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.
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
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.
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.