Monday, December 09, 2013

Hughie O'Donoghue - Red Remembered Fields

Hughie O'Donoghue (Paddy Benson)

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 8 December 2013.

It's a long long way from the manicured playing fields of Eton to the melancholy bog-lands of Erris.  But Hughie O'Donoghue can traverse imaginatively this distance and find inspiration in both locales.  He is currently artist-in-residence at Eton College, working on a Somme series for the centenary of the Great War, in which the casualties included many from that school.  And last week his exhibition Gort Rua opened at the Oliver Sears Gallery.  This show is based on his memories of childhood summers in North West Mayo - an area that itself suffered many casualties during the Great Famine.

Given his bifurcated background, and his constant moving between Ireland and England, you might think that O'Donoghue would share the Anglo-Irish malaise expressed by  Elizabeth Bowen - feeling "Irish in England and English in Ireland".  On the contrary, the artist is quite at home in either place.  You sense that this modest, soft-spoken, and amiable man would be at ease wherever he went.  Speaking to him in Dublin recently he told me that "complexity of origin is something I'm proud of - it's like a mongrel dog - they're usually quite intelligent".  Here's a painter steeped in childhood memories of rural Ireland, with an Irish name, an English education (that he much appreciates) and lingering traces of a Mancunian accent.  He was born in Manchester to a mother from the shores of Lough Carrowmore and a father who was born in England of Irish parents.  He's proud of his father's Kerry roots and mentions family encounters there with both Collins and De Valera.  Though formally educated in England, his school years were punctuated by annual summer trips to his mother's birthplace.  His childhood reveries were also stimulated by frequent trips to the Manchester City Art Gallery encouraged by his father. Paintings there such as Van Gogh's Pear Trees in Blossom and Veronese's Baptism lingered in his consciousness as did the rivers and fields of the West of Ireland.  His father also took him to Old Trafford to watch Matt Busby's team create its own masterpieces.  O'Donoghue remarked on the death the previous day of Bill Foulkes, one of his heroes from that era.

O'Donoghue holds both UK and Irish passports and is content to be claimed by both countries.  He sets little store on nationality.  He sees himself as a citizen of the inclusive world of art and culture.  A world that transcends the narrow boundaries of nationhood.  He and Sean Scully are unique among Irish artists in being members of the Royal Academy and of Aósdana.  He may also be unique in having his work hanging in the Royal Collection at Windsor and in Áras an Uachtaráin.

O'Donoghue's career took a few twists and turns before he found the righteous path. With his father's active encouragement he drew and painted from an early age.  However, rather than going to art college, which involved staying at home an extra year and taking a mandatory foundation course, he choose the freedom of getting out and doing a teacher training course.  After graduating he spent six years as a secondary school teacher, teaching art.  He ended up in the tiny town of Goole in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  He continued his painting and occasionally exhibited at group shows.   In 1982, he was offered his first solo show at the Ferens Gallery in Hull.  Encouraged by this he decided, at the age of 29, to quit his tenured position and focus on his art.  His wife Clare was a strong advocate of this courageous move.  "It was absolutely Clare's call" he emphasised.  She had just landed a job teaching in a middle school so they had a safety net.  He quit his remote outpost in Goole and headed to Goldsmiths College in London to do an MA in Fine Art.   Goldsmiths at that time was hardly the most sympathetic environment for someone who aspired to be a painter.  Duchamp was God and art was more about theory than practice.  For someone who was influenced by the Old Masters and loved the physical act of painting it was a shock to the system. There were positive aspects to it however for the aspiring artist:  "it intellectually toughened me up in terms of being able to articulate what I was doing".

