I was delighted to see my two Donegal paintings “Up Bloody Foreland, Donegal” and “The through Road, Donegal” on the walls of the London Irish Centre (Camden, London).
These two oil paintings form part of a “real room” of an Irish family in 1950s Britain installation. The exhibition, which is on during August through to October, pulls together a dynamic collection of prints, photographs, paintings, and writings that weave together the different threads of ‘Home’ for Irish Immigrants to London. This has been organised Tara Griffin, who is Education and Heritage Officer at the London Irish Centre, in conjunction with the Museum of the Home. It looks fascinating and I hope my paintings bought happy reminders of home to visitors to the centre. My work has been described as nostalgic by by some and I am interested in capturing a vanishing Ireland of the not too distant past. I just wish I could have visited in person!
The rain finally stopped yesterday morning and the temperature rose a few degrees. We just had three days of steady rain. The temperatures also went up a bit. I was amused to discover that this “event” made the news. The headline in “The Donegal Daily” an online newspaper read: “Weather- Another Mild Day in Store for Donegal”. This publication is favourite of mine. It is a heart-warming mixture of stories with happy endings (swimmers get into trouble in rip tide but they are all rescued by a passer by and a lifeboat crew), lost dogs, sport stories and local crime cases (often from two years ago).
Anyway, we felt encouraged by the dry (ish) weather to do some light food shopping in Dungloe and then drive to an Affordable Art Fair in Derrybeg, Gweedore. This Art Fair was held at An Gaillearai, which is located at Ionad Aislann, Na Doira Beaga (Derrybeg).
We have never been to Ionad Aislann before and I was very interested to see what this cultural centre was like. I know that “Ionad” means a centre of some sort in Irish but I didn’t know what the word “Aislann” meant. I tried looking it up on google translate but drew a blank so I thought it might be someone’s name. It was wrong. “Áislann” is a word derived from combining two words from the Irish vocabulary of South West Donegal, Áiseanna (facilities) and Lann (building).
The centre also houses, amongst other things, a public library and nursery. When I looked it up here I discovered that the building hosted much more than that: a theatre/cinema, sports hall, meeting rooms, local history centre, PC centre, a gym and a tea room! This cultural centre was set up in 1992 expressly to cater for local people as well as for visitors to the area, including the many artists like me who come to live here. It was also meant to help strengthen bonds within the local community via cultural/artistic pursuits and leisure activities.
The Gallery is large and airy and there was plenty of room for visitors and artists. Everyone was wearing masks too which was reassuring.
As our house is already over flowing with paintings we generally don’t buy other people’s art (although I have one painting by Welsh landscape artist, Warren Heaton, in the bedroom) but we changed the habit of a lifetime yesterday and bought two small paintings at the art fair. I know that Séamas wanted to buy more. We left the two paintings on the wall with red stickers next to them (hoping that sign of success would encourage more sales) and will go back on Thursday to pick them up.
After so long in lockdown and avoiding people, it was really great to go out somewhere and to meet new people. Ionad Aislann certianly did its job of helping to strengthen the bonds between local community via cultural/artistic pursuits and leisure activities. It was well worth a visit and if you are in area I would highly recommend stopping by. The Art Fair is on for several more days, from 12 to 5pm until this Thursday 14th October 2021.
We are all glad to see the back of 2020 but I am pausing for a moment to reflect on some of my painting sales over the year. Sadly, my accident and having my leg in a cast meant that I couldn’t get up the steep stairs to my attic studio (or anywhere else) to paint any oil paintings for over three months but things have ticked over during 2020.
I would like to say thank you Rob and David who waited a very long time in the cold with me for the ambulance to come, to the paramedics and firebrigade who got me out of the woods, to NHS staff at Morriston who fixed my very broken leg and looked after me, as well as to the Physical Therapists who gave me lots of advice on exercises over the phone. I still have a way to go!
I have to say an absolutely massive thank you to my brillant husband, Séamas, who trudged up and down two flights of stairs with trays of food many times a day (and lost weight doing so) for months. He kept my spirits up when I got frustrated and tearful. It wasn’t that often as I was so glad to be home but it was all hard work for him in the midst of a pandemic! He also kept the show on the road by packing up and arranging the shipping my paintings. He was, and remains, utterly wonderful!
