Monday, July 29, 2019

Back to the Curragh

I have been neglecting my live racing in recent times – being more inclined to live in the virtual world of the Racing Post website and the ITV racing channel. I was missing those encounters with the colourful and often deluded characters that abound at racecourses and of course the proximity of the glorious beasts. So an invitation to the privileged sanctum of the Ballydoyle box, hosted by Aidan O’Brien, on Irish 1000 Guineas days was impossible to refuse.

We were a little early so decided to take a detour to the Curragh Camp where I lived until I was nine years old. Since my last visit access by car to much of the town has been restricted but there seemed no problem parking and walking around. After all the notice “military personnel only” hardly applied to me – a former NCO in the FCA and the son of a distinguished officer. I’m clearly not an ordinary “civy”.We checked out our old house, a large red-brick building called McDermot House. The only home I’ve ever lived in that boasted two staircases - one for the servants (Ok the orderly then) and one for the master and his family. It had changed. Parking lines around the house gave the first indication and the sign on the wall “HQ Support Unit” confirmed that it was no longer someone’s home. Apart from stragglers leaving a nearby church after mass, and a few figures jogging on the Curragh plains, the place was eerily deserted. I did not see a single figure in uniform. I know army numbers are down and morale is low but it was still sad to see this once thriving hub of military activity so desolate and deserted. I checked out the tall fire-station where my father had held me over the parapet (a la Michael Jackson) all the better to see the cars racing around the Curragh track that once held major motor races. I also saw the deserted shop outside which my sister Berna’s pram took off on an unplanned journey down the steep hill. I couldn’t find my old school – maybe it’s been demolished and these days the kids go off to Kildare.

On to the Curragh and its splendid new stand. Even though it was a pleasant enough day, the crowds seemed disappointingly small. Our Taoiseach was there for the official opening and he towered over the jockeys in the parade ring - a lot he knows about horses but nice to see him get away from his Kylie side. The Aga Khan was there also.  The new stand is named after him for reasons I am unaware of – perhaps just for his long service and patronage of Irish racing. He always seemed like a decent cove – lacking the haughtiness and froideur of some of the Arab owners. We were led by our sponsors up to the Ballydoyle box. It consisted of two round tables which could accommodate around 16 people. There were a few owners , a sprinkling of the extended O’Brien family, and the great man himself along with his son Joseph, and Pat Smullen who’s married to another Crowley girl . He was extremely attentive  – notwithstanding the fact that he had runners in most races and the favourite (Hermosa) for the 1,000 Guineas. He made sure we were looked after for food and drink and chatted away in the most amiable fashion. At one point he excused himself from our company saying apologetically “I must go and tack up for the next race.” He duly won the big race and his wife Anne-Marie Crowley insisted that we join them in the winner’s enclosure along with the might of Coolmore – John Magnier and his entourage. A treat indeed for a racing fan. Afterwards we all came back for more tea – no sign of champagne or any riotous celebrations despite a win that had enormous financial consequences. In addition to the  substantial prize-money a filly who wins a classic is a valuable stud option. I suppose Ballydoyle and Coolmore do it so often that it’s seen as business as usual. And of course O’Brien famously doesn’t drink. There was plenty of wine there but it seemed no one was interested (except me – but I don’t like drinking alone).

The most memorable thing about the whole encounter was how genuinely self-effacing and modest O’Brien is. And he has plenty of cause not to be so. He could be considered our greatest racehorse trainer ever, with the possible exception of his namesake Vincent. He’s been much more successful internationally than Vincent but the latter operated in an era where travel wasn’t as stream-lined. And of course Vincent proved his versatility at Cheltenham and Aintree as well as the Curragh and Epsom. In later years Vincent developed a certain hauteur which Aidan certainly doesn’t possess. Those who know him speak of his work-ethic and his genuine love of horses – the attendant stuff is to him an irrelevance.

Life above Everything: Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats

A lightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14 July 2019.

Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats never met although Freud claimed to have caught sight of the aging artist near Stephen’s Green in the early Fifties. He was certainly familiar with his work as he once asserted that “Jack B. Yeats is Irish art.” Also, he kept a drawing by Yeats, Dancing Stevedores, next to his bed for over 20 years – a location that ensured it was widely viewed. Freud visited Ireland a number of times between 1948 and 1956 usually with a woman or because he was pursuing one. (One of the latter was Lady Caroline Blackwood, a cousin of Garech Browne, who one suspects he wished he’d never caught.) The artists’ works crossed paths only once during Yeats’s lifetime - in the the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, London. This was the unlikely venue for Forty Years of Modern Art, the inaugural exhibition of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1948. The young Freud had a small, pastel self-portrait in the show and Yeats had a large oil called A Farewell to Mayo. The latter piece belonging to the star-crossed Vivien Leigh, a gift from Laurence Olivier.

