skip to primary navigation skip to content

Polly Townsend Artist in Residence 2022 - Antarctica on HMS Protector

Polly Townsend Artist in Residence 2022 - Antarctica on HMS Protector

In January 2023, I had the enormous privilege of being the Artist in Residence in Antarctica, hosted by the Royal Navy on board the ice patrol ship HMS Protector. We were in the Antarctic region for five weeks, beginning in the Falklands, then travelling south, via the Drake's Passage, to the Antarctic Peninsula. Our trip included stops at Port Lochroy, Damoy Point,Rothera Station, Horseshoe Island and a remarkable day on Avian Island.Portrait taken by Corporal Cameron Eden

Captain Ingham generously allowed me to use the crow's nest as a studio and it is surely one of the best studios in the world! As the highest point on the ship, it had 360 degree views, was sheltered from the weather and was a completely private place to work for the duration of the trip. I was also able to work on land/ice on several occasions. I took oil paints, drawing materials and several cameras and also spent a lot of time observing. New scenery, strange lighting effects and rapidly changing weather meant painting was both demanding and exhilarating but with no childcare commitments and 24hr daylight I worked day & night and beyond. It was paradise!

It was my first time at sea for any length of time. I was thrilled to be on HMS Protector. The crew were incredibly kind & welcoming, and helped me acquire my sea-legs. I was generously permitted on all outings/leg-stretches, and was as thrilled to be on the small zodiacs close to the water, as I was on the big ship going through the stormy Drake's Passage.

I loved every minute. Avian Island was particularly memorable. After multiple failed landing attempts, defeated as much by the density of marine wildlife as by the sea, we nosed into a rocky outcrop, leapt out and were greeted by a quarter of a million Adelie penguins. Most were infants. All my senses were overwhelmed. The island, both colourful, slippery and pungent with penguin guano (poo) was also loud with screeches of the Skuas and Petrels we had come to count. Seals covered much of the remaining rock. We also enjoyed the full spectrum of Antarctic weather, hot sunshine to horizontal blizzards, as we made our way gingerly to the historic huts where we documented the debris left there over the decades.

Antarctica had the contrasting qualities of a dream and a hyper-real movie. Often the ice was trapped in a heavy slumber between cloud and sea, but when it cleared, enormous views would unfold with razor-sharp clarity. Time seemed as suspended as the ice which magically held fast as we slipped by, though occasionally vast slabs the size of sky scrapers would collapse off the ice shelf and we'd be sharply awakened. Colour and light could both overwhelm and mollify, radiating, reflecting and bouncing playfully in the crevasses, or shifting into the most delicate hues and subtle planes of tone. It was both a joy and an enormous challenge to try and capture these personalities.

The climate crisis was constantly on my mind. Record low ice and huge calvings again this year as the oceans warm, acidify and become more polluted. Noticeably, there was no sea ice to be seen! I wondered how old the ice shelf was I was looking at and how radically different it could look within my children's lifetimes. We saw breath-taking wildlife: a pod of Orcas working together to create waves to wash seals off an iceberg, a 50ft humpback whale breaching repeatedly right in front of our zodiac, penguins and other birds galore. In a lifetime spent painting extreme landscapes this was the wildest and most emotional of all: staggering wilderness and wildlife changing faster than at any time for millions of years, with untold consequences. I was thrilled to be accepted for this Residency and feel a weight of responsibility to do it justice. It is my greatest hope that over the coming years my work can help convey the immeasurable importance and value of this place.

Drawing in Antarctica

Drawings done in the crows nest

Iceberg drawing

Painting sketch

Instagram: @polly_townsend