Here’s a selection of some of my sales from 2020
Here’s to a happier and healthier 2021 to everyone!
I recently join the Stair Árrain Mhór – Árrain Mhór History Facebook group and was overwhelmed by the positive response I received from the members when I put my most recent post online there. I was asked if I had any more paintings of Arranmore for them to see, so here’s a collection of all my paintings of the Island that I have completed in the last two years.
Where it reads (Private Collection) it means that the painting has been sold. I hope you enjoy looking at them.
Following on from my last blog (which covered Sarah Purser, Rose Maynard Barton, Gladys Wynee, Kathleen Fox, Estelle Solomons, Phoebe Donovan, and Norah McGuinness), here’s my second group of my favourite female (deceased) Irish artists. I am covering this group in chronological order, although is overlap, date-wise with my list of artists in part 1. This group of women, although still largely drawn from the “Protestant Ascendancy“, were noticeably less wealthy than many of the artists in part 1.
Remember Paul Henry and his beautiful landscapes paintings of the wild west coast? Well, his wife, Grace was an accomplished artist in her own right but her reputation suffered from being overshadowed by her husband’s fame.
Grace Henry was born Emily Grace Mitchell in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland. She was the ninth child of ten of the Rev. John Mitchell and was educated at home, spending time at the family’s home in Piccadilly, where she experienced London society. When her father died the family found themselves in much-reduced circumstances, so Grace left home in 1895 to pursue a career as an artist. Remember, this is the end of the 19th century. That’s a pretty incredible decision for a single woman.
In 1899 she left Scotland for the continent, visiting Holland and Belgium, studying in Brussels and Paris. Whilst in Paris, she met and married Paul Henry in 1903 and moved first to London and then to Ireland. The couple traveled in Achill Island for the first time in 1910 which was intended to be a two-week stay, with the couple going on to live there until 1919. This period spent on the island did place a strain on the Henry’s marriage, as Grace was not as happy living there.
Grace Henry HRHA (1868-1953) Cottages, Western Landscape
Her work developed while on the island, starting with Whistler- inspired nocturnal scenes with muted colour and simple compositions, becoming stronger as she grew in artistic confidence into the 1920s.
Despite being instrumental in setting up The Society of Dublin Painters in 1920 which provided exhibition space for many female modernist painters, her reputation suffered from her separation (although they never divorced) from her husband Paul, who left out all references to her in his two autobiographies!
Grace continued to travel later in her life, often staying with friends or living in hotels, rather than maintaining a home of her own. She also experienced periods of “melancholy”, probably depression, during these later years, though she continued to exhibit.
Letitia Marion Hamilton (1878 – 1964)
Originally from Co. Meath, Letitia was one of three sisters. Their father could only afford one dowry, so Letitia and her sister Eva remained unmarried and turned to their artistic careers to help support the household. Letitia studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art where she was taught by William Orpen, continuing her studies at the Slade School of Art in London and with Frank Brangwyn.
Lilian Lucy Davidson was born in Bray, County Wicklow. She was the sixth of ten children of a clerk of petty session called Edward Davidson. Unfortunately, her mother died when she was ten and it seems that her family was not affluent although it is thought that she had a private education. She went on to attend the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) and was awarded a scholarship and free studentship at the Royal Dublin Society in 1897, the year her father died.
Although not in very buoyant financial circumstances she travelled extensively and did so for most of her life. She painted landscapes in Belgium and Switzerland, besides various parts of Ireland. She was a regular contributor to the Watercolour Society, The Dublin Painters Society and the Munster Fine Art Club, and was part of an interesting circle being friendly with Jack Yeats whom she painted and the circle around the Gate theatre for which she wrote plays under the pseudonym of Ulick Burke. The fact that Davidson’s family was not wealthy may have influenced her choice of poorer people as her subjects, depicting them in a sympathetic manner. I love her fluid style and her treatment of every day life in Ireland. I particularly like “Night at Claddagh”, for the falshes of light from the houses and how the little details such as the woman’s red dress and bare feet suggest so much about her life.
Mary Swanzy (1882 – 7 July 1978)
Mary Swanzy was born in Dublin, to a wealthy medical family. She was educated in Dublin and then sent to a finishing school at the Lycée in Versailles, France, and a day school in Freiburg, Germany. This education meant that Swanzy was fluent in French and German.
