City Art Reader 21: Henry Turner

5th Sep 2019

Henry Turner draws content from his experiences of the natural world. In his upcoming exhibition Deep Gold, at City Art Depot, 10–30 September, he bends history to create fantastical scenes of a Subantarctic island. With a strong knowledge of the classics and art history, Turner fills his works with an evocative iconography of references and figures. Painting, framing and storytelling are closely linked to create complete objects. Cameron Ralston talked to Turner about how these works originated ahead of the exhibition.

Cameron: I’m still getting my head around the works. I know it has to do with the Subantarctic islands but could you give me any insight about where the works came from?

Henry: In 2013 I went around the Subantarctic Islands with Heritage Expeditions. I had always wanted to do that and had heard they offered scholarships, so one day I ended up at their headquarters and following a strange succession of circumstances I found myself on a ship headed down there within a fortnight. It went around all the islands, looking at birds more than plants. We went around The Snares, the Auckland Islands, Macquarie Island, Campbell Island, Antipodes, Bounty Island and the Chathams. We left from Bluff and finished up back in Dunedin but only landed on some of them.

Are they locked off from human intervention?

Very much so. Also, The Snares are very dangerous – on the few hectares of islands there are about 3 and a half million pairs of sooty shearwaters breeding mainly in burrows. So the ground is extremely unstable. When scientists go there they have to wear big skis, or paddles, of plywood to spread their weight, otherwise the ground caves in wherever they set foot. Of course that might not be so much of a problem in the future – the planet is taking care of the shearwaters.

‘Physics and Mars’, Henry Turner, gouache on paper in gesso frame, 2019

Are these paintings reimaginings of those islands?

The island is a fictional one set in that part of the world.

Are all the works linked as part of a narrative? What’s going on in the story?

They are. It’s a bit uncertain timeline-wise. Basically, there’s a ship – after Tasman, before Cook – which has finished up in this part of the world as they did. It’s not after the Transit of Venus but it might be in search of Terra Australis Incognita, which is what Tasman thought he was seeing when he saw New Zealand, the great southern continent where Eden was. The boat hits this island and odd things happen. I have written a story that accompanies the exhibition which will be available to read in book form in the gallery.

The works really highlight the island’s wildlife – are these depictions of things that you saw on the islands?

Yes, for example in Flash Orpheus there’s a king penguin. There’s an enormous colony of them on Macquarie Island, a few hundred thousand, and their numbers are rising rapidly. They were nearly driven to extinction in the 19th century by a bloke called Joseph Hatch, who was, among other things, Mayor of Invercargill. He had a company called the Southern Isles Exploitation Company (aptly named). Once he’d polished off the elephant seals – there’s a lot of oil in those, used to lubricate things and burn in lamps – he moved on to penguins. So, he moved in some giant cylinder structures, big fire boxes. Basically, he’d open up the hatch, pile it full of penguins and boil it for 12 hours and fill barrels up with oil from a spout. He did this for many years, going through several million penguins, so by the time the Australian Government declared it a sanctuary there basically weren’t any penguins left. They’ve been increasing almost exponentially since, to the relief of all and sundry.

‘Flash Orpheus’, Henry Turner, gouache on paper in gesso frame, 2019

Was it mainly the animal life that was affected or did the plants suffer similar fates?

It was the plants as well. They put weka on Macquarie Island as well as on one or two of the Chatham Islands. But weka are predatory. There was a Macquarie Island species of rail, which looked like a wee bit like banded rail but smaller and with a big curved beak – the weka took care of them in short order. There were cats as well which took care of the nesting sea birds. They also brought in rabbits which took care of the rest of the plants. Basically, come the ‘80s, it’s a desert. When rabbits eat all the vegetation the land starts doing weird things. The soil starts washing away and there’s lots of landslides and new disturbances which kill more seabirds. They did a big rabbit eradication in the ‘90s and they’ve been patrolling the islands with dogs ever since. It takes a very long time for the vegetation to recover to any extent. When there were rabbits there, they had fenced off a little area with bits with chicken wire and stakes. Those remains are now a good metre higher than the rest. It’s like a wee patch of forest in the middle of a paddock. So that is where the megaherbs could survive, but the megaherbs are growing back now, which is good.

Does your awareness of the ecology of those islands enter into the works?

Not very much into the works – that’s not happening here. But it informs the making of them because when you go to the islands that’s a good deal of what you see. On Enderby Island there were 30 head of cattle and thousands of French blue rabbits, you know the big black ones with the floppy ears, they were everywhere. Also, some enterprising sea captain set fire to the island which used to be covered in rata forest. Rata would burn like TNT, it burns reddy-green.

‘Metamorphosis’, Henry Turner, gouache on paper in gesso frame, 2019

Who’s the figure encased in flames here?

He’s the emperor who rules the place. According to my rather loopy storyline the emperor is from somewhere in Turkey, who left when paganism got banned by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius – who’s name meant gift from god – so appeared to end up in the Subantarctics.

You’re very knowledgeable in classics, are you still studying?

I still am, god help me. I’ve just come from a Classics tutorial about Polyphemus, the cyclops in the cave who Odysseus had such fun with. But yes, I’ve been studying a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Classics.

Do you see your work relating to any other authors or artists which you’ve studied?

Yes. I love Dunedin artist Kushana Bush’s work. I quite like Tracy Emin’s work. Nichola Shanley’s artworks and a few artists like that. And a Chinese artist called Qi Baishi who’s not very well known outside China.

What is it that draws you to these artists?

