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A Better Day: Paul Henry Reimagined

A Better Day by Emma Cownie

I was recently commissioned by a collector to paint a version of a painting by Paul Henry.  This was quite a daunting request. At the moment, my top three favorite (dead) painters of the Donegal landscape are Paul Henry, and William Hubert Craig and Letitia Marion Hamilton.

Born in Belfast, Paul Henry studied art in Belfast and then Paris. He lived in London briefly, and then moved to Achill Island on the West coast of Ireland in 1910, with his artist wife, Grace. They lived here  until 1919 when they moved to Dublin. His paintings depict the West of Ireland landscape in a beautifully spare post-impressionist style.

Paul Henry’s paintings portray the rugged mountains, wind-swept trees, dark boglands and towering clouds of the west coast of Ireland.  His images of  Ireland are genuinely “iconic”. This is because in 1925 he was commissioned by the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company to design a travel poster.

irish-railway-poster-connemara-ireland-by-paul-henry-23-p (1)This poster for Connemara was distributed throughout the world (mostly in North America) to encourage tourists to explore the west of Ireland.  The Irish Times commented in that year: “If thousands of people in Great Britain and America have been led this summer to think over the claims of Ireland as holiday ground it is largely through the lure of Mr Paul Henry’s glowing landscape of a Connemara scene.”

Many people bought reproductions of the poster and more posters followed. 



Many of Paul Henry’s landscape paintings are in public galleries and museums but they also turn up at auction on a regular basis and almost always do “very well”.

The small painting that was auctioned this July, was the one I was commissioned to interpret. This was “Claddagh Village” painted in 1928. I do not know what the painting sold for, but the estimate was for a whopping €40,000 – €60,000

Claddagh Village
Claddagh Village

I had to think quite a bit about this painting and Paul Henry before I started work on my own version. I have never done versions of other artists’ works, although I have seen artists sketching famous paintings in art galleries.  I am the sort of artist who peers very closely at the surface of a painting in a gallery, to try and get a sense of how a painting was made.

I suppose I approached this task in a similar manner. I peered carefully at the impasto brushwork in the photograph of the painting. I looked at how he had laid the colours down. Although the paint was thick in places, in others it was applied thinly and the colour of the canvas/grounding showed through the paint. There was something about Paul Henry’s paintings that bothered me. I could not quite put my finger on it. How can I put it, they were all very blue, even when they had red in them. Indeed, “Claddagh Village” had curious splashes of red on the right-hand side of the painting, and I wasn’t sure what they were meant to represent. Was the hedge on fire? Surely not.

Part of the answer it turns out that Paul Henry was mildly colour bind. So when he used red it was probably squeezed neat from the tube. Greens, warm, cool, or otherwise, are often absent from his paintings. This caused me to pause. Should I copy Paul Henry’s colour scheme or use my own palette of colours? I decided I needed to know more. So I research the subject matter a bit more.


Claddagh was a fishing village in County Galway. It’s thatched cottages were pulled down in the 1930s, but old photographs of the original houses still survive.

These photos gave me a good sense of the chunky shape of these very old houses but not their colours. So I looked for modern photos of Galway thatched cottages for the colour. I finally, found some images of puffy clouds over Connemara and put together a reference sheet for colours and shapes. I decided although I would use Paul Henry’s composition I would not copy his colours, as such, use the reference images in the way I usually paint pictures.

Visual References for Paul Henry
Visual References

Once I had settled these questions in my mind, I put them to mind and painted. My canvas was about the same size (24x30cm) as the one he used (23x30cm). My choice of blue for the sky was very different from the beautiful (almost) duck egg blue Paul Henry used. My cloud was a summer cloud.

My shadows had more blue and mauve in them, that Henry’s which had a lot of grey/brown in them. Interestingly, had I been painting a watercolour version I probably would have copied his choice of colour for the shadows.

I dithered over the russet-coloured bush. I wondered if it had been green in real life or if the painting was done in autumn. In the end, I left it russet. I don’t think I conveyed the thickness of the thatch as well as Henry did. My thatch looks too new.

Right at the end as I painted the grey stone wall, I realised with an oddly blinding clarity that the smudges of red could only be a rain shower! How stupid was I to think that the bush was on fire? The whole painting was about a pair of small rain clouds producing a tiny gust of rain, whereas my version was about a hot sunny day.

