Monday, July 08, 2013

Seán McSweeney: Painter on the Shore

Seán McSweeney and author (Photo: Paddy Benson)
A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 7th  July.

Seán McSweeney hasn't fetched up badly for a lad born in a teeming tenement off Dorset Street. Since 1984 he has lived in the heart of Yeats country: a few miles West of Drumcliffe, near Lissadell.  In the background looms Ben Bulben while further to the south you can see the crested and mysterious Knocknarea.  The Atlantic is down the road.  It's a long way from the Georgian House in  Synnott Place where McSweeney grew up.  And yet it's also a return to his roots.   It's where his mother came from.  She once attended the National School in Ballyconnell that is now his studio.

McSweeney is approaching 80 but his enthusiasm for painting has not diminished.  He had a successful show last October in Taylor Galleries, bucking the general trend by selling 12 pieces, and is already planning a show to coincide with his 80th birthday in 2015.   "I still have a great appetite to make work" he told me on a recent visit to his studio.  "I love the shoreline and want my next exhibition to be based on sea fields and shorelines".  The only concession he'll allow relates to the size of his paintings.  He feels he has not got the strength or stamina to manipulate the larger works these days.

Don't be deceived by the mild and amiable exterior, and the low-key way he wears the mantle of artist.  McSweeney is a passionately engaged painter.  He is also the living embodiment of a tradition of Irish landscape painting that goes back to Jack Yeats and Paul Henry and was continued by Patrick Collins and Dan O'Neill.  McSweeney is unique in the intensity of his vision.  He sees the world, not in a grain of sand, but in the bog land and sea shore close to his studio in County Sligo.  He shows us, in the words of the American poet Tess Gallagher, "Not the cliche of the Celtic mists, but the sour, unpredictable, fecund brew the earth itself can be." He is the chronicler of its seasonal variations:  the frozen winter, the electric green shoots of spring, the festival of summer and the autumn riches. Those vivid splashes of colour in his paintings could be the iris, the orchid, or the ragged robin making their seasonal appearances.

McSweeney's father Patrick was twice a painter: a master painter by trade and a fine amateur artist.  He took night classes at the Metropolitan School of Art and studied under Sean Keating and Maurice McGonigal.  The artist speaks fondly of a painting of Ben Bulben that his father had painted while on holiday with his wife's family.  When McSweeney was five his father was electrocuted in an industrial accident at the ESB.  Compensation was minimal in those austere days:  his mother got £600 and the children had £100 each put into trust.   So the family of six struggled.  His mother found occasional work at the Irish Hospital's Sweepstake, alongside Patrick Collins' mother.   Her family in Sligo provided some respite in the summer months when the children were shipped off to run wild and free around Ballyconnell.  His affection for this part of Ireland is rooted in those childhood summers.

Kindled by his father's example, McSweeney's interest in art was fired at the Hugh Lane Gallery around the corner from his home.  The calm and beauty of this island of art providing a retreat from the hurly burly of life in a tenement shared with seven other families.  McSweeney recalls being particularly struck by Constable - "there was a whole wall of them".  While the imperative to earn a living overruled further education, McSweeney attended night classes at NCAD following his daily round and so began his tentative journey towards being an artist.  He has a strong belief in working at rote jobs that do not sap the creative energy required for art.  He subscribes to Schopenhauer's dictum: "do not degrade your muse to a whore".  Teaching or graphic design were eschewed, instead he found undemanding work as a disbursements clerk with Palgrave Murphy.

