In conversation with… artist Polly Townsend

From the great ranges of Central Asia to the Badlands of the American Midwest, Polly Townsend is drawn to remote and hostile landscapes. She speaks to us about her latest residency, in Antarctica.

In conversation with… artist Polly Townsend

From the great ranges of Central Asia to the Badlands of the American Midwest, Polly Townsend is drawn to remote and hostile landscapes. She speaks to us about her latest residency, in Antarctica.

In conversation with… artist Polly Townsend

11/04/2024

From the great ranges of Central Asia to the Badlands of the American Midwest, Polly Townsend is drawn to remote and hostile landscapes. She speaks to us about her latest residency, in Antarctica.

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. 

Polly 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. 

Polly lives and works in London but travels extensively for her work. She has been an Artist in Residence in Antarctica and has twice been selected for the prestigious National Park Artist-in-Residence schemes (for Death Valley and Badlands National Park). We caught up with Polly to talk to her about her latest residency: in Antarctica aboard the HMS Protector supported by the Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute.

You often travel solo to remote regions – what draws you to these places?

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. Being alone allows a deeper level of awareness and connection to the sights, sounds and – certainly where penguins are concerned – smells!

The Edge, 2023, charcoal and ink on paper (Credit: Polly Townsend)

How did you first become involved with Antarctica?

The Friends of Scott Polar Institute sponsors an artist every year to go to either the Arctic or the Antarctic; it’s an open submission/competition. 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. 

You spent five weeks on the Royal Navy’s HMS Protector as artist-in-residence. Please tell us about the experience.

HMS Protector collected me in the Falklands and then we crossed the Drake’s Passage to the Peninsula. From the start, 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. We had incredible encounters with wildlife. 

Painting in the crow's nest (Credit: Polly Townsend)

A 60-foot humpback whale breached right in front of our zodiac – and there were many opportunities to spend time working on the ice and land. Antarctica is obviously like nowhere else on earth and painting the landscape was amazing. As you would expect it came with some challenges, most notably the weather. Not only is it cold – which makes it hard on the fine motor skills in the hand needed for painting – but it’s windy, so you have to really cling to everything. 

It’s it’s very, very changeable. This means the view is constantly refreshed and things like contrast and colour are rarely constant. When working on the ship, the landscape whizzes past at several knots so a fast pace is essential in all respects. I took oil paints, drawing materials and several cameras and came back with 50+ works and 2,500+ photos. I reflect on it as a period of intense productivity in one of the best studios in the world!

Polly at work on the HMS Protector (Credit: Corporal Cameron Eden)

Do you still have a dream destination you haven't visited?

I’ve always dreamed of going to space! More realistically, a place I’d love to go (back) to, is Tibet. I’ve been before but it was 27 years ago. The landscape is exquisite: raw and luminous in a way that only high places are, and sculpted over millennia by the weather and the monumental movements of the Himalayas. Unfortunately, it’s a politically and culturally sensitive place to go so I have major reservations about returning. 

We believe heritage can be a force for good in the climate crisis. How do you think your artwork can influence current affairs?

Antarctica is the most important continent in the world right now in terms of climate stability. I think we have to use any means we can to help people access and connect with it and connect with the subject of climate change. Art can be a powerful tool. Visual mediums can be easier for many people than facts & figures, and art is based on emotions, which is the basis on which most people make their major life decisions. 

The ecological message is not overt in my work but is there in quiet ways. I might work with colour to suggest the co-existence of heat and cold in Antarctica or create a sense of darkness to reflect my own personal fears and foreboding. I’ve aimed to portray the unique natural wonder and beauty of Antarctica, to encourage audiences to engage with the subject matter and consider what is happening there. It is a place of ancient and infinite time horizons and astounding scale, which can be an important contrast with the nature of life lived elsewhere. 

Painting at Rothera Research Station (Credit: Polly Townsend)

From 24 April, I have a solo exhibition of Antarctica paintings at the John Martin Gallery in London and what is notably absent from that show are any paintings of sea ice. In 2023, when I was in Antarctica, there were the lowest levels of sea ice ever recorded. We saw none. 

Politicians have the power, but art and culture can shape and mirror society’s deeper values. In June my exhibition will show at the Houses of Parliament aligned with the launch of the Environmental Audit Committees’ Antarctic Enquiry so I hope that is a useful juxtaposition.

Who are your biggest artistic influences?

There are so many. I love the clarity of light in the French 19th-century landscape painters – Corot, Courbet, Daubigny, and the mastery of the 16th-century Dutch still lives. Piero de la Francesca takes my breath away, as do some of the Euston Road painters like Coldstream and my old tutor Uglow. Of course, I hugely admire the early pioneers of Antarctic art – Wilson and Marston, and love Albert Bierstadt’s icy works. Emma Stibbon RA, who did the residency a few years before me, is a wonderful artist, and following in her footsteps was a great motivation. 

Some of Polly's drawings from the crow's nest (Credit: Polly Townsend)

What's next for you?

See above for the exhibitions – and more after that hopefully as I’ve only scratched the surface of what Antarctica gave me.

What luxury item would you take if you were working at Port Lockroy for the season?

I hope my paints are considered an essential work item rather than a luxury! Good sleep is important wherever you are and doesn’t come easily to me, so, I’d take a sleep package of comfy pillow, eye shade, ear plugs and a solar-powered electric blanket!

Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin?

My favourite species of penguin is the king penguin. On my arrival on the Falkland Islands, I saw one standing like a sentinel on Bertha's Beach. I kept the appropriate distance but it generously allowed me to take a huge wide walk all around it. I’m sure I was the more curious. It was a magical introduction to the Far South. 

King penguins (Credit: Lifes_Sunday/Shutterstock)


Visit the John Martin Gallery in London between 24 April and 17 May to see my Antarctica paintings (details here). Other images are available on my website and Instagram, @polly_townsend.

I’m grateful for all the support I’ve received from family, friends, the University of Cambridge’s SPRI, Friends of SPRI, Royal Navy and the John Martin Gallery. 

polly@pollytownsend.co.uk | www.pollytownsend.co.uk

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