Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The 137th Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition

Detail from Post-Brexit by Rose McKelvey

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 11 November 2018

The 137th Royal Ulster Academy’s Annual Exhibition opened in Belfast last week at what is becoming its de facto home in the Ulster Museum. The ambitious plans announced in 2014 by then RUA president Colin Davidson to develop a new home and exhibition space at the listed Riddell’s Warehouse do not seem to have made much progress. However, “they are still ongoing” according to the new president of the RUA Betty Brown. “The building has been acquired by Hearth Historical Building Trust with a view to restoration and the RUA would aim to become the anchor tenant once restoration has been achieved.” Funding is an issue. The RUA could do with an enlightened entrepreneur or a champion on the Northern Executive – if there was a Northern Executive. In the current climate with no government in place and the Brexit debacle looming, it’s hard to see much movement towards achieving a permanent home in the foreseeable future.

Whatever about its temporary nature the 5th floor of the  Ulster Museum makes a fine setting for the annual show generously sponsored once again by KPMG. This year’s show seems livelier and more varied than usual – the RUA’s policy of allowing only two paintings per academician (compared to six at the RHA Annual Show) helps promote greater diversity. It’s also very noticeable how accessible the prices are - this seems confirmed by the healthy rash of red dots just a week after its opening.

Norman Rockwell famously said that  “If a picture wasn’t going very well I’d put a puppy dog in it.” Those susceptible to canine charm will be much taken by Heidi Wickham’s Tina – a portrait of an attractively winsome dog. However, art lovers too will appreciate this well-executed piece in charcoal, pastel and gesso. The work was so admired that it won two of the prizes on offer at the show. Wickham had another soulful dog on view confusingly called Black Bear. It was also an attractive work but it suffered a little from being lit in a way that bounced light back off its high gloss finish. Following on a trend from last year there was an abundance of portraits. RUA regular Michael Connolly continues with his quirky subjects - Sparrow and Meet and Greet featured some pastel people from his own personal Twilight Zone. Daniel Nelis’s Silver Medal Prize winning Untitled (November) is an elegant work that nods in the direction of Modigliani. Other portraits that snagged the attention were Nina, a beautifully alive and warm study by Susan Dubsky and John Cooney’s two characterful watercolours Sligo Farmer and John Cunningham, Ardara.

Brexit hasn’t gone unobserved according to a few of the  titles. Dermot Seymour’s attachment to bovine subject matter continues with his large painting of a cow being harassed by a goose. It’s a bit of a metaphorical leap to the accompanying title: Border Vicissitudes of Brexitaria. However, Ross McKelvy’s scores a more direct hit with Post-Brexit – one of the most dramatic and memorable images in the show. In this photographic study the prognosis goes beyond border bother to a distinctly Mad Max future as a bizarre, gas-masked figure tends a dying landscape while black birds wheel ominously overhead. Another land of lost content is portrayed in Cara Gordon’s They Used to Dance Here, a dark and atmospheric acrylic painting of an old Belfast dance hall.

Colin Davidson is back after a hiatus of a couple of years. He’s given himself a break from portrait painting by omitting the head from his large and impressive, Stride, which captures the nude figure in motion. Judith Logan’s The Kite Flyers offers us a flavour of that great Northern maverick John Luke - although she achieves her effect with coloured pencils rather than egg tempera. John Roch Simon’s mission in life is to make old masters more amenable to a modern sensibility. To this end he takes appalling liberties by inserting modern subjects into classic paintings and photographing them. The resulting images, The Two Johns - after Caravaggio and Cottage Girl 2017 – A Portrait after Gainsborough, have a quirky discordance that arrests the attention. Elizabeth O’Kane’s meticulous watercolour Duomo from Apartment Window, Florence also caught the eye.