Paul Henry’s painting is an infinitely superior painting to mine as it has movement too; in the rain shower, how he has painted the road, the depth of the shadow/reflection on the gable ends of the houses. He handles the paint so confidently. It tells a story, about a sudden shower, whereas mine is about space and empty street. I always thought that Paul Henry was the master of simplifying a scene, I just had not appreciated how effective his use of impasto paint was. I found that very appealing.

Now I understand why artists will make copies of the great masters, because you cannot truly understand how a painting is made until you try and put together your own version.  Looking at the surface of a painting will only get you so far in understanding it. I was not attempting to copy “Claddagh Village”, although that would have been interesting, but reimagine it. As many husband joked, it’s Claddagh village, just on a better day.

Claddagh Village – My version

24 thoughts on “A Better Day: Paul Henry Reimagined

  1. That’s fascinating. It’s like you got inside the painting.

    1. Thank you. That’s sort of what I was trying to do. I was difficult not to just copy it but do my version of it. Paul Henry’s painting is a million times better than mine.

  2. Lovely to read about your research and discoveries 🙂 And apart from the bush I do like the beautiful Claddagh

    1. Yes, the bush is the weak point in my version. I wasnt sure what todo with it and I think it shows. Perhaps I should have left it, but then it wasn’t really my painting, so I didnt feel I could.

  3. Hi Emma, wonderful post. I love drawing other artists works. I think that the most important thing I get from the practice is purely to spend more time with a work, followed closely by a real understanding of how much harder it was to make than we ever give credit for.

    I really appreciate how you have broken down your path to understanding this work. I sttod in wonder doing a quick sketch of a Van Gogh study of Millet’s The Sower and then realised that I too, for just that short moment in time, stood learning from generations of masters.

    1. Yes! It does make you appreciate the genius of a particular work. It’s one thing to look at a painting, and quite another to inhabit and recreate it. I think I was particularly impressed by his bold composition – the houses were cropped, there was a path but it was blocked by a house. It was all about the two clouds. It all worked beautifully and has got me thinking about composition!

      1. Definitely a worthwhile experience then

  4. It was fascinating to follow your process and understandings, Emma. What an undertaking. I haven’t heard of Henry before, but I love the complexity of the shadows in his paintings.

    1. Thank you Anne. He’s an Irish classic, in much the same way Kyffin Williams is for Wales, or Thom Thompson is for Cananda. I don’t know how the Australian equivilent is, do you?

  5. I know this is blasphemy of a sort, but I much prefer your version. I’m waiting for lightning to strike me now…

    1. That’s so sweet of you! lol!”My version certainly wont cost 40,000 Euros, unlike Paul Henry’s!

      1. Boy, wouldn’t it be nice?

  6. How very interesting Emma. I’m sure your buyer will be pleased with the new version of an old favorite.

    1. Thank you,Pam. I do hope so too!

  7. Your research and keen observation certainly generated a lot of information. I agree with your husband’s interpretation–Claddagh on a better day!

    1. Thank you, Alli. Paul Henry will always be the master of Irish landscape and cloudscapes for me!

  8. What a challenge. I like the way you tackled this and am impressed with the result.

    1. Thank you, Peggy. Commissions are always a bit of a challenge because you are aiming to please the collector rather than yourself!

  9. Your version seems simpler, Emma, and you do have your own style. It seems odd to me to ask somebody to paint ‘in the style of…’ They could surely just buy a framed print of his, but it must have been interesting for you to do. 🙂 🙂

    1. Ha! Ha! I think he wanted to see what he would do with it. He actually asked me to do it in my style, not Paul Henry’s. It was an interesting challenge. This collector has many paintings and I don’t think the point would have been fulfilled with a print of Paul Henry’s work.

  10. that’s very brave of you Emma to take a project like this on! No matter how good you do, you will always be compared to the original. Each artist has their own interpretation of any given scene and so cannot be truly the same or compared.
    Each are like two snowflakes,both made of the same stuff but expressed differently. You both have different styles. It would of been interesting to see Henry’s interpretation of one of your paintings!

    1. Lol?!? I think he would simplify my compositions and improve them no end!

      1. they do say less is more

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