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Gil Hanly
Gil Hanly

The most defining thing about Gil is that she is omnipresent - Gil is everywhere. At almost every event, be it one of our own Garden Design Society talks or outings or weekends away or trips to Melbourne – she is there. She will pop up at whatever festival or tour you can think of – the annual Gardens Trust Conference, Jo Connor’s trips to Australia and California, Warwick and Sue Forge’s very first foray into South America – Gil was there.

Garden photography may be a large part of Gil’s life but it is by no means the whole story. Art and artists have always been central and her photographic record of the social, political and environmental issues of the last 50 years would be second to none.

Gillian Mary Taverner was born in 1934 during the Great Depression, the eldest of three children on a farm out from Bulls near Tangimoana on the coast, at the mouth of the Rangitikei River and due west of Palmerston North where her husband-to-be, Patrick Hanly grew up.

Gil’s upbringing was a bit different to Pat’s – her father, born in 1896, had won a scholarship to Cambridge in the UK to study medicine and was there when the First World War broke out. He joined the British forces and saw service in Gallipoli and elsewhere, returning home only to find that his father had sold the farm – except for the house and a hundred acres of fertile fattening land.  Gil’s father Lewin, “then spent the rest of his life breaking in a farm where only lucerne really thrived on the sandy soil”.

Some of Gil’s earliest memories are of visiting her grandparents’ home, with its huge macrocarpa trees and exotic white pigs. “It was a wonderful garden for hide-and-seek and we used to play in the hedges, run up and down the raspberry walks – there were hazel hedges too, artichokes and figs.”

Her mother, Alison Kebbel, had grown up between Levin and Foxton and was ‘mad on horses’. Interestingly, she too painted and drew and was interested in native plants in particular – planting a native bush strip at her new home.

Gil learned by correspondence until she was twelve, escaping into the big farm vegetable garden whenever she could to avoid the housework. After that came a stint at Nga Tawa, a boarding school near Marton, where our patron Bev McConnell also went. The art classes must have been good as both proceeded to Canterbury Art School.

Pat, on the other hand, had left secondary school in Palmerston North before matriculating (there were certainly no art classes there) and soon found himself apprenticed to a hairdresser as his parents deemed this a safer path to a regular income than the life of an artist. At least it was creative. Pat enrolled in night classes and then gained entry to the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts as a non-diploma student - where of course he met Gil.

The couple lived overseas in London and briefly in Ibiza for several years from 1957 until the early 60s when they moved back home with their son Ben. In 1963 they moved into Windmill Rd and baby Tamsin arrived. Gil was then fully occupied looking after the children and her vegetable garden and fruit trees – well-trained by her mother to grow everything from cuttings.

Her photographic career began by chance in the 70s with an unexpected trip to Fiji: “I bought a camera at the airport and photographed the Pacific Arts Festival which was on at the time.” Such was her delight at having a camera in her hands again, she took a photography course at Elam.

Photographing gardens for a living took centre stage when Julian Matthews, editor of the New Zealand Gardener, saw one of her pictures and asked her to photograph gardens for the magazine in the early 90s. Her entrée into books had come a few years before via her friend Susan Firth who wanted to follow up her successful book on ferns with one on city gardens – instead of the usual big country garden theme. Gil had been using black and white so she had to learn about colour photography, travelling all around the country with Sue, discovering small gardens of interest. Before long she was plunged into a world of garden books for Godwit, Moa, Batemans and New Holland, among others.

Her interest in subtropicals was sparked by Noel Scotting of Whitford. “She was a lovely woman who had been to South America with Arno King and seen Roberto Burle Marx’s work.” From there she met plant collectors like Dick Endt and Russell Fransham who was then at Earthsea with his partner. A book for the Heroic Gardens Festival was soon inevitable, then one on the Ellerslie Flower Show – all of these interspersed with trips overseas with Julian to photograph gardens in England and America besides constantly trekking around NZ. More books followed throughout the 90s – many for Paul Bateman and also the Trinity Garden Festival.

Gil always says she likes the bigger picture – not close-ups – but concentrating on how things relate to each other. Being artistic, she particularly likes design and found an outlet for that in photographing Landscape, a book featuring top New Zealand designers, first published in 2005. It was followed by The Artful Gardener in 2008 – in some ways a compendium of some of her best work illustrating the theme of gardens as an art form, allowing the gardener to explore his or her creativity through a living, growing, ever-changing medium.

For someone who has been at the forefront of conflict so often throughout her life, Gil is remarkably tolerant of people with different viewpoints. She sums it up by saying “gardening people on the whole are really very nice – we just don’t talk politics!”

Summary of an interview by Rose Thodey, AGM, 17 June, 2015.