Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Montague Goes Back to UCC

Head Librarian of UCC John Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Wassell

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Irish Examiner on 29 November 2017.
A portrait of the poet John Montague by Northern artist Colin Davidson was unveiled in the UCC library on Wednesday 29 November in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Cork, the President of UCC and the CEO of Cork County Council. This is an account of how the painting of one of UCC’s best-loved and most influential English lecturers came about and how it ended up in its ideal location.

In April 2014 I drove to Bangor, Co. Down to interview the artist Colin Davidson for a profile I was writing for the Sunday Times. Colin has been in the news recently for a portrait of Queen Elizabeth and for his painting of Angela Merkel that appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s person of the year edition. At that stage, three years ago, Davidson was best-known for his portraits of the North's leading literary lights: Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, and Michael Longley amongst others. Having lunch with Davidson after the interview I asked why he had omitted the Tyrone-bred John Montague from his pantheon of painted poets. I had been an admirer and acquaintance of the poet since I first encountered him in UCC in the early Seventies. I remember him bringing a sexual dimension to Wordsworth's poetry that caused some fluttering in the dovecotes - especially in the serried ranks of nuns that filled the first two rows in the lecture hall. Montague found Wordsworth's Nutting a particularly juicy source of speculation. 

Through beds of matted fern, and tangled thickets,
Forcing my way, I came to one dear nook

More significantly, Montague was generous with his leisure time and often held court in Henchey’s pub in St. Luke’s. He inspired and encouraged a number of aspirant young poets including Thomas McCarthy, Sean Dunne, William Wall, Maurice Riordan and Theo Dorgan.

Davidson said he’d love to paint him but had difficulty getting hold of him as he was mostly out of the country. I offered to see what I could do to enable a sitting. Given Montague's age it was agreed that it should be sooner rather than later. He had been living in Nice for a number of years but I knew he returned every summer to his house in Ballydehob. I got his phone number and email address from Theo Dorgan and sent off a speculative email. A number of calls and emails ensued. Apart from a very brief word with Montague all of the dialogue was conducted with Elizabeth Wassell - his formidably protective third wife. There was a window of opportunity in late August 2014 when they were in Schull. The draughty house in Ballydehob had apparently been abandoned for the comforts of a hotel. 

Before the appointed day for the sitting I got a chance to see the great man in action one more time. An old UCC sparring partner, Eamon O'Donoghue, arranged to bring the poet over from his French base to do a reading during the Claregalway Garden Festival in July 2014. The bold Doctor O'Donoghue had bought and heroically refurbished an old Norman castle in the town and this was the venue for the reading. I met Montague beforehand. He was having a glass of white wine and some cheese in an anteroom. He looked frail but still retained that roguish twinkle. He's never been the greatest of readers, his mild stutter often intruding, so I was a bit apprehensive about how he might perform. It seemed good that he was taking the precaution of having a few glasses of wine beforehand for fortification purposes. I needn't have worried. Inspired perhaps by a very large audience, or the wine he continued to drink, he gave a fine robust reading - even cracking the odd joke. The last I saw of him was with his diminutive wife and the estimable poet Mary O'Malley who were supporting him on either side as they led him to the car that would take back to his Galway hotel.

A couple of months later, in August 2014, the portrait sitting happened in Grove House in Schull. Davidson was granted an hour during which he took photographs and did a number of preparatory sketches. The sitting went well according to the artist. Apparently the two Northern boys found common cause in their speech impediments - Davidson also has a mild and not unattractive stammer. I looked forward to seeing the end result. One dud note was sounded by Davidson about the encounter. Apparently Montague’s wife had insisted on sitting in - thereby inhibiting somewhat the rapport Davidson likes to build with his sitter. 

Following the completion of the portrait, Davidson invited me up to Bangor to check out the finished article. My daughter, who accompanied me, was well impressed with the portraits  of Ed Sheeran and Brad Pitt that lay about the studio. There amidst them on a easel was the painting of Montague. Colin who had only met him that once was eager to hear conformation that he had done him justice. His fears were groundless. He had captured perfectly that sardonic Montague expression and the inevitable twinkle in the eye. I was delighted with it and so subsequently, and more significantly, were Montague and his wife. Now the next job was to get somebody to buy it for UCC which seemed its ideal home.

I called to see the director of the Glucksman Fiona Kearney early in 2015. She said she would love to house it in the permanent collection but didn’t have the acquisitions budget to buy it. Not discouraged I decided to seek out a private individual to donate it to the college. Ideally it would be a UCC alumni who liked art and poetry and who recognised Montague’s contribution to the institution. I went first to the wealthiest member of my extended family who had studied at UCC, as had generations of his family before him. He told me, with regret, that he had been active lately in the property market and couldn’t help because of his “unimpressive liquidity”. I also drew a blank amongst my old CBC buddies who listened patiently but baulked at the asking price which seemed to confirm their feeling that art was a conspiracy against the laity. Time went by and sadly Montague died in December 2016 without seeing the work appropriately housed. However, at the funeral of a relation of mine in Wilton in early 2017 I ran into solicitor and art lover Michael O’Connell who suggested I contact Gerry Wrixon - former president of UCC. He apparently had been a friend and admirer of Montague’s. I also knew, from my time in Cork, that he was an avid art collector. I sent him a detailed email - enclosing an image of the piece. He responded quickly and generously and the deed was done. So now three years on, all legendary obstacles overcome, Montague’s sardonic smile and twinkling eye will be gazing benignly on the toiling undergraduates of the institution he graced for many years