Monday, January 28, 2013

Portraits of the Artists 4: Basil Blackshaw

Basil Blackshaw - January 2013 (Paddy Benson)
This is my profile of Basil Blackshaw first published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 27th January 2013:

Home is the Hunter

In rural Antrim, a few miles east of Lough Neagh, Basil Blackshaw is resting on his laurels.  His work may have slowed down to a trickle, but the esteem in which he is held continues to grow.  His reputation is set to be further enhanced by the exhibition Blackshaw at 80, currently running at the RHA.  This show features a representative selection of paintings from across his career chosen by the artist himself and Dr. Riann Coulter, curator of the F. E. McWilliam gallery in Banbridge.  In March it will move on to the Gordon Gallery in Derry as part of the UK City of Culture programme.

Blackshaw lives with his personable partner Helen Faloon in a warm and well-maintained old farmhouse off a side road near Antrim town.  His once thriving community of dogs is reduced to one, an elderly and affectionate Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Jet.  He enjoys a leisurely pipe after indulging his sweet tooth with a slice of rich coffee cake as he mulls over his memories.  He is reserved but friendly, smiling a lot and frequently bursting into laughter when recounting some amusing anecdote from his past.  Memories of the late Tom Caldwell and Markey Robinson were a particular source of humour for him. With some prompting from Helen he told a scabrous story about Markey that illustrated that artist's infamous capacity for foul language.  His response to any probing questions about his art is equivocal and often downright contradictory. In an interview with Brian McAvera in 2002 he maintained that Franz Marc had an influence on his horse paintings.  And you can surely see a connection in their use of colour.  However Marc's work seems much more controlled and not at all like Blackshaw's looser more painterly style.  When I brought it up he laughed and said there was no connection whatsoever.  Take your pick.

He is coy about influences generally but a tour of the current show will give a flavour of these.  There's his tribute to Cezanne in Cezanne's Gardener, his window paintings nod towards Rothko, his strings of horses at exercise suggest Degas, and you often see hints of Charlie Brady, especially in Studio.  Blackshaw is a master draughtsman and most of his work, especially his horse and dog paintings, are realistic depictions of these creatures.  One piece, Big Brown Dog, certainly isn't.  It's more heraldic than realistic, as Brian Fallon noted in his excellent 2012 essay.  He wasn't forthcoming when I queried this anomaly.  He's not keen on interpretation, preferring to emphasise the primary visual encounter.  One particular work, Anna on a Sofa, begs for analysis.  It features his erstwhile wife, Anna Ritchie sitting, arms folded tightly, jammed up to one side of an otherwise empty striped sofa. Again Blackshaw doesn't rise to bait - just smiling gnomically when I brought it up.  Their marriage break up was a difficult time for him.

Blackshaw may seem an amiable and easy-going character but he gets much exercised by the public airing of any work he deems inferior and he took a keen interest in the selection  for the show.  He also expressed himself as displeased that a substantial biography published a few years back by Eamonn Mallie contained pictures of work with which he had become dissatisfied.  His partner Helen chided him good-naturedly saying that it was his own fault as he was asked for his input but only took an interest when it was too late.

He's much more forthcoming on the subjects of dogs and horses.  He regrets not having more dogs these days but as he walks with the aid of a stick he cannot exercise them as before.  He trained greyhounds for about 12 years and had much success not just at local tracks but in  big races at Shelbourne Park and Harolds Cross.  He was unlucky not to win the Oaks on one occasion and spoke fondly of those days:  "Dateline was the best dog we ever had" he recalled, "she won bitch of the year that year".   Before he began to sell his art, dogs were his main source of income.  Unlike his fellow artists Bacon and Freud, Blackshaw didn't gamble.  He is too much the shrewd country boy for that foolishness I suspect.  His real affection for these creatures can be seen in the delightful A Dog and Two Men (see illustration).  Here two men chat while the dog sits close to one (Blackshaw himself) and gazes up at him adoringly.

