Michele Hewitson Interview: Gil Hanly

By Michele Hewitson

It's her garden that gives a real idea of this woman for whom backward glances aren't her favourite thing

Photography Gil Hanly has a book documenting her life with artist Pat Hanly, her husband of 50 years. Photo / Natalie Slade
Photography Gil Hanly has a book documenting her life with artist Pat Hanly, her husband of 50 years. Photo / Natalie Slade

When it was announced that Hanly, by Gregory O'Brien and the photographer Gil Hanly (and others), had won the Illustrative Non-Fiction Award at the NZ Post Book Awards last week, I thought: Hooray!

It is an appropriately extravagant and exuberant review of the life and work of the artist Pat Hanly. But that was not the reason for the hooray.

That was an entirely selfish response and scarcely a journalistic one, because I also thought: "Now I have an excuse to go and see Gil Hanly's garden." So I phoned her and she made a strangled sort of sound which was not of delight and was not entirely unexpected. She said: "I can't talk, but I can answer questions."

That was not unexpected either. I've met Gil Hanly (and Pat, when he was alive; he died in 2004) a fair few times over the years, in passing. You could meet Pat for the first time and he'd make you feel as though you'd known him for years. He was outgoing and funny, a great entertainer. You never got a word in edgeways, but who could mind? He had the funniest stories anyway.

You could say of him that he couldn't answer questions, but he could talk all right.

There was a journalistic inclination to go and see Gil Hanly. I've never been able to figure her out. She can seem remote, if not cool. She seems an entirely serious person. And she is usually behind her camera, which is the way she prefers it - but it is hard to see her clearly, obscured as she is by her lens.

I've long thought that she might, actually, be the most interesting of the Hanlys. She is a very good photographer (she is the picture editor of Hanly, Ron Sang Publishing, $135 plus p&p) and a wonderful gardener and photographer of gardens. She is a life-long leftie and a greenie. She said: "I grow oxygen!"

She has bugger all money and she still pays her Labour Party "bob", and gives money to the Greens and to Mana - "to help Hone".

She is probably best known for her raw and tough photographs of protests, but also for her garden photographs, which I'd say were art, but she, very firmly, would not.

She was very beautiful as a young woman (she would and does, even more firmly, say not) and at 79, still is, I think. On the facing page of Hanly is a picture of her and Pat taken by Marti Friedlander in 1969. It is a lovely picture of her. "I don't mind it. It's all right. Why do you think I'm always behind the camera? I don't like being photographed." She has a smile which just happens to be her smile but which could be seen as enigmatic.

A documentary maker once called it her "Mona Lisa smile", which she thought too silly for words. Other than that, I don't know a thing about her except that everyone I know who knows her loves her. I've never heard anyone say a bad word about her. I was a bit shocked when I had another look this week at the Pacific Ikon documentary which screened in 1998. She is, and I'd forgotten this, really rather fed-up and obviously grumpy, at times, with Pat - or more precisely, his public persona.

I felt quite grumpy with him too, after that repeat screening (and not about the flings which are probably pretty much to be expected; all that free love was there for the taking - mostly for married men).

They met at art school, in Christchurch, in the early 1950s, where they were both learning to be painters. They were both artists but in the documentary - this is the bit that made me grumpy too - Gil says that he didn't really think that women artists were any good, and was pretty negative about them. "Well, he was. But I think that was very naughty. I was very grumpy with him over that because, you know, I was involved with people like Jacqui Fahey and Claudia Pond Eyley and women's art groups and things like that." So, what was that? A flaw? "I don't know. What do you think?" I think it was probably chauvinism. "Yeah. But he didn't worry about my photography. He was fine with me photographing. It was an asset. That was fine because I could photograph the work and be useful!"

But taking umbrage on her behalf really would have been silly beyond words - other people's marriages are a mystery, often to them. And also she never minded that her photography was "useful" because she has never regarded it as art. "So it didn't matter. I don't see myself as a photo artist. I'm a documenter. I have a very good eye; I make bloody good photos, but I really document."

She didn't want me to bang on at length (or at all, preferably but as it's linen already aired, I'll meet her halfway and air it again only briefly) about what she calls - not so much euphemistically as dismissively - his "dithering around". She and Pat have two children, Ben and Tamsin, and Pat a third child, Amber, born in 1979, who was welcomed into the family. "Not Amber's fault," she said, about the welcoming, and "she's lovely" and that was all there was to be said and fair enough too. It was all a long time ago. She never had ditherings, but why not? "Don't know. Busy. Friends are important. We have a lot of very good friends and we still do."