Mary trained in several academies in Paris. It seems that Mary was no party animal. Her life in Paris, while agreeable, did not resemble the bohemian myth. Usually, Mary was in bed by 8pm each evening and in the studio by 7.45am each morning, working intensively from the life model.
Her father had hoped she would be a portrait painter, but Mary was disliked portraiture, saying that men tended to want to be painted by men. After the deaths of her parents, Swanzy was financially independent and could travel, spending her time between Dublin and Saint-Tropez during World War I, whilst continuing to paint. She traveled far and wide, to the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, USA, Honolulu, and Samoa. It may well be that the upheavals back in Ireland including the shooting dead of her cousin, Oswald Swanzy, a Detective Inspector with the RIC, prompted Mary to travel abroad.
Her money also gave her the freedom to explore different artistic styles. She painted in many styles including cubism, futurism, fauvism, and orphism, and she was one of Ireland’s first abstract painters. In the mid-1920s Swanzy settled in Blackheath, London, making regular trips to Dublin and abroad.
To be honest, I agree with the assessment of critics who have described her work as having a “prim, Edwardian feeling” that shows through the veneer of modernism. I think it was painted from the head, not the heart. I much prefer her work that was done in Samoa in the 1920s. Here her work seems relaxed, natural and joyous.
Margaret Clarke (1888-1961)
Margaret was born in Newry, County Down, Ireland, one of six children of Patrick Crilley. I am guessing from her surname that she was raised a Catholic. She had intended to become a teacher and went to night school to train at technical college but in 1905, she won a scholarship to go to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. There she studied under William Orpen, who regarded her as one of his most promising students, she later became his assistant. In 1914, Margaret married her fellow student Harry Clarke, and they had three children.
Margaret first exhibited with the RHA in 1913 and would go on to exhibit over 60 artworks in the forty years until 1953, the majority being portraits. Amongst the portrait commissions Clarke received were ones for Dermod O’Brien, President Éamon de Valera, Archbishop McQuaid, and Lennox Robinson. She spent a great deal of time on the Aran Islands with fellow artist Seán Keating and her husband, from which she produced a number of landscapes and smaller studies.
Red Roofs, Greystones
Over her lifetime Clarke won many awards including the Tailteann gold, silver and bronze medals in 1924, and another Tailteann bronze in both 1928 and 1932. Upon the founding of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1943, she was appointed a member of the executive committee.
May Harriet “Mainie” Jellett (1897-1944)
Born in Dublin, Mainie was the daughter of a barrister William (who was later also an MP). She studied at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin under William Orpen, and then in London under Walter Sickert.
In 1921 she moved to Paris, where she encountered cubism and began an exploration of non-representational art. Her new style, including colour and rhythm was greatly inspired by her stay in France. After 1921 she and artist Evie Hone, her companion and life partner, returned to Dublin but for the next decade she continued to spend part of each year in Paris. In 1923, she exhibited two cubist paintings at the Dublin Painters’ Exhibition.
The response was hostile, with the Irish Times publishing a photograph of one of the paintings and quoting their art critic as saying of them ‘to me they presented an insoluble puzzle’.
Mainie devoted much of her energy—throughs essays and lectures—to trying to overcome conservative attitudes in Ireland, which was then culturally isolated. Her work was also part of the painting event in the art competition at the 1928 Summer Olympics.
In the 1930s figurative elements reappeared in her painting, and her later work included landscapes and religious subjects. She also made designs for the theatre and ballet. Jellett died young of cancer, but the year before her death, her campaigning on behalf of modern art bore fruit in the founding of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, of which she was the first chairperson. This was an exhibiting society that became the main venue for avant-garde art in Ireland for many years. Sadly Mainie was not to live a long, dying of cancer at 46, but she had made a significant contribution to Irish Art and Feminism in that short time.
Nano Reid (1900-1981)
Nano Reid was born in Drogheda, County Louth. She was the eldest of four children of Thomas Reid, a well-to-do publican, and grew up above their pub. Although she started her training to become a nurse, her parents were persuaded by their Catholic parish priest to let her go to the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin.
In 1927, Nano went to study in Paris and London and after that stayed in Ireland. After returning to Ireland, Reid began to exhibit landscape painting at the RHA. Like other painters of the period, such as Paul Henry, she traveled to the west of Ireland for painting inspiration with her early work showing the landscapes, local people, and fishermen of the area.
