Tuesday, August 26, 2014
A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 24 August 2014
Camille Souter seems a mysterious almost mythical figure in Irish art. This impression is reinforced by a visit to the exhibition Irish Women Artists 1870-1970. There she is on display amongst long dead figures such as Evie Hone and Letitia Hamilton. Garrett Cormican, in his illuminating biography Camille Souter: Mirror in the Sea, described her as "a fish: restless, elusive, and hard to catch." That may sound a little unflattering but she plainly concurs as one of her best-known works is entitled "Self-portrait as a Cod's Head". Apart from her annual trip to Aosdána (she was elected as Saoi in 2008) she is rarely to be seen at art events and casual callers are not encouraged at her Dooagh retreat. A sign outside her studio says "Working - Private". Most visual artists, starved of recognition, welcome the attention of the media, but not Souter. She made it clear that she didn't want a photographer present and that a look around her studio is not an option. Her first comment on my arrival at her white-washed cottage was "I'm all grumpy".
This however turned out to be far from the case. Warmed up by a couple of glasses of The Famous Grouse (her favourite tipple), and smoking her rollups, she was amiable and talkative - happy, it seemed, to discuss her long and fascinating life. Although the very model of the bohemian artist, her English origins and her middle-class background still linger in what used to be called an ascendancy accent. Around her neck she sported two large silver ornaments: a fish and an aeroplane, both life-long interests. It was a surprise to see her without her distinctive crotched beret. Her daughter had cut her hair recently, she explained. "I feel sort of naked without it". She initially used it to keep her long hair out of her face while she was painting and then it became a habit. The local fishermen favoured them when she came to Achill first and she decided to crochet one for herself. When one wears out she simply crotchets another.
At the age of 84 she is still an active and resourceful woman, and shows no signs of flagging. She has given up flying (she learned while on a residency at Shannon in the early 80s) because it's too expensive and because the advanced automation these days makes it less fun. She still drives her venerable white van however. It's emblazoned with a quote from Joseph Campbell that could never be applied to its admirably industrious owner:
The Silence of unlaboured fields
Lies like a judgement on the air
Her vegetable garden is well tended and we enjoy a cucumber from it in the cheese sandwich she prepares. In her living room lies an open copy of Simon Schama's The Story of the Jews. She's much engaged by the situation in Gaza, and in the Middle-East generally, and decided she needed to do some background reading.
For someone who's had an artistic career of nearly sixty years, it's downright peculiar that she's had so few solo shows. She's had only three in all and two of those were in Dublin restaurants in the Fifties. Her last commercial solo show was in the Dawson Gallery in 1977. There have been a few retrospectives and plenty of group shows but generally she has sold her work piecemeal. The reason for this is very simple she explains. She had to do so to survive. She is proud of the fact that she brought up five children solely on her painting. "Very few artists have reared their family on their work alone". Her exacting quality control may also be a factor in this dearth of shows.
Souter's earliest break through was at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1957. She had four works on show all of which sold. Sir Basil Goulding was a significant figure in the development of her career. His early faith in her work was influential in building her reputation and in enabling her to make a living. "He was a lovely man" she recalled with feeling when his name is mentioned. She remembered his first visit to her studio in the gate lodge of Charleville House in Enniskerry in the early Sixties. He "humbly" scrutinised the work and ended up buying "quite a few" pieces. As he was writing the cheque she was so broke that she asked "do you think I could have ten shillings of it in money". Those early works all went for a guinea - she was initially going to charge a pound but decided to squeeze the extra shilling out of it. Goulding continued to buy her work throughout his life and also introduced her to other collectors such as Gordon Lambert. More significantly he ensured through his art world connections that her work was bought by institutions such as the Hugh Lane Gallery and later by the Arts Council and Trinity. Michael Scott, the architect, was another early patron who introduced her work to a wide circle of his influential friends.