Blackshaw's life has not just been a rural idyll surrounded by God's creatures.  It has been described by Brian Fallon as "an epic of survival".  He has fought and survived alcoholism, a painful separation, and a major studio fire (in 1985). The fire destroyed a large number of paintings and drawings (including a cherished horse painting by his father) and knocked the stuffing out of him for a period.  He particularly regretted the loss of four easels.  The fire did give him the opportunity to build a new studio without a view.  The absence of windows in this new studio, all light coming from skylights, meant he didn't get distracted by the scenery around him as before.  A further stimulus to get on with it came in the form of the model Jude Stephens. She was his muse for a whole series of nude studies which took him away from his landscapes and animals.  Her essay in Basil Blackshaw - Painter by Brian Ferran (published in 1995) is a charming evocation of an unworldly man.

Many artists move to the country and pursue their careers from idyllic locales,
with romantic views of the Atlantic perhaps, or amid the rugged grandeur of West Cork. There they live within their creative bubbles - occasionally emerging to astonish the city with their visions. Blackshaw is different - he is of the countryside as well as being in it. His horses, dogs and fighting cocks are not mere objects selected for our visual delectation.  They are the creatures of his daily round. The colourful fighting cocks were an enthusiasm for many years.  He trained them for their bloody battle and still speaks proudly of his success in this arena.  His landscapes are inspired by Dromora and the areas around his home where he enjoyed hunting and point-to-points.  In his time he has been better known to many of his neighbours as a trainer of dogs or a breeder of horses than as an artist. The practical horny-handed farmers of South Antrim would have little time in any case for a pursuit they would have deemed effete and worse, unprofitable.  Jude Stevens' essay tells a wonderful story of a trip to the "meat man" for dog food with Blackshaw. The trip culminated in a shack behind a ramshackle cottage which was was straight out  the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The floor was carpeted with congealed blood, swarms of blue bottles buzzed around her head, and in the gloom she could see carcasses of dead cattle in varying stages of dismemberment.  Blackshaw was quite at home there, chatting to the bloodied butcher, and they departed with a package of "warm meat".

Considering what a horsey country we are it's amazing that so few artists seem drawn to the subject.  True there are a few specialists, such as Peter Curling, but in terms of major figures it's hard to think of anyone other than Jack Yeats. He shares with Blackshaw a feel for the world of racing particularly.  In the current show we get horses in a variety of guises: coming a cropper in a steeplechase, exercising in strings, surreal in purple or red, or, as in Night Rider, conveying an sinister cowboy.  One giant piece,The Fall, is a virtuoso performance.  This charcoal and oil work shows a crashing fall, the horse  landing on its head as the jockey flies through the air, hands braced for impact.  The energy of the calamitous moment perfectly preserved.  You also marvel at the use of charcoal in a picture of such scale.

You can't help but feel that Blackshaw prefers animals to people.  He has famously declared that "portrait painting is a nuisance".  Looking at his portrait of Arthur Gibney in the show you can see dead hand of a commission rather than heartfelt engagement.  Many of his portraits however are alive and engaging. Two that stood out were a thoughtful Brian Friel and a warm and vivacious Mary McGrath.

Blackshaw was a precocious talent.  He was doing commissions in his teens and was accepted for art college at the age of 16.  There he enjoyed the benign influence of the wonderfully named Romeo Toogood.  He thrived there and his career took off when he had a piece acquired by the Ulster Museum when he was 20.  He was also taken up early by Tom Caldwell, an astute judge of talent and an energetic dealer.

The sturm and drang of his boozing days with the likes of Dan O'Neill and Paddy Collins are but fond memories.  Helen tells stories of rescuing Blackshaw and O'Neill from Belfast during the troubles and running the gauntlet of army road blocks with the two drunken and garrulous artists.  He has long foresworn the drink.  Himself and Helen are plainly happy and at peace in their comfortable rural retreat.  Their walls are bedecked with an eclectic collection of paintings:  amidst his own pieces are works by friends past and present, such as Charlie Brady and Neil Shawcross.  There's also a  wonderful drawing of a boar by Elizabeth Frink.  One suspects Blackshaw will do little more painting. When I enquired about looking at his studio Helen said the heating was broken and that it was a bit dismal. A cursory look confirmed this.  He has no immediate plans to set foot in it.  Maybe spring will bring some inspiration, or his old friend Jude will call around and stir him into action.   But a man who has painted for nearly 70 years is surely entitled to take life easy.  His legacy is safe.