I much prefer her portraits to her landscape work.
In Dublin, Nano shared a house with her friend Patricia Hutchins. There was gossip about the nature of the women’s relationship, but Hutchins went on to marry. After WWII, Nano moved to Fitzwilliam Square, taking in young men as lodgers. She used to go on shared holidays to Connemara with her gay friend, self-taught Belfast artist, Gerard Dillon in the 1940s and 1950s.
In 1950, Reid and Norah McGuinness (see part 1) were selected to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale of Art. This was quite remarkable, considering this was the first time the country had shown at the event. The nation’s cultural identity was to be shaped by this event, and international perceptions of the country would be determined by what they chose to show. The reason for their selection was most likely because it was believed these two artists could compete on an international level.
This second group of female artists ranged from the wealthy and hard-working Mary Swanzy who only had to please herself to Margaret Clarke who started her training at night school, and most of these artists had to teach painting to supplement their income. Their work is diverse in style from figurative to cubism. As a group, they had traveled widely, with Mary Swanzy traveling the widest. Artists like Mainie Jellett embraced very public scorn to promote new ways of painting in the Irish State.
These women were always swimming against the tide. They were independent, working women in an era when women were expected to limit their attention to their homes and families. Taken as a group as a whole, it is probably unsurprising that a significant number were either lesbians or did not marry. Husbands and families did not appeal to Sarah Pursar and Nona Reid and would more than likely impede their ability to paint and to pursue their artistic careers. Only Kathleen Fox and Margaret Clarke were married and had children. Norah McGuiness’s “open marriage” was deeply shocking to contemporary society. Although the support and expertise of men such as J.B. Yeats and William Orphen were pivotal for many of these women, their own organisational skills such as the founding and running the Dublin Painters’ Society and the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, were impressive. They also encouraged and supported many younger artists. Of all these artist, I liked the portraits of Margret Clarke and Letitia Hamiliton’s vigorous landscapes. In the end, it was Lilian Davidson’s lively figurative work that I enjoyed the most.
Yet, is hard not to resist the conclusion that the world continues to ignore and downplay female artists. Art UK’s list of 18 “Incredible Irish Artists” only included 6 female artists! The 6 female artists were “incredible” but many of the male artists that were included on that list were definitely not “incredible”. Ireland Before You Die’s list of the 10 Best and most famous Irish artists includes just 2 female artists. Any modern list of “top” or “hot” artists, Irish or otherwise, is invariably heavily dominated by male artists. It is hard to escape the conclusion that female artists are still swimming against the tide! However, it is significant that auction houses such as Dublin-based Adam’s spent a lot of time, money, and effort putting together a Summer Loan Exhibition of Irish female artists in 2014. All of the paintings were on loan from private collections from both North and South of the border. The catalogue is thoroughly researched, and includes many more women than I have included on my list. It is important that Adams’s exhibition celebrated and publicized the significant role that women have played in the history of Irish art, a role that has too often been overlooked.
After writing about Paul Henry’s work in my last blog, I was embarrassed to realise that I am very ignorant about Irish Art/History, especially female artists. So to remedy this woeful ignorance I set myself the challenge of list of my favourite Female Irish artists, in the spirit of my earlier series of blogs on Our Favourite Female Artists. I initially thought about a top ten but I failed miserably to limit myself to 10, I came closer to 18 in the end. I am absolutely no good at throwing stuff out, and my list of artists is no exception, so I have organised each selection by the date of birth of the artist.
I will freely admit that my taste is pretty traditional, preferring figurative to abstract art but I do like a lively personal life too (I am rather nosy). I also like and admire the work of long-dead artists, especially those who lived and worked in the period from the 1870s to the end of the Second World War. I think that I feel that I can safely admire their work without accidentally copying it, which always seems to be a danger with living artists. A lot of the information in this blog is taken from the Catalogue for Irish Women Artists 1870 -1970 Summer Loan Exhibition and Wikipedia.