In his early career he worked in isolation from other artists.  He is a quiet thoughtful man, shy even.  He lacked the peer group that full time attendance at NCAD would have provided.  Nevertheless he had discovered his vocation and held his first solo show in 1958 at the now defunct  Cavendish Gallery opposite the Gate Theatre.  A seminal moment in his career was the acceptance of a painting at the annual Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1962.  This was a shop window for contemporary artists and the place where you might be spotted by one of the commercial galleries.  His work was noticed by Cecil King who recommended him to Leo Smith, proprietor of the prestigious Dawson Gallery.  His career was in progress.  Apart from the kudos of being with Ireland's leading commercial gallery, it also provided McSweeney with a peer group - the stable of artists associated with the gallery.   Most of his friends had been childhood companions whose only interest in art was the free drink associated with openings.  The waspish Smith disapproved of freeloaders and at one opening reminded McSweeney that "this is my party not yours".  An early lesson in art politics.  McSweeney recalls seeing Jack Yeats at one of the Dawson's openings but was too shy to approach the great man.  A shame as their artistic connection is palpable.

Like many artists of his generation (before Aosdana and the grants industry) McSweeney did not have it easy in the early days.  After marrying Sheila Murphy (who had to relinquish her good job at the ESB) they moved to Hollywood in County Wicklow in 1967.  There they raised a family and got by without tap water or electricity: the trips to the well and the lighting of the Tilley lamps were daily rituals.  But his reputation began to grow and following a sell out show at the Dawson Gallery he gave up the clerical work to paint full time.  In later years, when sales sagged, he found domestic painting and decorating a relaxing way to earn a living without any psychic cost.  They moved to Sligo in 1984.

McSweeney has often given the impression that his images emerge as he works the paint around, seeking the visual mot juste.  So it came as a surprise to find he uses sketch pads extensively.  He always carries one with him as he wanders his watery domain.  These notebooks contain both sketches and notes relating to colour and to the flora and fauna of his local habitat.  He notes the changing of the guard as the different flowers make their entrances and exits.  He sees these sketch pads as a spring board into a painting.  They allow him to get back out what he took in on his saunters by the sea or the bog.

McSweeney is in the tradition of romantic landscape painters.  He mentions Paul Henry as an influence but it's difficult to connect the airy idealised  world of Henry with the teeming bogscapes of McSweeney.  He shares Teskey's absorbtion with landscape and the sea but he does not follow Teskey's practice of constantly seeking out fresh locales - preferring to continue mining the bog and shoreline outside his studio for images - letting the seasons differences provide him with inspiration.  The closest to him in essence is I believe Patrick Collins, also self-taught, and from Sligo.  While they shared a tendency to use framing rectangles, the American poet Tess Gallagher saw a difference between them also.  Collins would "purposefully blur access to his scenes, as if the world had thrown away its glasses"  McSweeney on the other hand "occupies the moment after Collins, when the world is fully present, yet still inexplicable, mysterious in a clear-eyed way."  Perhaps the closest to him in his feeling for landscape is the Cork artist Maurice Desmond.  They share that pantheistic feel for nature.  It's not picture postcard beauty.  It's teeming, living, dark, and mysterious.

McSweeney seems drawn to literary folk, and they to him.  Dermot Healy is a near neighbour and they meet regularly.  He spoke affectionately of the late Michael Hartnett: "he was afraid to give up the drink in case he lost his talent".  The American poet Tess Gallagher is an admirer and has visited him in his studio regularly.  He has even attracted the attention of that most magisterial of critics Helen Vendler.  Her admiration for his work extended to a poetic and perceptive catalogue essay for a London show in 2003.  She saw in him something beyond the local:  "the seasonal pulsations of the paintings are universal".

McSweeney is passionate about his locale and intense in his desire to record its beauty.  He reflects on the many generations that passed though the classroom where he now works.  There are echoes there of young feet on floorboards and sportive voices. McSweeney recalls one lad who was "master of the shore" - knowing the spots where the lobster lurked and the time to catch them.  Like many others in the area he left to work in the factories of North Acton - his revels ending far from his native shore in the hard-drinking bars of Harlesden.  As I was leaving, we stood outside his studio looking north to Ben Bulben.  I asked was he ever tempted to emulate his father and paint it.   "I'll tackle it some day." he replied, not very convincingly.  Meanwhile he has plans for the shoreline nearby.