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.