Gumnut Cottage is set idyllically amongst a huge garden with magnificent trees in the Nelson suburb of Atawhai.
Former deepsea skipper and now acclaimed maritime artist, Sean Garwood, lives there with his wife Ligliana. There is a rabbit that lives inside at night and outside on fine days. There is also an alpaca but, disappointedly I see no sign of rabbit, alpaca, or Ligliana.
I am enthusiastically yapped at by Gigi the Bichon who, once she has decided I am no threat, attempts, with much success, to dominate the interview and my attention.
Garwood is genuinely nostalgic for his years as a deepsea fisherman.
“I am just really happy that I went to sea and met and worked with some absolutely wonderful people,” says Garwood.
“Sure, there were times that were not so good, but you really remember those good times. There’s never a day goes by that I do not think about fishing. It was nice to be a part of the pioneering years in the orange roughy and hoki fisheries.”
Garwood began his fishing career in 1978. During that time, he sailed on a total of 27 vessels.
The love for the sea, in both a fishing and art context, started young.
“I grew up in Fremantle in Western Australia. It’s sort of like Lyttleton, very much an international seaport. Dad was on the pilot boats and tugs. I was just five years old when I started to go to work with him. I had a wonderful childhood. It was a boy’s dream.”
Garwood’s father was also a painter.
“Dad painted a lot of historical Australian buildings and quickly built a reputation. He got to the stage where he was having sell-out exhibitions across Australia,” Garwood says.
“However, he was also a very accomplished marine artist with commissions from major shipping companies. He has one of his paintings hanging in the Australian War Museum and was also invited to show his work at the famous Mystic Maritime Art Gallery in Connecticut.
“As a result of dad’s success, he was able to give up the pilot boats and tugs and concentrate on painting full time. I would watch dad paint, as a kid does.
“I was coming up to 16 and school was not doing it for me. Drawing ships in Fremantle Harbour and working on an Italian cray boat was far more appealing. I also did a lot of sailing in Perth. So, going to sea came first, but I kept on drawing.”
Just before the Garwood family moved to New Zealand in 1979, three trawlers arrived in Fremantle, the Tangawai, Ikiwai and the Galatea. They had arrived from Holland as deck cargo on a heavy lift vessel.
“I was standing on the wharf for hours watching these ‘super trawlers’ being unloaded. I subsequently met the three skippers that were to deliver these vessels to Timaru - Brian Hardcastle, Johnny Gay, and Brian Kenton.
“I’m sure they felt sorry for me, alone on the wharf, and kindly asked me to get in touch with them when we arrived in Nelson. Ironically, I ended up working with all three of them, “says Garwood.
Determined to pursue a career at sea, the 16-year-old also wrote a letter to Peter Talley.
“And I still have his response. All handwritten and so courteous telling me when I came to New Zealand to please contact him and he would see what he could do about a job.”
Garwood used the contacts he had made and started with Skeggs in Nelson aboard the Waihola. Many vessels followed including, Waipori, Seafire, Otago Challenge, and the Otago Galliard.
He fished for Brian Kenton in Timaru on the Galatea and then went to Australia and fished the Gulf of Carpentaria. Back in New Zealand, he did a stint on the Banshu Maru and then in 1984 was back with Skeggs as mate on the Cordella including the delivery voyage from Hull in the UK.
Garwood also carried out exploratory fishing in South Africa for orange roughy while involved with the newly established Austral Fisheries and setting up their first vessel Austral Leader in South Africa. Back in New Zealand he began his involvement with the Norwegians fishing orange roughy on the Challenger Plateau and in Australian waters on the vessel John Longva and other Norwegian vessels.
“Life became quite nomadic, but it was time to settle down in Nelson with Sealord on the Aoraki and the Rehua and finally the new-build Aorere.”
All this time, Garwood was drawing and turning hand-drawn charts into artwork.
“I guess they looked like some abstract rubbish. You have to remember that in those days we only had satnav, before GPS came in. I used beautiful fine draughtsman’s paper and very fine pens. All the depths were recorded and finally the contour lines. The charts became 3D in a way.
“I must have been a bloody nerd because most of the crew were down the pub and I would be at home finishing the charts. There are hundreds of these charts all archived.
“Funny, I was still using some of these charts on the Aorere,” Garwood says.