The independent adjudicator for this year’s show was the estimable James Hanley, Keeper of the RHA. He selected the recipients of the RUA’s gold, silver and bronze medal prizes. The gold medal went to Jeffrey Morgan’s Last of Blackheath (7) curiously dedicated to the Scottish artist Mark Boyle who died in 2005. Boyle’s original claim to fame was the light shows he did for The Soft Machine at their UFO concerts back in the Sixties. Morgan’s work is a gloriously enigmatic painting of the rear view off a red-haired woman in a 50s style blue-polka-dot dress. It’s a symphony of colour illustrating a banal urban setting.

Works from the South are not as plentiful as in recent years however the print area was particularly  well served by Southern artists including three long-standing members of the Graphic Studio Dublin: Jean Bardon, Stephen Lawlor and James McCreary . Their four works (two by Lawlor) are impeccably-crafted examples of master printers at work. But each artist brings a very different individual tone: one elegant, one mysterious, and one surreal. A more recent Graphic Studio member Susan Early also contributes two fine etchings of Irish light houses. Other impressive works in the print mode included: Elizabeth Magill’s playful Skirt Tails which could be a Victorian skating party, David McGinn’s noiresque etchings, Anne Corry’s enigmatic Hidden Life, and Margaret Arthur’s beautifully layered Sunlight on a Distant Shore.

There was plenty of real quality amongst the photography. Michael Collins’ Dead Calm had a gorgeous painterly quality while Sharon Belton’s At Swim went for a more playful surreal mood. Sharon Murphy’s Aoife/Cordelia; Bruce Marshal’s Wicklow, 1980 which made much of milk bottles ; Tommie Lehane’s bleak Ice Skating Arena, and Barbara Freeman’s portentous Valley of the Gods also stood out. Gordon Ashbridge’s Balls combined a desolate image with space for metaphorical speculation.

There was some virtuoso performances in ceramics none more so than Stephanie Tanney’s Disconnection which created a mysterious piece whose simulated drapes would serve well in a Halloween tableaux.

Amongst the sculpture, Helen Merrigan Colfer’s See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Tell No One contains disturbing intimations of child abuse. Carolyn Mullholland’s minimalist Full Stop, and Jason Ellis’s carry no message beyond the clean beauty of their forms. Anthony Scott does what he does best with his glowering Warrior. Zoe Murdoch’s mixed media Angelus Vitus achieved a solid, stylish malevolence. I also liked Claire Mooney’s Shadows of the Past, a delicately wrought copper construct.

Talking of the past, the show also contained a tribute to Gladys Maccabe (an Honorary member of the RUA) in the form of a catalogue essay and an excellent example of her work. She died earlier in the year a few months short of her 100th birthday. In addition to her qualities as a painter, Maccabe was a hugely positive influence on the Northern Irish art scene for very many years. She recognized no barriers of religion or gender and was a zealous promoter of female artists in the North. She also distinguished herself by not shying away from the Northern troubles in works such as Barricades and Funeral of a Victim. She’s a real loss to Irish art.

John P. O’Sullivan
November 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Towser Gosden, Damredub, Royal Line, and the November Handicap

I’ve long had an affection for the last big flat handicap of the year - the November Handicap. It used to be called the Manchester November Handicap until they closed Manchester racecourse in 1963. It now takes place in Doncaster. I got to love it through a great old handicapper called Damredub. He won it in 1962 at 20-1 and was second at big prices in 1961 and 1963. I followed horses rather than studied form in those days and backed the gelding whenever he ran - invariably making money from him. He was a brave and reliable horse. His trainer was Towser Gosden, John Gosden’s father. His horses usually operated in more modest company than his illustrious son’s do but he did win the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes with Agressor amidst a modest enough career focused on handicaps.The son usually has a runner in the November Handicap - perhaps for sentimental reasons as Towser used to love the race. So I always have a good look at his horses - he has won it six times in the past, more than any other trainer. Yesterday he ran Royal Line who had been down the field last year despite starting favourite. However, he was a not fully-furnished three year old then and a couple of bits of subsequent form suggested he was a potential group horse running in a handicap. Crucially, also, he had won on heavy in the past. I put a decent bet on him and watched smugly as he won snugly - going clear two furlongs out and staying on strongly on the soft ground. His starting price  was a surprisingly generous 9-1. So 56 years after my old friend Damredub won I am obliged again to the Gosden family. Last night I celebrated with a good bottle of Sancerre. Back in 1962 I suspect it was a Toblerone and a Club Orange.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