Immediately after leaving Goldsmiths College he got a residency at Drax Power Station. His benefactors were none to pleased with his depictions of black smoke billowing from chimneys that allegedly emitted only steam.  These days Drax has the reputation of being the UK's single largest emitter of carbon dioxide so maybe O'Donoghue was posting an early warning.  This gig within the dark satanic mills was followed by a heavenly residency at the National Gallery in 1984.  There was huge competition for this residency and O'Donoghue was thrilled and somewhat bemused to have been awarded it.  Perhaps the London art mandarins decided to add a little northern grit to the mix.  This residency took on greater significance when the National Gallery found itself with spare marketing space on the London Underground due to a cancelled project.  It decided to use these prime locations to advertise their artist in residence programme. The ads featured a photograph of O'Donoghue in his studio.  A trickle of interest in his work turned into a flood as visitors crowded his studio in the National Gallery.  This son of a railwayman father, and a mother who had worked as a bus conductor, was accorded yet another favour by the gods of public transport.  At the end of his tenure there he was allocated a gallery space within the National Gallery for his concluding exhibition.  This was a singular privilege - previous incumbents had to hold their shows within the inferior studio spaces.

His brief at the National Gallery was "to take something out of the Old Master tradition and make it my own."  He encountered Francis Bacon while there and his engagement with figuration gave O'Donoghue the confidence to follow a similar path.  Bacon's work "had a human dimension" and it encouraged him to make "ambitious figure paintings".  His concluding exhibition there was called Sleepers.  It featured figures being consumed by the earth - harking back to bogs around Erris where his grandfather was reputedly buried.  Commercial success didn't follow immediately.  A few galleries came to see the work and loved it but he was told that it was "too dark, too heavy, too serious".  The art appetites of the time called for irony and humour - the quick fix.  O'Donoghue's art is not for the frivolous.  It demands time and concentration.  It's portentous in the best sense of that word - full of substance and meaning. A chance encounter with Fabian Carlsson at a London show a few months later got him up and running.  Carlsson took in all his work and paid him a princely retainer of £2,000 a month.  Riches indeed for an artist who never earned a penny previously.

In 1986 a "seismic" event was to occur that set his career on a path that he still retains some ambivalence about.  An American investment banker called Craig Baker commissioned O'Donoghue to embark on a series of paintings based on the Passion that were to take up the next 10 years of his life.  "This took me out of the mainstream art world which was certainly a negative".  The positive aspect of course was that he was given the time and space to create a series of 39 masterly paintings on which his reputation as a major artist was established.  Subsequently Baker bequeathed these paintings to IMMA for the delectation of the Irish nation.

O'Donoghue and his wife moved to Kilkenny after he completed the Baker commission in 1996 and they were to spend the next 15 years there rearing their family.  Now that their children have flown the nest the couple are free to move around a bit more.  He maintains a base in London and intends to spend time there every year keeping abreast with the metropolitan art scene and contributing to the activities of the Royal Academy.  He is currently coordinator of its Summer Show.  He also has a house and studio near Bangor-Erris where he can flee the hurly burly of the London scene.  "A good place for the gestation of ideas" he maintains.  He is planning a larger studio there and this will be his artistic base.  In the meantime the couple are enjoying a peripatetic life.  After his Eton residency he will take on another residency at Ballinglen in January 2014 - down the coast from his Erris base.

His latest show at the Oliver Sears Gallery is a contrasting take on ground he covered in 2001 in his Naming the Fields exhibition at the Rubicon Gallery.  The current paintings are lighter and brighter in tone, although Moonlight Marine is an exquisite exception.  They reflect O'Donoghue's  observation that "more recently my focus has shifted to colour".  Also, there's not a figure in sight unless you count the occasional dark intrusion of a raven.  The title of the show, Gort Rua, is a reference both to the intense red fields in the paintings and to the vivid nature of memory itself.  But this doesn't look like Tir na nOg.  The fields seem somewhat ominous - especially those shadowed by the presence of the looming raven.  "They are never carefree my paintings" he told me, but he doesn't see these birds as portents of doom.  For him the Fiachra or raven is an emblem of the subconscious and the bird’s flight represents the imaginative journey of the individual.  The name is also a harking back to the ancient tribe that occupied the area.  A disused cottage is the only indication of habitation in these works.  This building recalls his mother's home and the adjacent hay barn.  But the paintings are not aiming to recreate topographical landscapes but rather to recapture childhood memories.  "I remembered Erris as a mysterious and magical place as a child and this is what I wanted to convey in the paintings."