It is a universal truth female artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked under very different circumstance to male artists. In 1870 women were seen as amateurs in the art world and lacked the opportunities for training, exhibition and sales. They were chaperoned by men and when in 1893 they were eventually let into professional schools such as the RHA school, they were barred from life drawing and anatomy classes (think of those unsuitable naked bodies!). Despite these limitation (or maybe because of them) many Irish female artists traveled abroad to train and returned to Ireland with wider horizons than their male contemporaries.
Visual arts were seen as a ‘genteel hobby’ rather than a genuine vocation for women. Many of the Irish female artists of this period came from well-off, if not always extremely wealthy, origins. A middle-class Protestant background was more likely to be an encouragement to female artist’s talents, rather than working-class Catholic roots. They also generally remained single and only a few became mothers.
Sarah Purser (1848 – 1943)
The female artists of Ireland tended to come from wealthy (usually Protestant) backgrounds. Sarah Purser was no different, as she was born into privilege although she made her own fortune through hard work and canny investments. She was the daughter of Benjamin Purser, a prosperous flour miller and brewer. At thirteen she was sent to school in Switzerland where she learned to speak fluent French and began painting.
She was a trail-blazer in many other ways too. From 1911 she held regular social gatherings for Dublin’s intelligentsia at her home, Mespil House. Sarah became wealthy through astute investments, particularly in Guinness, for which several of her male relatives had worked over the years.
In 1924 she founded the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland and was instrumental in setting up the Hugh Lane Gallery. She was also the first woman artist to be elected a full academician of the RHA in 1925. Elizabeth Coxhead remarked, “At thirty she was the oldest and most serious, with no time to waste on cerebral love affairs and agonies of the soul”. I have a sneaky feeling that Sarah was not interested in men, anyway.
W.B.Yeates, Maude Gonne (A Republican and Suffragette) and Michael Davitt (lying in state), She also painted the not-so famous.
Rose Maynard Barton (1856 – 1929)
Tipperary-born Rose Barton began a long relationship with the Royal Water Colour Society of Ireland in 1872 when she first exhibited with them. Three years later she spent some time in Brussels, taking painting and drawing classes, and in 1878 she exhibited for the first time at the RHA. The following year she sat on the committee of the Irish Fine Art Society.
Her watercolours, mainly painted in Dublin and London, are distinguished by an emphasis on the almost tangible atmospheric effects of weather conditions. She became known not only through these original works but also through her illustrated books of both cities
Her version of smokey London was very appealing.
She was a great observer of children. The child in white in the painting on the right isn’t a girl, but George, Prince of Wales!
Gladys Wynne (1876 – 1968)
Gladys was the was the fourth daughter of George Robert Wynne, Archdeacon of Aghadoe, Killarney, County Kerry. She was a watercolor artist, who spent most of her life in Glendalough, County Wicklow, living in Lake Cottage. Landscape was her chosen field and she painted the area throughout her career. It seems that Gladys might have preferred a different life, that of being a wife and a mother as she apparently turned down a proposal of marriage, and regretted having done so. Her work is very chocolate box-ish but I like their gentle character.
Now to two a female artists who interest me because they were witnesses to, and involved in, the Irish Rising: Kathleen Fox and Estella Solomons.
Kathleen Fox (1880-1963)
Kathleen was the daughter of Captain Henry Charles Fox of the King’s Dragoon Guards. She was from an Irish Catholic upper middle class family with a British Army tradition. She attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, studying under William Orpen. As it was almost impossible to get a female model for the nude in Dublin,William Orphen brought girl models from London. He also allowed his students to talk and smoke in his life-class.
Whilst in Dublin, Kathleen got to know Constance Gore-Booth (Countess Markievicz) and Willie Pearse (brother of Pádraig). After 1912 She spent 4 years in Europe, returning to Dublin in 1916, and she witnessed and recorded some of the events of the Easter Rising first hand. She sketched at the scene as Countess Markievicz and her 118 fellow rebels were surrendering to British troops outside the Royal College of Surgeons, St. Stephen’s Green. Conscious of the existing political tension, she completed the painting in secret and then sent it to a friend in New York for safekeeping.
Unlike many of our other female artists, Kathleen became a mother, although as she married at the relatively late age of 37, perhaps she had not expected to do so. Whilst in London, Kathleen had met British army Lieutenant Cyril Pym, and married him in 1917. Cyril was killed in action in 1918, and she gave birth to their daughter later that year. In the 1920s she focused establishing herself as a portrait painter. Her work was shown in London at the New English Art Club, the Society of Women Artists, and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. She later became known for her paintings of interiors and flowers in the 1940s and 1950s.
