures of gar­dens she is most proud of, and it’s to her own peace­ful trop­i­cal oa­sis in Auck­land’s Mt Eden that she takes me when we first meet. She’s ea­ger to show me her mag­nif­i­cent palms and the flour­ish­ing veg­etable gar­den. Crim­son pop­pies are a splash of colour in a bor­der, chooks scratch about in a large run in the shade of a spec­tac­u­lar Brazil­ian silk tree. Gil’s a vig­or­ous 85 – of­ten, ac­cord­ing to her grand­son Michael, who is stay­ing with her – to be found up a lad­der or mow­ing the lawns.

Gil still lives in the char­ac­ter-filled brick villa she shared with her artist hus­band of 50 years, Pat Hanly. Pat died 14 years ago. “It’s been a long, lonely time,” Gil tells me. But she is sur­rounded by fam­ily. Her two chil­dren, Ben and Tamsin, live just blocks away and her grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren are fre­quent vis­i­tors to Gil’s wel­com­ing home. It is, of course, filled with art, Pat’s and oth­ers. In the hall­way there’s a bronze Greer Twiss bust of Pat with one of Pat’s much loved cloth hats tossed ca­su­ally on his head. It’s a touch­ing ges­ture from the woman who stayed loyal through thick and thin.

Gil is re­mark­ably san­guine about what she calls “Pat and his bloody af­fairs”. Pat strayed nu­mer­ous times dur­ing their mar­riage but his

in­fi­delity never broke up their for­mi­da­ble union. It speaks vol­umes about Gil that Am­ber, his daugh­ter from one of his li­aisons, was whole­heart­edly wel­comed into the Hanly fam­ily. “It wasn’t her fault,” Gil in­sists.

Farm to art school

Gil was born in 1934 in Levin, the first of three chil­dren; two broth­ers would fol­low. Her fa­ther, who grew up on a farm, was on his way to the UK when the First World War broke out. He was in­tend­ing to go to Cam­bridge to study medicine. In­stead, he ended up en­list­ing in the Bri­tish Army and was soon headed for the bat­tle­fields of Flan­ders, Gal­lipoli and North Africa. He sur­vived un­in­jured but all he wanted to do was re­turn home and go farm­ing.

He broke in a block of land be­tween the sea and the Manawatu town of Bulls. It was a rough acreage of pine for­est and sand dunes. The whole fam­ily toiled hard on the land, the chil­dren ex­pected to do their share. “We didn’t play around, we had work to do. We grew and made things,” Gil re­mem­bers. “No­body bought things in those days.”

Gil was home-schooled un­til she was 12. “Mum would some­times get a wife from Ohakea [the air­force base nearby] in as a governess so she could work on the farm.”

As a teenager, Gil was sent off to Nga Tawa, the pri­vate school up the road in Mar­ton. “I didn’t like it much,” she tells me wryly, “but I did make a cou­ple of friends who are friends still.”

One of them is prom­i­nent arts pa­tron, Genevieve Be­croft. It was in Genevieve’s gar­den that the pop­u­lar Women’s Refuge Sculp­ture Ex­hi­bi­tion be­gan. At the time we talk, Gil had just vis­ited this year’s ex­hi­bi­tion with her old friend. “We tot­tered around the sculp­tures but I’ve lost the bloody pho­tos I took,” she grins.

It was ex­pected that Gil would leave school, go back to the farm and marry a lo­cal farmer, but she had other ideas. “I thought, no! I’d al­ways en­joyed art. I wanted to go to art school.”

There were schools in Auck­land and Christchurch. “Back then Dad thought Auck­land was a big, evil place, so he sent me to Christchurch where his sis­ter lived so she could keep an eye on me. Aunt Les­ley was a lovely, laid-back woman – she never kept an eye on me,”

Gil grins wickedly.

The Ilam School of Fine Arts was in its hey­day. Among her con­tem­po­raries were cel­e­brated artists Bill Cul­bert, John Co­ley and Quentin Mac­Far­lane. Mac­Far­lane said of the group, “We must have been terrible peo­ple to teach... we were born into the De­pres­sion, grew up dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, of­ten with­out fa­thers. By the time we be­came ready to go to uni­ver­sity we were a pretty wild bunch.”

Pat and photography

Also at Ilam was the young Pat Hanly. He and Gil didn’t pair off un­til they grad­u­ated. At that stage Gil was be­com­ing an ac­com­plished painter. Pat, how­ever, was in­tensely com­pet­i­tive. In the in­ter­ests of peace, Gil de­cided she would con­cen­trate her tal­ent on photography in­stead, a pas­sion that had be­gun years ear­lier at home on the farm, with her box brownie in hand. Pat was keen on her pur­su­ing photography. Af­ter all, she says, it would help in his work.

Post-uni, the pair and a group of mates hopped on a boat to Lon­don. They would stay for five years, Pat paint­ing by day and work­ing as a the­atre elec­tri­cian by night. “He wasn’t very good at it [elec­tri­cal work]; he’d put the wrong con­nec­tions to­gether and the lights would go out,” she laughs. Gil also found work in the­atre as a props buyer for a pro­duc­tion com­pany.


LEFT: Gil with her artist hus­band Pat Hanly and the cou­ple with their daugh­ter Tamsin. OP­PO­SITE: Gil in her gar­den stu­dio, which has shelf-loads of her work.

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