The Deacon of maritime art

The ozone ambience of an old Devon crab fisherman’s shed is as pervasive as turps; it ‘gets into your eyes, ears and nose’, says Paul Deacon. The shadowy confines, cluttered with maritime detritus— willow crab pots, cork floats, barnacle encrusted rope and the like—also made a great playground for Deacon as a youngster, which kindled a deep interest in the ocean that, under the tutelage of his artist mother, morphed into a long career as a maritime artist.

Now retired in Nelson New Zealand, 70 year old Paul Deacon remains as tethered to the nostalgia of his father’s crabber’s roots as he does his beloved oil paintings. Retired some years from his real job, I asked why he had not hung up the palette and brushes too, and the answer was somewhat like a nervous tick; he can’t get through a day without doing something creative. Wife Jillie echoes the sentiment: “In the 52 years we’ve been together, he’s never taken a day off—I often wear turps instead of perfume, just to get his attention!” Inspired in his formative years by the English coastline, harbour villages, shipping activity and days fossicking the tidelines, the seed to become a maritime artist was germinated during a stint in the merchant navy. Paul’s artistic flair was noted and he became in hot demand painting nautical scenes for the crew ‘for beer money’.

Now arguably New Zealand’s foremost maritime artist, Paul describes his career as a relentless journey, always striving and continually developing, both technically and artistically. He buys top quality paints—Old Holland—and has amassed a library of reference books so his art reflects historical accuracy while capturing the more intangible moods of the time. As an exseafarer and established artist, Paul has an astute understanding of the sea, of ships, atmosphere, light, movement and space.

“I aim to create, in colour , on canvas, the drama that wasn’t captured on camera!”

His passion lies with the sailing era, with a special interest in Captain Cook’s ships the Endeavour, Resolution and Discovery, and the role they played in establishing the fledgling New Zealand.

In some sense, I am generating and bringing to life a visual maritime history of New Zealand—I am hoping my paintings will resonate and connect with people on an emotional level while being underpinned by historical accuracy.”

Whilst Paul sees himself painting for at least another ten years—“As long as the hands and eyes permit”—his immediate future is more prescribed. The Artspace Gallery in Petone is hosting a special exhibition of Paul’s maritime paintings over summer, commencing 20 January. The exhibition focuses on the arrival of the first immigrant ships to Wellington (Port Nicholson) in 1840—the first being the Aurora on 22 January. Petone was the initial landing place, while the Bolton and later ships disembarked their passengers at Thorndon.

Paul says the exhibition, suggested by gallery owner and maritime artist Alfred Memelink, was a huge challenge.

“While I do a lot of commissioned paintings, I had never attempted a cluster around a specific theme, so it involved a lot of research and painting over a condensed timeframe.”

The ten month odyssey produced 12 works, which portray a mix of realism and artistic license to recreate

the spectacle and vibrancy of these consequential arrivals. The works are classic Deacon: the capturing of history in the making.

Visit: or for more information on the Artspace Gallery exhibition

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