Estella Solomons (1882-1968)
Estella’s family, the Solomons, came to Dublin from England in 1824, are one of the oldest continuous lines of Jews in Ireland. Her father, an optician whose practice in 19 Nassau St., Dublin, is mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
From age 16 she studied Art in Dublin and London. Estella was a committed nationalist who sympathised with anti-Treaty forces during the Easter Rising and Civil War. Her studio in Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) became a regular rendezvous for Dublin’s artistic and political community, including Arthur Griffith and Horace Plunket. She was a member of Cumann na mBan, an Irish republican women’s paramilitary organisation, and her studio was often raided, leading her to burn portraits of those she harboured, for fear they could be used as evidence against her.
She painted landscapes and portraits, including Jack Yeats, Arthur Griffiths, poet Austin Clarke, James Stephens and George Russell. She later married poet and publisher Seumas O’Sullivan, although her parents opposed the relationship as O’Sullivan was not of the Jewish faith, so they waited until her parents had both died to marry in 1919.
Joan Jameson (1892 – 1953)
Joan Jameson was the daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Musgrave of Tourin, Cappoquin, Waterford and she studied in Paris at Academie Julian. She was a member of the Society of Dublin Painters (founded in 1920) which provided exhibition space for many of female modernist painters. I like her depiction of life of ordinary people, such as fishermen and farmers but also the daily work of womem, as shown in the painting of two women making the bed (bottom right).
Norah McGuinness (1901 – 1980)
Norah was a rebel. She rebelled against her Protestant family of coal merchants in Derry by becoming an artist. Norah won a three year scholarship to study at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin at the age of 18. Her family did not approve of her choice to study art and become an artist. I think that she is unique in my collection of female artists in that respect. Norah moved to London to study at the Chelsea School of Art. In 1923 she won an RDS medal and the following year exhibited for the first time at the RHA. During these years Norah supported herself by designing sets and costumes for the Abbey and Peacock theatres and illustrated books. Her travels and her quest to gain artistic knowledge had her travel from France to London, to New York and then finally settling in Dublin.
With Nano Reid (see my next blog post) she represented Ireland in the 1950 Venice Biennale. This was the first time Ireland participated in this international exhibition. Each artist showed 12 works and in Italy at least, the response was positive – the Italian President even bought McGuinness’s painting “The Black Church”. You can read more about Norah’s career here
Norah’s personal life was pretty scandalous by any standards. Norah married Geoffrey Taylor also known as Geoffrey Phipps (a poet – known as the “Irish Adonis“), in 1925 but the marriage was dissolved in 1929, because Norah had been having an affair with writer, David Garnett and Geoffrey started an affair with American poet, Laura Riding. Geoffrey ‘behaved like a gentleman’ in allowing Norah to divorce him in an undefended case. Then the Daily Mail splashed on its front page the judge’s summing up, with vituperative condemnation of the scandalous immorality of bohemian writers.
Laura Riding’s 1934 novel “14A” reads like some crazy bedroom farce, with a ménage à quatre involving writer Robert Graves (“I Claudius” etc), his wife Nancy, Geoffrey and Laura and culminating in both Laura and Robert throwing themselves out of different windows. Laura’s book portrayed Norah as a jealous hysteric and thief. So Norah sued the publisher for libel, and the book was immediately withdrawn from circulation and did not appear in any authorised bibliographical or biographical account until 1976. The Daily Mail was still getting excited about these antics in 2018!
Phoebe Donovan (1902 – 1998)
Phoebe came from a well-off family in Wexford. She began painting as part of a local art group. Donovan grew up on a farm and raised animals and sold eggs to gather the money needed to attend art college. Eventually, she studied Art in Dublin. Sean Keating taught her portraiture. When the Art school closed for the afternoon, she would “make sure to get locked in so I could keep painting; usually still-lifes.”
Her dedication to art meant she never considered marriage. “Art is a full time job – you just can’t live a normal life,” she explained. “I always painted better when I was lonely. Not just alone. Lonely. I put more into it.” Throughout the 1930s and 40s Donovan was a member of the Society of Dublin Painters.
