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19 Apr 2024

HMS Protector gives artist access to remote Antarctic landscapes

HMS Protector gives artist access to remote Antarctic landscapes
Royal Navy Image
Royal Navy Press Release
We’re used to stunning imagery from the Royal Navy’s icebreaker, HMS Protector, from some of the most hostile environments on Earth.

Now we can witness the same scenes – but through the eyes of artist Polly Townsend, who is exhibiting the artwork she produced when she sailed south with Protector.

It was a perfect pairing, with Polly drawn to remote and hostile landscapes that ship’s like HMS Protector are made for.

Polly joined the ship in the Falkland Islands and spent five weeks on board the navy vessel, a residency supported by the Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute.

Speaking to UK Antarctica Heritage Trust, she said: “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.

“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.”

Polly is used to working in remote places and for the crew on HMS Protector, handling the freezing temperatures and unpredictable landscape becomes second nature. They quickly learn how to operate safely and efficiently in Antarctica, carrying out a number of operations and missions.

This year, sailors delivered 4.5 tonnes of conservation supplies to Port Lockroy and Detaille Island to help UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) members complete structural works on the historic buildings there.

The Plymouth-based ship also delivered aviation fuel to The British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) logistics centre at Rothera. It also carried out crucial conservation work with the help of scientists.

And its journeys to and from the icy continent gave Polly plenty of chances to get creative - despite the freezing temperatures.

“As you would expect it came with some challenges, most notably the weather,” she added.

“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 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, who lives and works in London, has had several of her paintings exhibited in the UK and the United States. She has also worked in climates completely opposite to Antarctica having been selected for the National Park Artist-in-Residence at Death Valley, in California (as hot as the Antarctic is cold).

Her work in remote places helps support the key messaging HMS Protector and her scientists have been pushing during the deployment - conservation work is important to keeping these environments thriving.

Polly said: “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.”

And speaking of penguins, she added: “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.

“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.”

Polly’s work can be seen at the John Martin Gallery in Albemarle Street, London (about five minutes’ walk from Green Park tube station) from April 24 until May 17.

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