A Paean for An Post

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of Robert Ballagh’s new memoir for the Sunday Times. A few days ago I received a letter from the Dublin Mail Centre of An Post with a form inside telling me that the card enclosed “was found loose” in the sorting centre. The card had apparently fallen from its associated envelope. The card contained an image of a Ballagh painting on the front and inside was a kind message from the artist thanking me for my “positive review”. So how did they get my address?

A very neat hand-written message on the An Post form supplied the answer:  “I got your address off the imprint on the back of the from.”  The estimable Mr. Ballagh had leaned hard enough when addressing the lost envelope that he had left a faint indentation on the back of the card. The An Post employee had painstakingly traced it out to the extent that it yielded my complete address. Now that’s what I call customer service and professionalism. Give that man a promotion at once.

You could suggest that the card got special attention because someone in An Post recognized the name Ballagh as the creator of numerous Irish postage stamps - so he was in a sense one of their own. But I somehow doubt this hypothesis.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Robert Ballagh – A Reluctant Memoir

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 21 October 2018.

The first surprise here is the title. Robert Ballagh is not a shy, nor a self-effacing man. He’s never been coy about promoting his work or telling his life-story, and he’s well known for his uninhibited contributions to the public discourse on topics such as the droit de suite for artists and the 1916 celebrations. However, we get an explanation for this seeming coyness on the first page: “only self-indulgent pricks write memoirs” he avers. But he has decided to overcome his reservations “so that future generations can have the full facts”. There’s something a tad presumptuous about this latter statement but fortunately it is at odds with the trenchant and unprecious attitude that characterizes the rest of this handsome and well-illustrated book.

The book is mostly an amiable canter through his career, with reflections on art, anecdotes about the characters he meets, and observations on Irish life. Those who consider Ballagh a rabid republican will find little of a seditious nature. He seems a republican primarily in the French Revolution sense and no reasonable person could argue with his comments on how our 1916 Rising has failed to deliver in terms of liberty, equality and fraternity. Ballagh is no working-class hero by background. He went to school at Blackrock College and his father played cricket and tennis for Ireland, and rugby for Leinster. His mother played hockey for Ireland. Ballagh’s first love was music and people of a certain age (including this writer) will remember him from his Chessmen days – sporting Buddy Holly glasses while playing bass alongside the charismatic Alan Dee.

The book opens with bang: a description of a vicious assault eight years ago and the ineffectual Garda response. It is followed by an account of his brush with cancer that was detected during tests for his injuries. After these encounters with mortality it settles down into a more or less chronological account of his career, with ample illustrations. There are lacunae and the book could have done with a judicious pruning. I’m not sure we needed as much detail on the technical aspects of producing stamps and banknotes.

There are occasional domestic episodes: an idyllic winter in Ronda, Southern Spain with his family is described – including his encounters there with the estimable Hilly Kilmarnock, the first wife of Kingsley Amis. And we learn of the warmth and strength of his relationship with his late wife Betty. He gives her credit for both intellectual and emotional support and they were clearly a very happy couple. “We were an enduring partnership. In the course of almost four decades as an artist, I can’t think of a single picture of mine that wasn’t improved by constructive comment by Betty.”