Souter was born plain Betty Holmes in Northampton in 1929. Her father came to Dublin in 1932 and she went to school in Glengara Park (subsequently subsumed into what's now Rathdown School). Although no scholar ("I was a ding dong" she observed quaintly) she found someone there who recognised where her talents lay. "I'm so thankful we had Miss Garrett who taught art". She went to London after school to study nursing at Guy's Hospital. "From the age of nine or ten I wanted to save the world". Her studies were interrupted when she contracted TB and she spent nearly a year in a sanatorium. There she read voraciously, especially the Russians. After qualifying she gave up nursing, took up painting and plunged into the raffish world of Fifties Soho. She never went to college but learned her art from days spent in the National Gallery and from mixing with other artists. Perhaps some of the magic of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud rubbed off on her in places like the French House and the Colony Club. She met and married, briefly, the actor Gordon Souter. They had a daughter together and he was responsible for changing her first name - suggesting that she adopt the name of the tubercular heroine of Dumas fils' La Dame aux Camelias. After leaving Gordon Souter she went off to Italy with the artist Ralph Rumney, later to marry Peggy Guggenheim's ill-fated daughter Pegeen. He proved fickle. "He was quite ruthless" she recalled, "he had to have money". Rumney flitted off elsewhere but her Italian adventure yielded her first sales and she returned to Ireland and threw herself into the local art scene.
She had her first solo show at El Habano restaurant on Grafton Street in 1956. She also met the sculptor Frank Morris who she was later to marry. The period she spent with him in Calary, County Wicklow, she describes as the happiest of her life - and many of her finest paintings come from that period. She had four more children with Morris but their idyll was shattered by his tragic early death at 40 from septicaemia following an operation for appendicitis. Her garden in Achill contains a poignant reminder of this neglected artist's talent.
She lived on in Wicklow for another 16 years years but the combination of his lingering memory and the depredations of a newly arrived farmer on adjacent land persuaded her to leave eventually. She relocated to Dooagh on Achill Island in 1986. Achill looms large in her biography. She initially went there on holiday with her parents and had lived there for a brief period in the late Fifties before moving to Enniskerry with Morris. She moved back there, built a new studio, and has lived there ever since. It's interesting to see how many Irish women artists lived on Achill from the Irish Women Artists show. In addition to Souter, they include Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet, Letitia Hamilton, and Barbara Warren.
Souter talked very little about her own work and wasn't too responsive to questions about it. Her paintings, to use Brian Fallon's wonderful phrase, are about: "evanescence and the essential fragility and temporality of things". She steers clear of anything grandiose and chooses ordinary subjects such as flowers, fish, and unspectacular landscapes. The human figure appears only occasionally (in her boxing and circus pictures), although there is one striking painting of a pregnant woman. There was an early flirtation with Paul Klee, and a more prolonged period where she was influenced by abstract expressionism, before she settled into her mature style. Some of her very best paintings are landscapes from her two most permanent homes: Calary and Achill. She only paints in natural light and is adamant that her work is best viewed in that light also. She was critical of the RHA's artificial lighting of her work at her retrospective in 2001, she claimed that the Niland in Sligo was a more suitable venue. She doesn't use photographs or sketch pads when she's planning a work but does take notes and adds the odd "squiggle". She is fastidious about the quality of her work and famously borrowed back from Basil Goulding a painting she was dissatisfied with and then destroyed it.
She lives alone these days. Her five children have produced ten grandchildren and three great grand-children and she likes to spend time with them during the summer months. However now that they have departed she is eager to get painting again. She's hoping an impending visit to Portland Bill with the Irish Geological Association will provide some inspiration. Then it's back to the studio. "By the second week of September if anyone comes near me I'll eat them." You have been warned.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Cork fans leaving early.
Last Sunday was bliss for fans of Tipperary hurling. Those of more venerable vintage like your current scribe would always consider Cork the real enemy, notwithstanding our recent altercations with Kilkenny. When I arrived in Cork in the early Fifties they were always just pipping us in tight matches. Ring was still a lethal force and the likes of Paddy Barry and Matty Fuohy applied cuteness and craft in equal proportions. And when I say cute I mean like a shithouse rat - not a labrador pup. I made the trek out to the Gaelic Athletic Grounds for all their encounters - and rarely returned jubilant. The great wheel of hurling fortune would turn later in that decade but my earliest memories are of Cork winning tight matches. I remember well a judicious hurley thrown by Matty Fuohy that robbed us of a Munster Final.