I like them. Personally, I think that the school of thought that says, “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like,” is gravely underrated. There’s no reason to say that you can’t know about it and feel the same way about things. I do like Michael Parekowhai’s work – I found out the other day that he used to be a florist, which is fantastic because everything made sense. I love flowers.

You had a show, Something Fresh, at Next Gallery in February this year which featured a lot of flowers and birds.

That show also arose with Heritage Expeditions. I went to the Solomon Islands that October. They were a very cathartic place to go. When you go to the Subantarctics everything is blooming, everything is recovering, everything is growing at an exponential rate; there’s more megaherbs every year, there’s more penguins every year. In the Solomons it’s all the other way around. The period of mass slaughter and destruction in the Subantarctics has passed but in the Solomons it’s only just getting underway. The Solomons are ochre, olive and black, there’s no room for any green in that harsh sunlight. It was very very harsh and very extreme. I came back and last winter, spring and summer was the wettest on record in Canterbury, everything was so green and so soft. The skies were so grey, and everything was lush and growing like fireworks. That reaction, from one extreme to another, was where most of the impetus for that show came from.

What prompted the transition towards the more fantastically coloured landscapes in these works?

The idea for the show came about really suddenly, in about early January when I was just finishing one of the works for Next Gallery. I was just thinking about what I was going to do next and went to Astro Lounge one late afternoon with some friends. On their big projector screen they were playing Flash Gordon. I don’t care two damns about the film, who made it or the soundtrack, but what was of interest was the landscapes they used and the colours. I decided I’d take these landscape forms – craggy purple rocks, big orange skies – and put them in the Subantarctics. I would put into that lots of weird, almost Germanic romantic stuff like suns and moons and lightening and rainbows and big storms and waterfalls. The rainbows and waterfalls didn’t make it in because they’re too sodding difficult. So, there they were, as soon as Something Fresh was over and done I came to City Art Depot.

I remember you coming in being very excited about the potential of the artworks.

I had all the ingredients. I wasn’t convinced what I was going to do with them but I knew I was going to do something. Everything worked out, it’s been lovely.

‘Simcha’, Henry Turner, gouache on paper in gesso frame, 2019

You haven’t deviated much from that initial burst of inspiration?

No, I’ve been very almost Calvinist with myself. I’ve been positively cloistered doing the work. It’s been much more focused than in the past. That show at Next had stuff everywhere of all sizes, and only one framed. So, I wanted to do the complete opposite, something I had never done before. Incredible frames were called for, which would be totally splendid in every respect; the work would have to be better than anything I’d ever done; it would have to have a very strict narrative; there would be a controlled number of them, no more than twelve; they would be quite big with a lot going on in them; and that in general I would invest a huge amount more in each than I’d ever done in one before. In short, as far from Something Fresh as you could get, with the exception of one or two motifs.

You have definitely put a lot of effort into the presentation of the works. Is there a reason for the curved corners you use in the works and frames?

Right from the start I had a really, really specific vision for the frames, but it took a while to work out what it actually was. The curved corners started off in school. I was looking at Jason Greig’s artworks and he does the rounded corners, so in Year 13 printmaking I started lopping the corners off my plates with a guillotine until everyone was throwing bottles at me telling me to stop playing around with that sodding chopper. I’ve not really done a square corner since so these would naturally have to be rounded corners. Because everything else in my work changes so dramatically I don’t know what I’ll do next, something different again, but I must at least use the rounded corners. The frames are of equal importance to the paintings – it’s important that they be considered not only as equals but as one. I wanted to introduce more of the object into them: the painting as an object, the object as a painting. I wanted them to get so close that you couldn’t split them apart, which is why the rounded corners are carried the whole way through and the colours are so carefully keyed with the paintings. The frames and the paintings started coming together at more or less the same time and rate.

‘Sparkling Lapse’, Henry Turner, gouache on paper in gesso frame, 2019

At one point you mentioned you want to bring extra objects into the gallery for the opening?

I’m not wholly decided on the point yet, as I understand some people are allergic to them, but I want a gigantic vase of lilies, so many you won’t believe it. I want there to be the mother and grandmother of cheeseboards with all manner of amazing things on it. I want there to be a stack of beautiful books and there’s going to be a speaker and there shall be music. Music has been a very, very important part of the process – I never work without listening either to music or to an audiobook.

Will you play the same music you listen to at the opening? What sort of music do you listen to?

Absolutely, yes indeed. I listen to a weird mixture. I like music the same way I like artists. There’s very few that I like – 99 percent of modern music is total garbage to me and a decent portion of classical music is too. Decent bits of both are very rare and precious. Though I would say there is perhaps more of it now because things are much freer so people can do what they want and sometimes they get it right, very occasionally. Perhaps I’m completely wrong but that’s how it suggests itself to me. Also, for the last few years I’ve taken up the habit of naming things after songs, one or two of these are.

Are you drawing from memory or from found imagery? And do you usually start by sketching elements for your paintings?

A bit of both. I’ve been going very deeply into the memories of places so this is sort of an amalgam of all the islands. I’ve got a small archive of the Subantarctics from Google – I’ve looked at every one of them. I’ve also been collecting Subantarctics book for a while and I’ve been looking through the Government survey of them which is two giant volumes of geophysics, geology, zoology and botany. I do sketches before beginning but I don’t want pencil lines perchance I don’t paint over them. If I rub them out it’ll super polish the gouache. I’ve had that problem a few times so for this show I left off the use of pencils. You only have one shot at it with this format.

Deep Gold opens 5.30pm, Tuesday, 10 September at City Art Depot.

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