The seminal moment in his career was an encounter in a pub. “If I hadn’t met Micheal Farrell (Ballagh suggest’s that the misspelling of Farrell’s first name was due to his dyslexia) that particular night in Toners, I’m pretty sure my own life would have drifted in an entirely different direction.” Farrell had accepted a commission for a mural that stretched his capabilities and needed an assistant to bring it to fruition. “I’ll pay you a fiver a week and all the drink you can take.” Ballagh accepted and this encounter proved the apprenticeship that set him on his way as an artist. He was introduced to acrylic paint and learnt the uses of badger brushes and masking tape. His early exemplars were Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and he learnt, when taking on an important portrait commission, that his initial dearth of drawing skills could be overcome by judicious use of a camera and the silk-screen process. Ballagh’s skills have developed over the years and the put down by Declan McGonagle that he was “a mere illustrator” is belied by much of his later work including the impressive series of self-portraits he did for the Wexford Opera Festival. These were inspired by his love of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.

Although his politics are of the left, Ballagh has friends and patrons on all parts of the ideological spectrum. He’s done portraits of Charles Haughey and Fidel Castro, of Gordon Lambert and Noel Browne, and even of the Nobel prize winner Francis Crick. He’s not one to kick those whose reputations have suffered since he encountered them. While deploring Haughey’s corruption and hubris, he enjoyed their social encounters and gives him credit for his favorable treatment of artists and for his free travel scheme for the elderly. (He gets his dates wrong here, Haughey was not Taoiseach in 1983). He also speaks warmly of his time at the Gate Theatre working with Michael Colgan. A less enjoyable encounter there was a run in with that monstre sacré Stephen Berkoff while designing Salome.

He confirms the creepy machinations of Fr. Donal O’Sullivan who was director of the Arts Council from 1960-1973 and was infamous for his partisan patronage. O’Sullivan blocked an invitation for Ballagh to show in Sweden by telling the Swedish curator (completely without foundation) that “he’s a chronic alcoholic and can become quite violent”. Ballagh achieves a piquant revenge by telling us that this ostensibly discerning authority on art lived in the Jesuit community house in Leeson Street for many years and failed to recognize that there was a Caravaggio (The Taking of Christ) on the dining-room wall.

This memoir paints a picture of a contented man who has worked hard, was blessed with a good marriage, and has enjoyed a varied and successful career. He has a final word for the likes of McGonagle and O’Sullivan with his painting The Illustrator (shown on the back cover). It depicts Ballagh wearing a t-shirt declaiming: F*** the Begrudgers.

Head of Zeus
PP: 448
RRP: €30.30

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

J. P. Donleavy Unbuttoned: A Review of The Ginger Man Letters

A lightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 
7 October 2018

J. P. Donleavy is a bit of a conundrum. A failed painter who wrote the most commercially successful novel to emerge from Ireland. An Irish-American who despised Ireland yet ended up living the bulk of his life in County Westmeath. A native of Brooklyn who spoke with a faux ascendancy accent and affected the dress of an English country gentleman. A writer whose initially energetic sub-Joycean style slackened into mannered tedium (with those silly alliterative titles). Yet we can forgive him all his foibles and later failings for the gift of The Ginger Man - novel that came along in the mid-1950s when fun was forbidden and the Church ruled the land. It plunged us headlong into a world where responsibilities are discarded in the headlong pursuit of drink, women, and the occasional sheep’s head for sustenance. It championed freedom of expression in a censorious era and it made us laugh. The sexual frankness was also a boon back in those times – especially to teenage boys. Today the most shocking element in the book is the verbal and physical abuse its protagonist Sebastian Dangerfield visits on his long-suffering wife Marion.