Heading off to Croke Park last Sunday on the DART from Dalkey I was anticipating that a young and hungry Cork team would put away a Tipp team that contained many skilful hurlers but that seemed to lack the heart for the physical battle. So sure was I that I bought some financial consolation in the form of a substantial bet on the Leesiders. I am a faithless hussy when it comes to gambling. I got a good seat in the Lower Hogan Stand and was with a Cork friend and rabid hurling enthusiast. It was such a nice day that we just stood around and watched the crowd grow rather than head off as usual to the Gravedigger's for a few pints. The North Circular Road and Jones's Road were en fete and as always the fans mingled cheerfully.
Cork folk outnumbered Tipp by nearly two to one. Last year's heroics had created expectations. The match was slow to get going but it was clear from early on that Tipp were very cranked up and seemed to be winning the physical battles. Cork were being given no room and it showed in a lengthy sequence of wides. Darren Gleeson in the Tipp goal hit a colleague almost every time with his judicious puck outs and this generated great momentum. As the game moved into the second half Tipp just pulled away and Cork couldn't keep up with them. A seminal moment in the match occurred when John O'Dwyer blocked a lethargic Cork clearance, latched on to the ball and hit a glorious point from an acute angle. This incident summed up the match. Tipp were the sharper and the hungrier.
Cork never got going. In all my years watching Cork hurling I have never seen them so put down. My friend, a personable and loquacious man, was rendered mute at the awfulness of it all. Cork fans were leaving in numbers a full 10 minutes before the end. I preserved a dignified and merciful silence while inside I gloated in a disturbingly atavistic way. Of course all this will be dust and ashes if they don't complete the deal on the 7th September. It's time to have a serious bet on Kilkenny.
Saturday, August 09, 2014
Take the right turn for Union Hall on the road from Skibereen to Roscarberry and head south towards the sea. After many twists and turns you'll find yourself on the Reen Peninsula. This is the spectacularly scenic home of the artist John Kelly. A stroll around his extensive property yields many interesting and some downright surreal sights. As a herd of amiable Friesians graze nearby, you encounter a large bronze gum tree with a stylised Friesian lodged in its branches. This is Kelly's iconic Cow Up a Tree a version of which once graced the Champs Elysses in Paris. Nearby is a scale model of the Tate Gallery in London - the size of a small bungalow - and scattered around his gardens are sundry bronze kangaroos and startling abstract pieces.
Kelly has been living in Ireland for over ten years but is better known in Sydney and Melbourne than he is in Dublin and Cork. His affiliations are complicated and it shows in his retention of three passports - as if he's still making up his own mind. His father is from Cork (near Mallow) and his mother is English but the family went to Australia when he was six months old. The artist in him emerged in that country and it still remains his primary audience although he also shows regularly in London including at the Royal Academy. His web site describes him as "living in West Cork currently". The last word suggesting a provisional relationship with his father's home county. This identity issue amuses him. "I am the best known Irish Artist in Australia or alternatively a well known contemporary Australian artist here in Ireland". His disparate loyalties were demonstrated at his first Dublin solo show in the prestigious Oliver Sears Gallery in 2013. While viewers glided around sipping wine and admiring his cool spare seascapes of Castlehaven and its environs, he was tossing about in the middle of the Southern Ocean, one of the roughest and most dangerous in the world. He had taken up the position of artist in residence on the icebreaker Aurora Australis on an Australian Antarctic mission. Ahead lay a Shackelton-like experience with the enveloping ice and many adventures where his very survival was a matter of concern. The art he created on and from this trip will be shown in Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2015.
Cows loom large in Kelly's story. His mother won a Win a Wish competition advertised on the side of milk carton that enabled her to send her talented son to art school. One of Kelly's early shows in Australia was ungratefully entitled More Fucking Cows and he's best known for his playful paintings and sculpture based on the stylised papier-mache cows created by the Australian artist Sir William Dobell - supposedly as part of a camouflage project during World War II. No large mammal was safe from his gaze. In 1997 he did a show on Phar Lap - Australia's most famous race horse - called Painting the Dead Horse (the poor creature stands stuffed in a glass case in a Melbourne Museum). That show was opened by Barry Humpheries who is a fan, as is another famous Australian Rupert Murdoch. A pivotal moment in his career came in 1999 when he was asked by the City of Paris to exhibit in a sculpture exhibition, Champs del la Sculpture II, held on the Champs-Élysées to mark the millennium. This exhibition included internationally recognised artists such as Red Grooms, Nam June Paik, Tony Cragg, and Barry Flanagan. His work caught the attention of Time magazine and his reputation was launched.