I don't know if she knows she does this: Talks about "we" as though Pat is still around. It's probably habit. She didn't feel emotional about doing the book. It was work, although she is protective about his artistic reputation because she thinks it, and he, are important in the context of New Zealand art. I don't think she's a particularly nostalgic person. She's a gardener and gardeners live mostly in the future.

She has always been generously busy, supporting the family, doing "mad things" such as making clothes on a knitting machine and selling them to boutiques. She wrote the food column for the Woman's Weekly, pre-Tui Flower. I thought she might have given up the idea of becoming a painter to remove herself from competition with Pat, but she says she knew enough about it to know she wasn't quite good enough. She says she was "mediocre" but that is characteristically modest. She allowed "competent", and then, "not bad", but really, she said, she was too interested in other things - "I read, I cook, I grow things" - to devote herself to painting.

On page 25 of the book there is a picture taken in 1959 of Pat and Gil and Ben, as a baby, in London, where they were living at the time. She is wearing a tweed skirt and what looks like a twin set. She looks terribly conventional, if not proper. "Well, Pat's wearing a Harris tweed jacket." He is but, I said, he looks like he's playing at dress-ups. "Yeah, well, I probably was too." Why didn't it occur to me that she might be too?

Perhaps because you missed her sense of fun if you only knew the two of them in passing. (She said he could be dour at home.) There is seldom room for two jokers on the small stage that is a long marriage. Fifty years. Goodness. I said, a bit desperately, perhaps: But it was a happy marriage?

"It was good. It was a bit mad. We did all sorts of extraordinary things. He was great with the kids on the whole. He used to do all sorts of things with them."

I'd hoped - given the prices Hanlys go for now - that after so many years of scraping a living, she'd be a well-off widow. But when I asked if she had got used to living alone she said she had a boarder and had had one since about a year after Pat's death. For company or finances? "Finances. And a bit of company." Couldn't she flog off a few Hanlys? "Haven't got any to flog off. They're all in the [family] trust and he left a huge amount of them to the gallery. So we've only got them while I'm alive." Oh. Is that all right with her? "No!" I really did intend to keep my mouth shut and mind my own business for once, but really! Wasn't she angry? "No, no, no! He didn't expect to die!"

She is a practical person. She came out and fixed the front gate by bashing it with a garden trowel as we were leaving. She thinks the gardening came from being a farmers' daughter who hated housework (she still does) and would instead rather work in the large vege patch. Her parents had a sheep farm in the Rangitikei: "This rather dreary flat bit of land at the mouth of the Rangitikei. Peat swamps and flax and black sand everywhere." She did correspondence school at home until she was 12; there weren't any schools nearby. Her father had won a scholarship to Cambridge to study medicine then came the war and he joined the British Army, "and did Flanders and Gallipoli and all that stuff and he got sick of Europe and came home and discovered grandfather had sold the farm!" Her mother was involved in the beginnings of the Girl Guide movement and was horse mad.

It's hard to see where the idea of wanting to be an artist came from. "I thought: 'What can I do to leave? I was also interested in books. I could have gone to library school but I wasn't allowed to go to Auckland. That was the big evil city so it was Christchurch because dad had a sister down there."

Where of course she met Pat. I was trying to imagine that first meeting between the conventional, farming parents and the funny little motor-mouthed art student with mad hair and charm. What did they think? "Whoah! That wasn't part of the itinerary, I don't think!"

But it was, of course, for 50 years and the book is a sort of itinerary in retrospect of his art, and their lives together. But backward glances aren't her favourite thing (as she likes to say about those things she's not terribly keen on looking back at) so we went back into the garden. She dug up a large clump of a purple ornamental oxalis I'd been eyeing covetously. Gardeners do that sort of thing, but it is beyond gardening generosity to ruin your own stunning display to give someone a plant they have taken a fancy to.

It is that, and the garden, that might tell you more about her than an interview with, or a photograph of, a subject who doesn't much like talking and who hates having her picture taken.

Her garden, then, is magical: Quite eccentric, with flashes of fun (a mad waddle of wooden ducks strolling about the pond), beautiful and clever, with surprises hidden away around alluring corners - you just have to go looking for them.

- NZ Herald

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