In this selection, Phoebe Donovan’s work is my personal favourite, largely for her painting of Vinegar Hill. I love the sense of airiness and the treatment of the foliage. This selection of female artists is pretty diverse. Many of them were very determined indiviuals who challenged traditional gender roles by supporting themselves (and their families) through their Art, rather than marrying. Some led quiet lives, others were actively involved in politics. Most of them traveled extensively, and at least one of them was a working mother. For an fascinating personal life and good old front-page scandal, though, you can’t beat Norah McGuinness. Actively rejecting contemporary social conventions, these women independently pursued their own goals as artists, educators and pioneers.
This is a follow on from my last post about composition and large landscape paintings. Included a small study of a view of Arranmore, Donegal. The study used a diagonal composition.
When it came to a much larger painting (60x80cm – approx 24″ x 32″) I decided on a slightly different composition. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the small painting worked, because it did, but because paintings in the “landscape” format are more popular with collectors than those in “portrait” format. It might have something to do with wall space, I am not sure. If you are not sure what “landscape” and “portrait” format is, it’s just about which round the painting is positioned. “Landscape” has the longest side along the bottom, “portrait” has the shortest side along the bottom.
Landscape format allowed me to include the sweep of the hill as it fell away from the viewpoint towards the sea. This composition used the rule of thirds, so the painting has a different energy to the study.
The position of the viewer is slightly different, it has moved to the left and so more of the house in the foreground can be seen. The larger painting also has a red tractor in the lane, which the study did not, which draws the eye down the lane: hence the title.
I particularly enjoyed painting the different textures of crops and grass in the field that were not visible in the study painting. The widened composition also included the large cross on the shore to the left. I did not realize it at first but the wall in the corner of the painting is a graveyard wall. This is the graveyard of St. Crone’s chapel. Saint Crone was a sixth-century Irish saint descended from King Niall Noígíallach (‘of the Nine Hostages’) and a contemporary of Saint Colmcille (St. Columba of Iona). Saint Crone was very active in the Rosses area. The parish of Dungloe on the mainland also takes its name from her; Templecrone.
So executing a study can be a useful tool in thinking about the composition of a larger work. It will show if a composition works or not but it can also suggest improvements and variations. Interestingly the study is a painting in its own right, it has a different, lighter feel to it. Small paintings often take just as much thought and effort as larger ones even if they are quicker to execute.
My PC just crashed. I am not sure if that’s a result of the effects of Storm Dennis (we had downpours all night long here) but I am going to stop here!
Failures are always a challenge. When I used to be a Secondary school teacher, I always learned more about teaching when I faced a difficult class than a nice docile one. They made me go away and think about what I was doing and how I could do it better. Painting is no different.
I have been thinking about the composition of larger paintings. When I used to think about painting a scene I used to think in terms of “that’s a small painting, it won’t “stretch” to a larger canvas”, or “That’s a mountain, definately, therefore, it’s subject suitable for a large canvas”. I am parodying myself somewhat but generally, I have this feeling that small birds belong on small canvases and big landscapes belong on larger ones.
My thinking was challenged by a commission I did in the summer where a client asked for a very large version (120 x 90cm) of a relatively small painting (41 x 33 cm). So I scaled up and despite my anxiety, it worked. This was important as my confidence had been dented by a previous large landscape painting that hadn’t work out for me.
It got me thinking about composition. I understood the basics and had looked of compositional grids in Artbooks as a teenager and thought I’d internalized them. I realized that I had got sloppy. I’ll explain.
I am not going to do an information dump about theories of composition here (I have added links to some good blogs on the subject below) but the “rule of thirds” is one that springs to mind here. The idea that you should look for naturally occurring in divisions of thirds in a scene and try and locate points of interest at the intersection of the “Golden section”.
Rule of Thirds
The Golden Section
I had been influenced by ideas of composition from photography and the work of artist-turned photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson,in particular.
I liked his use of diagonals in particular, and this has influenced my paintings of urban scenes.
When I came to Donegal I was so blown away by the vast overarching skies and majestic landscapes. I got very excited by everything I saw. I tried to capture everything. The houses, the mountains, the sea, and the sky. Most of the time it worked.