Bill Dunn, an expert on lighthouses, and a self-declared “longtime fan of J. P. Donleavy” has put together a selection of the correspondence between Donleavy and two of the main sources for The Ginger Man: Gainor Crist and A. K. Donoghue. Their letters date from 1948 to 2006 so the bulk of them are between Donoghue and Donleavy as Crist died in 1964 (aged 42 in alcohol-related circumstances). All three were Americans abroad - at Trinity courtesy of the G.I. Bill. Donleavy described Donoghue as “the introducer of blatant honesty to Ireland” and the ginger-haired Crist was admired for his charm, his heroic drinking and his success with the ladies. He was immortalized as Sebastian Dangerfield in The Ginger Man and elements of Donoghue are evident in the character of Kenneth O’Keefe. While Donleavy thrived on their fictional personae, his subjects struggled in real life. Donoghue eked out an existence in a series of dead-end jobs back in the USA (camp counsellor, mortician, and gambling consultant amongst them). He also had a disastrous sex life which he described with relish to the eager Donleavy. Crist was also employed erratically and his oft-touted charms seem to have been more apparent to those who met him in the flesh than is evident from his fictitious persona or these letters. He lived a life of alcoholic fecklessness. When around, he was apparently a loving father according to an affectionate and forgiving appendix written by his daughter Mariana. Donleavy’s relationships with both of his correspondents ended badly – ostensibly about bread in one case and cheese in the other.

 Despite his Irish-American parentage, Donleavy was no great lover of Ireland. He  came to Trinity because he could not get into an American college and he returned to Ireland from England to avail of the tax advantages we offered to writers. He expressed his contempt frequently: In his 1994 autobiography (“agricultural, paupered, myth drugged greenery that is Ireland”); In his 1992 documentary J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland (“a shrunken teat on the chest of the cold Atlantic”) and in these letters (“I hate the thought of the place and I don’t know why I’m going”). Even when he settled on his 180 acres in Levington Hall in County Westmeath he affected disdain for his surroundings: ” I read the Daily Telegraph and I may as well be living in Timbuktu for all the number of times I go outside those gates” he told one visitor.

Those expecting literary discussions in these letters will be disappointed. This is not Nabokov and Edmond Wilson. The concerns are more quotidian: jobs, accommodation, travel arrangements and money.  A certain puerile, school-boyish tone persists even when the writers are in their forties and older. “No woman is going to let me slip my 6 incher into her sacred port hole” complains Donoghue. Patterns soon emerge about their individual reasons for maintaining the correspondence. Crist was chronically short of money and always looking for another adventure: “Would you please send me $25 – I am requesting non-material but material aid as well”.  Donoghue wrote mostly, it seems, to entertain Donleavy by recounting details of his latest dead-end job and his latest sexual failures – of which there were many. “I seem to inspire in women a desire to marry or fuck someone else.”

Donleavy, even when he became very successful, was keen to maintain this connection and would chide Donoghue when there were long gaps between letters. He would repeatedly request more details about his work, his latest amatory mishap, or the part of the USA in which he currently resided (“Did you know the Mormons never gave up polygamy formally”). A Fairy Tale of New York involves a character working in a funeral home, one of Donoghue’s many jobs. Donoghue was a faithful dog to the last. Years after Donleavy kicked him out of his Westmeath gate lodge and stopped replying to his letters, Donoghue wrote from his grace and favor retirement home in Donegal giving Donleavy “full permission to write anything he feels like writing about me, positive, negative and otherwise.”

Donleavy was in some ways an accidental writer. His first love was art and he had a number of exhibitions in Dublin before The Ginger Man was published. After his writing career had petered out he continued to paint and was showing at the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin as recently as 2017.  When he tried to show outside Ireland’s stagnant art market in the early 50s he was rebuffed. The Redfern Gallery in London spurned his advances and he then determined that he would show the world: “I would write a book that no one could stop and would make my name known in every nook and cranny all over the world”.

Dunn the lighthouseman has, through these letters, shone a revealing light on the lives and characters of Donleavy, Crist and Donoghue. Donleavy’s rich and varied life (travel, famous friends, fine wines) sits in sharp contrast to the struggles and sad declines of the other two: The restless and needy Crist killing himself with drink and the permanently rueful Donoghue, making a virtue of his parlous career and ruinous love life. What’s revealed about them is far from the bohemian glamour and romantic myths of that storied time in Dublin literary history. This is the base metal mundanity that Donleavy managed to spin into gold.

Lilliput Press
PP: 396
RRP: €25

John P. O’Sullivan
October 2018