Polar Notes

Apr 2024

Antarctic Paintings – Polly Townsend: the Artist in Residence in Antarctica 2022

This week saw the launch of the much-anticipated exhibition, Antarctic Paintings, at the John Martin Gallery, London, by Polly Townsend, the Artist in Residence in Antarctica, 2022. The Artist in Residence programme is made possible by the Friends of Scott Polar Institute, who sponsor an artist every year to go to either the Arctic or the Antarctic.

Polly Townsend, Artist in Residence 2022 in Antarctica

In January 2023, Polly Townsend began her five weeks residency on board the Royal Navy ice patrol ship, HMS Protector. Setting off from the Falklands, the vessel travelled south, via the famous Drake’s Passage, to the Antarctic Peninsula, docking at several research stations and a variety of other points of interest en-route. ​Townsend was given the ship's crow's nest as a studio, and, with her own specially developed equipment and techniques to paint on land, returned with over fifty drawings and paintings from the expedition. Opening this week, the exhibition brings together these works along with studio paintings evoking "Antarctica's seemingly infinite range of personalities".

Jamie Anderson, Director of the APPG for the Polar Regions, attended the launch party on Tuesday night. He said, “Walking through the exhibition, you can’t help but be drawn in by the boundless beauty of Antarctica, prompting deep reflection on its significance and vulnerability in our modern world. This exhibition serves as a reminder that art offers a rare and invaluable opportunity for people to vicariously explore and connect with places they may never physically encounter. Townsend's pieces exemplify the pivotal role of art in conveying the majesty of untouched landscapes and in cultivating a profound sense of responsibility towards safeguarding our planet’s dwindling wilderness.”

Jamie Anderson (left) attending the launch party of the Antarctic Paintings exhibition at the John Martin Gallery

Polly Townsend completed an MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, in 2001. She has exhibited widely throughout the UK and USA and her work has won numerous awards and prizes. Townsend has several paintings in the Permanent Collection of the Department of State, USA, currently on display in Beijing, Karachi and Mumbai and has work in the National Parks Collection, USA, The Alpine Club Collection UK, and the Ben Uri Collection.

Townsend’s paintings are a study of her physical and emotional response to vast wilderness. She often treats the land as a singular subject, a still life, disembodying the form whilst remaining faithful to the original patterns, colours and light.

Speaking to the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust about what draws her to remote regions for her artwork, Polly says, “So many things…. space, peace, beauty, scale, challenge. Being in wild places for prolonged periods takes me out of myself and is very life-affirming. You see the world unfold quietly and it’s very humbling. Of course, I have increasingly seen places through the lens of environmental fragility. Places often seem barren on the surface but are rich, life-supporting ecosystems. I feel a tenderness towards the minutiae of life and awe at the ancient and monumental landscapes. It’s a privilege to be able to spend time in places like this and make work that people will look at again and again.”

Speaking about the Antarctica Artist in Residence position, she says, “I’ve always wanted to go to the polar regions, so when I saw the position advertised, I knew immediately I should apply. I had a funny feeling about it – it seemed so right for my work and the perfect next step on my creative and literal journey.”

On working with the Royal Navy aboard the HMS Protector, she said, “The Royal Navy were wonderful, kind and welcoming, and being with them added another dimension to the whole experience. I was able to get to otherwise remote and inaccessible places. Captain Ingham generously allowed me to use the crow’s nest as an extraordinary studio. As the highest place on the ship, it had 360-degree views, protected from the weather and was a quiet place to work. With 24-hour daylight and no other responsibilities, I was able to work from early morning until late into the evening. I was also permitted to join all ‘leg stretches’ and landings and these outings were some of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

Polly Townsend's studio in the crow's nest of HMS Protector

“HMS Protector is a research vessel and undertakes hydrographic surveys as it goes, meaning it is almost always on the move. This, combined with new scenery, strange lighting effects and challenging weather meant painting was both demanding and exhilarating. I took oil paints, drawing materials and several cameras and I also spent a lot of time observing.

“Visiting Antarctica was an incredible opportunity and, as the most fragile landscape on our planet, it was also an enormous privilege. I do not take lightly the responsibility that comes with this and I hope over the next few months/years my work can help translate the importance and value of this place.”

Polly Townsend’s work will be displayed at the Houses of Parliament in June to mark the launch of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee's Antarctica Report. More details to follow.

You can read the full UK Antarctic Heritage Trust interview with Polly Townsend here.

Polly Townsend’s exhibition, Antarctic Paintings, will be running from 24 April - 17 May 2024 at the John Martin Gallery, 38 Albemarle St, London, W1S 4JG.