A subsequent knotty legal imbroglio with his French agent "took the air out of my ascent" and Kelly, exhausted and dispirited by these travails, initially came to Ireland 10 years ago to get away from it all. He and his wife Christina happened upon a house amid the scenic splendours of Reen and he continued his international career from this West Cork base.
Kelly's creativity has many outlets. He paints, he sculpts, he prints, he enlists the aid of computers for his steel cutouts, he flirts with installations and the conceptual and he also writes about art and art history. When asked about Australian art many of us struggle to get beyond Sidney Nolan so it's interesting to hear his views on the likes of William Dobell, Brett Whitely, and Fred Williams. He recounts at length a wonderful story about how Dobell won the Archibald Prize for a portrait of his alleged lover Joshua Smith - who came second in the competition. Dobell was then sued by Smith's followers as they felt it was a caricature not a portrait and thus ineligible for the prize. Kelly was so taken by this story that he took the Australian art historian Elizabeth Donaldson to task in a letter to Art Monthly Australia (AMA) in 2011 for her homogenised history of the incident.
Kelly is a fine writer with a colourful turn of phrase. While in the Antarctic he wrote a hair-raising blog for the Guardian and has also written extensively for AMA and Circa. He also likes to engage with the art community both here and in Australia and is not afraid to speak his mind. When the Australia Council for the Arts brought in Saatchi and Saatchi to review arts policy in Australia, the agency advocated that Australian art be branded. Kelly wrote directly to the Prime Minister of the day pointing out the blatant folly of this policy. Closer to home he wrote an open letter to the Crawford Open in 2007 taking its organisers to task over what he saw as a flawed open submission competition. Amongst other criticisms he felt that the selection process was questionable. The absence of robust reviewing of artists and art institutions in Ireland is a particular concern of his. He is very critical of the Arts Council decision to cut its funding for Circa while during the same period increasing that of the Irish Arts Review. The latter is essentially, he suggests, a commercial enterprise which famously confines its criticism to dead artists and past infamies (such as Peter Murray's excellent piece on the Bantry House collection). No contemporary gallery or art institution need fear its bite. Kelly feels that there is a clique running the art institutions that are happy to host big names from the international circuit but don't do enough to foster contemporary Irish art, and don't take kindly to questions about their stewardship.
His current show in the Doswell Gallery in Roscarbery demonstrates his love affair with the landscape of West Cork. Kelly felt his studio was becoming "like a padded cell" and decided to "be creative in front of the landscape". So he took his field easel up Ceim Hill for views of Castlehaven Harbour and the Stags and set to work. Most of the works you see were painted from there or from his perch in Myross Cemetery - high above Reen. In the cemetery he began using the grave stone of an Anne Sullivan as a plinth to hold his easel - going a bit further along the memento mori route than those writers who keep a skull on their desks. In an eerie twist he discovered from a neighbour that the same Anne Sullivan lived in the house that he now occupies. The show also features some images of his Antarctic encounters with penguins and a new series of prints done with the Stony Road Press that revisit some of his recent West Cork paintings. Kelly has also taken a keen interest in the tragic history of his locale. The scale model of the Tate Modern on his land was originally intended for a show in Melbourne where it would house a letter written in 1846 by a justice of the peace in Reen, N. M. Cummins. This letter recounted in horror the affects of the famine in Myross and South Reen. Kelly had been much engaged by the fact that Irish art has left no contemporary record of the famine such as Jean-Francois Millet's Prayer for a Potato Crop.The establishment shills that made art in the Ireland of the time would not have wanted to rock the boat. He chose the Tate because it owed its existence to a fortune made from food (initially a string of greengrocers around Liverpool) at a time when Ireland was starving.
