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