Despite a more than 30-year career painting his distinctive and much-loved gardenscapes, celebrated Wellington artist Karl Maughan says itâs a style heâs never felt like straying from, describing flowers as his artistic âlanguageâ.
Photography by Tobias Kraus
On a warm spring morning in his Wellington studio, Karl Maughan is working on his latest painting for an upcoming exhibition at Aucklandâs Gow Langsford Gallery. The show coincides with the release of a new book, Karl Maughan, edited by Hannah Valentine and Gabriella Stead. Itâs the first dedicated to his life and long-standing career.
âThe paintings are based on Monetâs garden at Giverny, but set in New Zealand,â he says. âSo native New Zealand flowers, trees, gardens and hills, but working from a lot of the plant structure and form of Monetâs garden, using photographs from various trips there.â
Unlike the reclusive Monet, Maughan is a social artist, happy to talk as he paints and often welcoming his friends and family to stop by the studio while he works. He goes on to describe the process of his current work, explaining how he likes to collaborate. âI work on the principle of getting the background done, then all the leaves in, then working the flowers in, then the leaves back over,â he says. âRight now, Iâm starting with some blue sky and darker green. A friend comes in to help me block it all, so Iâm just figuring out what I want to paint next.â
In a way, Maughanâs pathway into gardenscapes was laid out for him. His father painted in his spare time; his mother was a talented horticulturist and landscape designer. It was on a road trip in the 1980s that a young Maughan found the inspiration for his works, stopping by his parentsâ home to take photographs of his motherâs garden.
âThe time of year was dead winter, so the garden was stripped out, things torn out, waiting for spring to arrive. I thought, âthatâs interesting. The photos of his motherâs wintry garden represent a very different picture to the gardens Maughan, now known for his grand, visceral and blossoming gardenscapes, would go on to paint.
After studying at Aucklandâs Elam School of Fine Arts under the tutelage of Dick Frizzell, he took off to London to mingle with fellow expat artists, where awards and a discovery by famous art collector Charles Saatchi propelled him into prominence. Now regarded as one of New Zealandâs best-known garden painters, Maughan says itâs a style heâs never felt like straying from, describing flowers as his artistic âlanguageâ.
With hundreds of paintings to his name, what is it about gardens that fascinate him so much? âWith real-life gardens, you have the ability to pull a plant out, trim it down, make it how you want. But only up to a point, because nature always fights back,â he says. âWhen youâre painting gardens, you can do anything. Take out that giant tree, or put a pond in. I can literally do whatever I like and not be restricted by the image. Thatâs the fun aspect of painting.â The history of gardens is another aspect of the subject matter that deepens his obsession. âThereâs a huge history that youâre tapping into when you look at the works. Thereâs this whole tapestry of what a garden is to people. It goes right back to the practice of fencing off the forest and making something inside that is safe and idyllic.â
Straying inevitably to talk of the pandemic, Maughan says the countryâs response is, in some way, a modern reflection of this desire to fence ourselves off from danger and create spaces of safety. âNew Zealand has literally done just that with the COVID-19 barrier. Itâs amazing in its own way.â
As much as he is drawn to the romance of gardens, Maughan is also fascinated by the uneasiness that finds its way into the frame â what he describes as âmenaceâ. âItâs the feeling that the colours are a little too intense, the lighting somewhat unrealistic, that something is hidden behind the beauty. Itâs a funny thing,â says Maughan, describing the âlooming-nessâ of some of the paintings. âSometimes it just looks so beautiful, you think, âWhat is around that corner? Whatâs lurking?ââ
As curator Gregory OâBrien describes it in the last chapter of the book, Maughanâs paintings illustrate the belief that âbeauty must be tempered with oddnessâ. Itâs a notion that the artist delights in. âItâs a great thing to have this slightly scary, stray presence that you canât quite put your finger on.â
Maughan works on several paintings at once and each one typically takes just one to two weeks to finish. As his career has evolved, his gardenscapes have intensified, evident in their brighter colours, deeper pigments, as well as the energy of his brushstrokes.
In 2002, a scare with an eye tumour that threatened his vision was one catalyst for this renewed celebration of brightness, colour and depth. âI felt lucky to get through [the surgery], and subsequently enjoyed diving into colour and trying to evoke every kind of emotion with paint. I love eliciting that feeling of being able to climb into the painting, to wander around in the frame and discover whatâs behind something,â he says.
Looking back at his more than three decades-long career, Maughan admits he is a more self-assured painter than in his early days. âI used to angst and worry, now Iâm more confident,â he says. Heâs quick to add, however, that itâs the small failures along the way that keep the work interesting.
âItâll surprise you. Something might not work and youâll have to scrape it off and try something else. But one of the delights of painting is that itâs not foolproof.â
Originally published in December 2020.Â