John Kelly has been described by an Irish academic as "an awkward and obsessive artist". That statement is almost tautologous, or at least a good working definition of what an artist should be. Obsession is surely necessary to pursue any art form and being awkward means that you don't necessarily abide by the status quo or follow received wisdom. The artist as outsider has many illustrious precedents. Caravaggio was an awkward customer, as was Van Gogh. For domestic reasons Kelly plans to spend more time in Dublin over the next few years and those who care about Irish art in the capitol should welcome both his multi-faceted art and his trenchant critical contributions. Meanwhile some of our art institutions, especially those down south, should perhaps pay more attention to an artist of Irish origin honoured internationally but largely ignored here.
Thursday, August 07, 2014
Dawson Gallery and Taylor GalleriesFor those here who may be unfamiliar with the Dublin art scene, Taylor Galleries had an interesting genesis. You could argue that it started life as far back as 1944 when Leo Smith founded the Dawson Gallery on Dawson Street. Over time, especially as post-war austerity ended, it became the only game in town for the upper echelons of Irish artists, especially in the 60s and 70s. There was some opposition from the David Hendriks gallery but Leo was the king, and the kingmaker. To get a gig with the Dawson Gallery was the ultimate imprimatur - you had arrived, you were a made man, or woman. John Taylor was his young fresh-faced assistant, and in the latter period of the Dawson Gallery's life, Pat began to get involved also. Leo Smith was a bon vivant with a heart condition and while returning home from the funeral of Hilary Heron in Pat Scott's car, he had a heart attack and died. Smith was a confirmed bachelor and had no family to take up the business. After a very brief hiatus, the Dawson's stable of artists, rousted up by Pat Scott, threw their lot in with John and Pat and in 1978 Taylor Galleries was born - in 6 Dawson Street. In 1990 Taylor Galleries relocated to smaller premises at 34 Kildare Street before moving up the road to the current space at 16 Kildare Street in 1996.
The gallery's artists at the time of Smith's death included such blue-chip names Louis le Brocquy, Tony O'Malley, Bill Crozier, Sean McSweeney, Pat Scott, Michael Farrell, Camille Souter, Sean McSweeney, and Charlie Brady. Their reputations and sales were growing. This was a mighty fine legacy for a young gallerist. Many of these artists are now dead, but the Taylors didn't just sit on their laurels - they took care of the future by bringing in the next generation of artists such as Charles Tyrrell, Martin Gale, John Shinnors, Mary Lohan, and of course John Doherty from this parish.
Amongst Dublin galleries Taylor Galleries stand for quality, a certain professionalism and an adherence to the traditional values of drawing and painting. They are certainly not afraid of abstraction as Charles Tyrrell's work will attest, and they regularly experiment with younger artists but they have a good nose for bullshit. The Kerlin may give you a scantily clad woman drawing shamrocks in green paint with her arse and a catalogue to explain what you're seeing but the Taylors can be relied upon to give you something that can be appreciated without the attendant essay. I have dealt with them as a buyer, a seller and an occasional reviewer and I have always found them to be decent skins. I remember many years ago I put together a group show, not unlike this one, at a gallery I owned in Enniskerry. I had sourced most of the work directly from the artists but was shy a couple of Sean McSweeney's to round off the show. Sean, whom I know well, had nothing available so I went along to John and asked him did he have anything in stock. He took me up to a storeroom on the top floor of the gallery - chock full of goodies - pointed to a half dozen SM's and said "help yourself". Nice guy. Another time I had bought a John Shinnors piece from a photograph (don't do that by the way) and I was very unhappy with the framing and scale of the piece and wanted to return it. It was taken back without demur and my money refunded (don't do that either).
On the way here from my sister's house on Barry's Road I passed that beautifully located cemetery overlooking the harbour. It occurred to me how Jim O'Driscoll resting in there would have enjoyed this occasion and this gallery. While he lived a lot of the year in Dublin, he had a house in Rossbrin where he spent the summer resting from his legal labours. I would frequently encounter him mooching around Schull at a loose end - separated from his beloved galleries. For the rest of the year if you wanted to meet Jim, Taylor Galleries on a Saturday morning was a reliable bet. He would spend hours in there chatting with Pat and John about the state of the art world. He had a particular affinity for the Taylor's stable of artists and if you visited his house on Orwell Road you would encounter work by Louis le Brocquy, Tony O'Malley (especially) Bill Crozier, Pat Scott, Charlie Brady and many more. Jim was an insatiable buyer of art and would probably have single-handedly kept this gallery financially viable.