Swirling Clouds Round Errigal
From Ferry Coll
From Cruit Island
Wild Wind Across Dunfanaghy
Shored up near Muckish
Further Up Shore
You can probably look through these paintings and tick off the composition approaches I instinctively used; the diagonal, the pyramid, the rule of thirds and so on. They all worked.
Then, it really pains me to admit it. I lost it. I got carried away and overreached myself and painted this big beast.
What was I thinking? There is far too much sky in this painting. Worse than that, it was a large canvas. There are things I like about the painting, the light on the island in the bottom half of the painting, but the sky was just too vast. It pained me that I had such a large reminder of my errors of judgment. I don’t mind screwing up every now and then but I hate waste and that was an expensive canvas. It’s no coincidence that I am planning a blog post on reusing stretcher bars to stretch my own canvases.
My confidence was dented. It put me off large paintings for quite some time. It wasn’t until I did the commission I mentioned earlier, that I got thinking about what had gone wrong. I realized that I had to rigorously apply the same rule of composition to large canvases as I instinctively did to my small ones. So I tried an experiment, I took a successful composition of a medium size painting and did a much larger version of it. This composition was based on a compound curve.
It wasn’t a copy of the smaller painting. It wasn’t meant to be, although it was meant to encapsulate the same feel of the smaller work, with some adjustments. I have included some more detail, changed the tree, and added a shadow and a ditch in the bottom third of the painting. I think it worked.
I have since done another small oil sketch of another composition before I scale it up. It’s another diagonal composition. Although, the larger version will not be “portrait” format but my usual “landscape” orientation.
I will add the larger version later in the week. So you will have to wait to see if that composition works as well as this smaller one. Watch this space!
The Opening night of an “Open” exhibition is an affair full of nervous energy! This is because 90% of people in the room are artists who are all relieved/happy to have their work included in the exhbition in the first place and secondly have come to see where their painting/s have ended up? Are they in a corner? Can they be seen?
Open Exhibition is where the organisers invite or “call” for artists to submit their work (for a small fee). The best works are then selected to be included in the exhibition. There are massive national exhibitions (like the BP Portrait Prize) that are so massive that they have a preliminary round where digital photos are first sent for consideration. The Glynn Vivian, does it the old fashioned way by requiring artists to bring their paintings to gallery for submission. You can submit up to two works each. As, it’s only open to artists living in the Swansea area, it’s not too onerous to drop in the paintings.
All artists fear rejection. We are sensitive souls. So to have to face the prospect of being rejected (one or two paintings) isn’t pleasant. Inclusion isn’t automatic, even if your work has been included before (I was in 2017), especially as the people doing the choosing (or “curating”) change every year. This year’s curators were Richard Billingham and Durre Shahwar. Richard is a photographer and filmer maker who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001. Shahwar is a writer, editor, and creative facilitator. Thankfully they chose both of the works I submitted.
I had deliberately decided to arrive an hour into the Opening party as I remember it being very crowded to last time I came in 2017. It was still very crowded at 3pm and the numbers only really thinned out after 4pm. There were 245 pieces in the exhibition. The two rooms in the gallery were filled to the brim with paintings (and artists). were overwhelmingly 2D art. Paintings, sketches and prints, but there were films and sculptures too.
Of course, the first thing I did was try and find my paintings. They were in the second room. I was initially surprised to see that they were not together but had been arranged separately as part of themed groups of colours. I thought that the arrangement worked well. It’s a funny feeling seeing your paintings in amongst lots of other paintings. It’s like a familiar face amongst a crowd of strangers.
There’s no way I can get a photo of both paintings, I thought. Actually, for a long time, I could not get a photo of each painting as the gallery was so crowded.
For some reason, people stood in front of my second painting, Autumn in the Rosses for the longest time. Different groups of people too. So I had to wait quite a while to get a photo of it and even then I had a person’s shadow on it!
It wasn’t just me trying to get a photo of my work. These artists were very excited about being in the exhibition. Their joy was a delight to see.
There was so much to look at in the exhibition. There was such a variety of work too. Here are just a few that caught my eye. The most affecting work were the two bird sculptures by Mike Hill. One was made of fishing tackle detritus and the other was in the shape of a cormorant smothered in tar. In fact, the tar-bird was so affecting that I had to fight back the tears. There were quite a few works that touched up the climate emergency and waste but these two, in my opinion, were the most powerful ones.