Book Review: Pat Hanly, by Gregory O’Brien & Gil Hanly

This book is in bookstores now, and is a finalist in the Illustrated Non-fiction category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards

Hanly std cover

I remember when I first saw one of Pat Hanly’s paintings. I was working as part of the exhibitions team at Te Manawa, Palmerston North’s art gallery and museum, when the curator wheeled out this exuberant and dynamic painting, which I was to learn was a Hanly. Born in Palmerston North, Hanly’s work seemed to exemplify the aesthetics I associated with the sixties and seventies: bright colours and shapes with political undertones. This is why I was interested to read in the retrospective of his work, Pat Hanly, that Hanly’s paintings departed from the “sombre, monochromatic and rooted” work that New Zealand painters were doing at the time. In his introduction to this incredible book, curator Gregory O’Brien states: “Hanly was that rare thing in mid-20th-century New Zealand art … His work came as a surprise to the light-sensitive retinas of the gallery-going public. Here was a painter of dazzling sunshine rather than the dusk or night-time.”

This is only one of the reasons why the book, Pat Hanly, will be so welcomed. And what a book! As well as containing 190 full page plates, and over 150 smaller images and photographs, the book also includes personal essays by Hanly’s colleagues and friends, and an essay and commentary by O’Brien. The combination of stories, memories, biographical information, and scholarly writing, provides readers with a complex and rounded view of Hanly as both a man and an artist. This allows many ways for a reader to access Hanly’s work, whether it be through descriptions of his “charismatic … and restless, nervous energy,” or his artistic philosophies.

 Paradise Bird Escapes Bather

Paradise Bird Escapes Bather, Oil on canvas, 1015 x 1525

The book is structured chronologically, although O’Brien notes that the structure also acknowledges the “cyclical nature of [Hanly’s] career, with its loops and reprises.” After documenting Hanly’s early family life, the book follows him to art school in Christchurch in the 1950s where “male students usually wore corduroy pants, tweed sports coats and polo-neck jerseys, while the girls tended to be close imitations of their mothers: twin-sets, pearls and sensible shoes.” While reading about his student days I was suddenly nostalgic for my own time at art school (admittedly in the 1990s – but how little has changed), and this signaled one of the strengths of the book: it evokes a strong sense of time and place.

The book then moves to London, where Hanly lived and travelled with Gil Taverner (who he’d met at art school, and is an artist in her own right), their marriage, and the birth of their first child, Ben, in the late 1950s. The London essay also provides an incredible sense of time and place, which works to elucidate Hanly’s artistic preoccupations with our capacity for self destruction (especially in terms of nuclear war), which manifested in series of paintings such as Massacre of the Innocents (1961-1962).

Hanly and his family returned to New Zealand in the 1960s, and the book documents Hanly’s light and lush paintings of the 60s, his murals of the 70s and 80s (some of Hanly’s most iconic work), and his more abstract and political works of the 80s onward, which includes O’Brien’s essay on Hanly’s life in Auckland, where he and Gil made their home. While Hanly’s work responded to the intense social change that happened in New Zealand from the 1960s through to the 1980s, O’Brien calls him an “expressionist whose work was disarmingly angst-free.” I was interested to see how a book – even one as glossy and large as Pat Hanly – would handle the murals, but the high quality foldout reproductions do them justice.

The book ends with a detailed chronology of Hanly’s life that includes excerpts from personal letters, reviews, his journal, and manifestoes, and it seems to suggest that there is more to be said about the man and the painter than will fit into one volume. Pat Hanly is a wonderful book. I am not surprised that it has been selected as a finalist for the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett (

Pat Hanly
Essay by Gregory O’Brien
Contributions from John Coley, Quentin MacFarlane, Dick Ross and Barry Lett
Photographic Editor Gil Hanly
Book Dimensions: 300 x 300 mm x 276 pages
Published by Ron Sang Publications
ISBN 9780473208646

For more artwork, go here to the Ron Sang Publications website

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Pat Hanly, by Gregory O’Brien & Gil Hanly

  1. Pingback: Email digest: Wednesday 14 August 2013 |

  2. Pingback: Our reviews of New Zealand Post Awards finalist books |

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