Me and Schull
I have been coming to Schull for more than 25 years, and I have been spending time in Taylor Galleries for nearer thirty. So I am delighted with this marriage between two of my favourite places. The advent of the Blue House gallery has certainly enhanced the cultural life of Schull. I know that John, Brian, Alyn, Keith and John have put huge time and energy into the enterprise. It makes a stroll down the Main Street that much more interesting, and Schull a more attractive venue for holidaying. It has also taken advantage of the standing army of artists in this region to ensure that we don't have to travel to Dublin to or Cork to enjoy their work. Many of the Taylor artists have Cork connections - John of course, Charlie and Tim in Allihies. And of course Pat Scott, who helped broker the Taylor take over of the Dawson Gallery was born up the road in Kilbrittain.
With the right support from you the Blue House Gallery can be a permanent feature of the Schull landscape. So roust up all your promenading barrister friends, your drinking doctors, your holidaying fat cats and the gilded remittance men that throng the streets in July and August and get them in here buying art.
Walking into this show is for me like walking into a party and finding it full of old friends - tried and tested over time. There's Micheal, there's Mary, there's Tony. I hope you enjoy their company as much as I have done.
John P. O'Sullivan
18th July 2014
Friday, August 01, 2014
When I was seven or eight years old (top row four to the right of icon) we lived in the Curragh Camp where my father, an army officer, was stationed. Down the road from our house was a large swimming pool. It measured 40 yards by 14 yards making it the largest in the country at the time. The army used it for recreation and for training its soldiers. I frequently went there on my own as all of my schoolmates were the sons of private soldiers or NCOs, and officer's sons and soldier's sons didn't mix in those socially stratified days. I had never had lessons and so just paddled around in the shallow end - enjoying the novelty of being immersed and the smell of the chlorine. One day as I was leaving the pool area to change, four soldiers in uniform decided to have some fun at my expense. They grabbed a limb each, swung me back and forth a few times, and launched me into the middle of the deep end. I came up to the surface, screaming and promptly sank again. Luckily there was someone in the pool nearby and he pulled me out - deeply traumatised and crying hysterically. The four by now discomfited villains tried to placate me and followed me into the changing room to console me while I got dressed. When I was ready they escorted me to a nearby sweet shop and asked me what I wanted. The price of my silence was to be two marshmallow mice - a sweet shop option long gone. When I got home I kept my little misadventure to myself and never told anyone what happened. I was regularly bullied at school because of my father's rank and considered this merely more of the same.
Things rested so. I tended to avoid occasions of swimming. However when I was around 14, we went on holiday to Spanish Point - all nine of us. My parents enjoyed the use of a house there for a month. Most days us children went to the beach, one of the most lethal on the west coast, while my parents spent the day golfing at nearby Lahinch. A lot of convents had summer houses nearby and you'd see the nuns in their long black swimming costumes lying on the rocks like so many seals. Paddy Hillary, Minister for Education at the time, also had a house there and I'd often see him on romantic walks arm in arm with his wife.
There were life-guards on duty at the beach but only during certain hours. These I suppose were the hours to which we should have confined our swimming. One desultory afternoon I made my way alone to the beach and started paddling off some rocks. The rest of the family were playing games in the sand dunes. The area was deserted apart from a solitary girl reading on a rock nearby. I paddled out up to my shoulders and then must have stepped off a ledge because suddenly I found myself out of my depth. I bobbed to the surface and yelled out. The girl was off the rocks in a thrice and she swam over strongly and pulled me to the shore. If she hadn't happened to be there I would surely have drowned. Thank you again Irene Kerrison. Of course I never mentioned this incident to my parents either.
You'd imagine that I would subsequently have learned to swim but despite trying on many occasions I have been unable to conquer my fear of water. I can swim on my back as long as I remain in my depth but just cannot put my face in the water. It's beyond cure. As a result of my handicap I was always very aware of keeping my children away from water when they were young lest I find myself in a situation where I would be unable to rescue them. As soon as was decent from an age perspective we got them regular lessons from a very accomplished teacher. Now they are all very strong and confident in the water and can rescue their far from amphibious father if the need arises.