When we think about Antarctica, what tends to come to mind are penguins, whales, seals and of course, snow and ice but unless you have been able to see it for yourself, the vastness and brutality of its stunning scenery are hard to convey in photographs and indeed through paintings.

But that’s exactly what the Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute (FoSPRI) annual ‘Artist In Residence’ scheme looks to achieve. Each artist, will have their own unique style capturing Antarctica or the Artic in ways we would not necessarily think about and opening our eyes to new perceptions.

As an FoSPRI member, we joined a preview evening in London of the most recent work and got to speak to the artist, Polly Townsend, first hand about how she transferred her experiences to canvas…

Listen to my short introduction

Sponsoring an ‘Artist In Residence‘ each year is a unique way of contributing to the awareness of our polar regions – its issues and challenges. It’s also about giving accomplished artists the opportunity to spend 4 – 5 weeks in these remote, not easy to reach and expensive to get to, crucially important parts of our planet.

Brad Borkan
Acting Chair, FoSPRI

Art is a great way to express emotions and visually touch people’s hearts. Enough hopefully to encourage us to make necessary changes in our climatically turbulent world, minimising further human impact

South Georgia Heritage Trust look to do a similar thing, using sculptures to bring the past whaling times and current return of the whales together. ‘Spirit’ tables, formed out of steel, that will develop the same soft patina of the whaling stations ruins in Grytviken, will represent different whale species, showing through the use of rivets their near decimation and their recovery. A smaller ‘Key’ table will use a Nightingale chart (bit like a pie chart), to show how many whales were ‘processed’ at that time. You can read the full story HERE.

About Polly’s Trip

Polly painting in the crows nest. Photo Credit: Corporal Eden, HMS Protector

Chosen in 2022, Polly began her journey in January 2023 aboard the Royal Navy’s HMS Protector – lucky her! They continue to support FoSPRI’s programme, which is fabulous.

Captain Ingham let her use the the ships crow’s nest, a fantastic space, protected from the winds, with a 360 degree view and a quiet place for her to draw, paint, photograph for as long as she chose – with 24 hours of daylight, Polly described it as ‘paradise’. With two young children at home, it’s rare she is allowed that focus.

Watch her voyage video HERE – wait ’til you see the crows nest!

Do you enjoy my writing?: Always optional, Donating even a small amount occasionally enables me to continue to be another voice for the environment, supporting organisations focussed on conservation and restoration through my blogs, video’s, giving my time on committees, raising awareness. Click on the Donate button, top right hand side of the page for more information on how I am contributing and why your donation counts

What Is Her Antarctica Art About?

Her approach was to strip away many of the elements of what she saw and focus in on one glacier or iceberg or snow topped mountain – without the ‘chatter’ of the wildlife or the clouds or even the sea sometimes, using colour to accentuate climate changes.

Ice Slice, Polly Townsend. Oil and Acrylic on Canvas, 122x152cm

Polly frames ‘Ice Slice’ with a block of yellow sky, representing the warmth Antarctica is experience and a band of dark cold blue sea, nothing else – drawing you to what she wants us to focus on. The ice, glazed layers of warmth and cold, sandwiched between these two layers – the warm and the cold. That very thin band of land under the ice, a symbolic gesture towards the idea that you wouldn’t normally see that land but we are because of the warming climate.

‘Outcrop’, Polly Townsend. Outcrop, 2024, Oil and Acrylic on Panel, 70×100

What is missing from Polly’s work is as important as what is in it she told me. Notably there is an absence of sea ice in her paintings. ‘Outcrop’ shouts out to us how climate change is affecting and altering Antarctica’s vista with more rock exposed than you would expect.

Polly’s work reflects presence and absence. What is noticeably absent is the sea ice. It was unprecedented to be on the Antarctica Peninsula and not see any sea ice with 2023 having the lowest recorded incident

Someone asked me if there was anything scary about my trip to Antarctica. I was scared I couldn’t do it justice and bring back something important about what is going on there, depicting this through my paintings.

Polly Townsend

There have been 10 other ‘Artists In Residence’ in Antarctica sponsored by FoSPRI, each with their own unique skills but Polly told us, despite their being no guidelines or restrictions on how the artists portray what they have seen, she felt the responsibility of what she had been able to experience, through the sponsorship, to try to deliver the messages of what she was seeing and how that would have been so different perhaps if she had visited 10 years ago.

What’s Next?

For Polly, she still has a lot more to art to put to canvas from her trip. I can imagine that, 4 years on I am still digesting my voyage there and the wonder of all that we saw. So we can expect to see more stunning paintings yet.

For Friends of the Scott Polar Research, the latest sponsorship to Antarctica was musician Michael Begg. Having returned this year from his voyage, I can’t wait to hear the output of what he describes as a ‘sonic portrait of Antarctica’ – you can read his introduction HERE


Join Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute HERE

You can see Polly’s art at the John Martin gallery until 17th May 2024

Polly Townsend’s Website