In 2004, he discussed with Ligliana the idea of becoming a full-time artist.
“Actually, thinking back it was a huge gamble considering we had two young daughters, but we backed ourselves and got on with it.”
Garwood started off with painting still life subjects, nostalgia, and country sport.
“This taught me valuable lessons with the classic medium of oils. Painting is a process which evolves over many years,” he says.
In 2015 Garwood submitted a proposal to Antarctica New Zealand to visit the historic huts of Shackleton and Scott.
“My proposal included sketching and photographing the huts with the aim to stage an exhibition in 2017.”
Garwood says the Antarctica trip was life changing.
“It was three o’clock in the morning, and broad daylight, and I was alone in Shackleton’s hut drawing and taking photographs. I then took a moment to reflect. These humble wooden buildings are a treasure trove of early Antarctic exploration. Symbolic of the arduous journeys of the Shackleton and Scott expeditions. They are also the birthplace of Antarctic science. It was a privilege and a very humbling experience.
“They call it ‘the white silence’. It is so quiet it is deafening almost. The wind came and was funnelling down the kitchen range chimney, it was quite haunting but very spiritual. You could feel the presence of Shackleton and his men. It was so powerful because inside the hut the artifacts are so well-preserved due to the air being so dry. For example, there is still jam on a piece of bread that is 110 years old but looks like you could pick it up and eat it.
“Everything looks like you could move in tomorrow and continue living,” says Garwood.
That experience gave him enough material to spend two years, fully committed, in his Studio painting his Antarctic series and a subsequent exhibition in Christchurch.New Zealand Post later featured the paintings on postage stamps.
Then his agent suggested he change his focus to marine painting.
“So, in 2017 I started planning for an exhibition in 2020. The research involved has been extraordinary. I have met such generous people who have loaned me rare books, shared their memories and advised me on technical issues for some vessels. If it wasn’t for them and the inspiration they gave me to paint each vessel, it would have been very difficult.
“The exhibition represents the most comprehensive visual survey of New Zealand’s rich and diverse maritime history ever assembled in a solo exhibition,” he says.
Garwood is disappointed in the lack of recognition given to mariners in New Zealand.
“For a country that so dependent on shipping from colonisation to trade, there is very little in way of raising the public awareness of our maritime success.”
I asked Garwood about his techniques for painting the ocean, as marine painting is considered the most difficult genre to master.
“A lot of successful maritime artists in the 1800s and 1900s have, as they say, ‘served before the mast’. They have a knowledge of rigging and could paint by instinct, and for me that is probably similar.
“One of the most important aspects of marine painting is the connection between the vessel and the water. You see some examples, and I am not being disrespectful, where it looks like the vessel has been cut and pasted onto the ocean – there is no synergy between them. When you have that experience at sea, the interaction between the vessel and the ocean comes out in the painting naturally.”
There are very few practising marine artists left in the world today in comparison to landscape artists.
“You have to be technically correct when painting a ship, but not so technical that you lose the poetry of the painting,” Garwood says.
Marine paintings have been prized possessions of statesman and ship owners, captains, and kings. John F Kennedy, Franklin D Roosevelt, J.P Morgan and all the monarchs of Europe owned extensive private collections.
“There is a saying that you must know the ocean to paint the ocean. To experience the ferocious great Southern Ocean in all her glory will always remain in my memory. One could never properly interpret these scenes from books or photographs. You must feel the ocean beneath your feet and watch how a vessel reacts to her ever-changing moods.”
Garwood says it is not surprising that classic marine paintings are becoming extremely rare.
“There are a number of reasons, including the time involved in creating these works. Ship’s rigging can be extremely complex, especially square-rigged sailing ships. It requires careful planning and draftsmanship, that few have the required patience, knowledge, and ultimately the dedication for,” says Garwood.
“Yes, my days of going to sea may have passed. However, I am extremely grateful that I now have the opportunity to craft paintings that reflect my time at sea and document our rich and diverse maritime history. I feel that my painting career is paying back now to a part of my life that I was extremely fortunate to have and never took for granted,” Garwood says.
Sean Garwood’s exhibition ‘A Painted Voyage’ was held at the Jonathan Grant Gallery in Auckland: https://jgg.co.nz
- Lesley Hamilton