Notwithstanding these somewhat tenuous connections, the Freud Project at IMMA enlists Jack B. Yeats to the cause in the exhibition Life Above Everything: Lucian Freud and Jack B. Yeats. The initial stimulus came from co-curator David Dawson who drew the other co-curator Christina Kennedy’s (IMMA’s head of collections) attention to Freud’s admiration for Yeats. Dawson was Freud’s studio assistant, model, friend and general factotum for the last twenty years of the artist’s life – so he should know. (Freud’s very last painting, Portrait of a Hound, features a naked Dawson and his whippet Eli.) Whatever about its slightly flakey raison d’etre, the exhibition is a delight and affords us the privilege of viewing a large number of outstanding paintings by these two great maverick figures of 20th Century art. And the curators have done an excellent job in creatively exploring the many affinities that can be found, especially in subject matter, when you look across their respective oeuvres. An interesting side show is the fact that seven of the works by Yeats in the exhibition were selected by Freud at various auctions for a friend who was a collector.

Both artists were figurative painters at times when representation was passé.The exhibition hangs together by exploring certain figurative themes and subjects they had in common. These include self-portraits, double portraits, figures in landscape, windows, and horses. Freud scores heavily in the self-portrait department. The Yeats work is a stilted graphite image of the young artist posing by an easel. Nothing is being given away here. In contrast we get two wildly varying self-portraits by Freud. One in his early flatter style shows an idealised portrait of a handsome and rather cruel looking young man. The other, Reflection 1985, painted in thick impasto depicts a sinister and energetic Freud – right out of Dorian Grey’s attic. The two artists intersect most obviously in their love of animals – especially horses. It’s interesting to see that of the seven Yeats paintings selected by Freud at auction, four of them feature horses. The Flapping Meeting would certainly have resonated with him. Freud might have viewed human flesh with a jaundiced eye but when it came to animals his affection shines through. Look at the loving portrayal of the sleeping whippet in Double Portrait, its paw draped over the girl’s arm. There are two paintings of horses by Freud in the show, although one (Skewbald Mare) seems more an exercise in tonal contrasts than the study of a horse. He painted dogs more frequently probably because he could work with them in his studio – Freud was a very studio-bound artist. He had a fraught relationship with horses in other ways - going through through vast amounts of money feeding a largely unsuccessful gambling habit. Yeats grew up amongst horses on his uncle George Pollexfen’s property in Sligo. They featured in his work throughout his career and the exhibition shows the transformation that took place in how he represented them as he moved from his illustrative style to the looser and expressive style of his later career. His early horses are seen going about their workaday business, hauling goods, transporting passengers, or at the races. In later years they become less prosaic and are transformed into symbols of freedom - manifestations of spirit and energy. Compare the working horses in The Ballina Car with the magical, mystical creature in On the Way to the Sea. The exhibition contains many fine examples of Yeats’s treatment of horses  and it allows us to test Frank Auerbach’s claim that “Yeats’s are the best paintings of horses ever made.”

If one were to find fault with what overall is an immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition it would be at the inordinate number of grim-faced Irishmen on display. Presumably these were included to emphasize Freud’s love for Ireland and all things Irish. Many, such as Two Brothers from Ulster, seem stricken by what can best be described as sitter’s ennui. Freud labored long and painstakingly over his work and a sitter without a rich inner life may have struggled not to look pissed off. Man in Silver Suit is another example, or the miserable duo in Two Irishmen in W11. Although the latter work is redeemed by the view of Freud’s hinterland in West London from the large window. There are two portraits of Donegal Man in the show, probably one too many. This is no ordinary Donegal man but the high-profile property developer Pat Doherty, a man not unknown to NAMA. He runs Harcourt Development and was responsible for the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. Doherty paid £4.5 million for the two paintings. A painting of Doherty’s friend Andrew Parker Bowles (a director of Harcourt Development) by Freud fetched €28 million in 2014, so this is one piece of speculation that the property tycoon need not regret. While Freud’s later portraits are all-too-human, slabs of flesh, Yeats goes more for character and expression. Compare Freud’s Irishmen with two works by Yeats in the basement area of the gallery. The Rogue shows a young man lounging luxuriously in a bar, a pint of stout beside him and an expression that shouts out “untrustworthy”. Useful shows a boxer sitting in his corner and his expression tells us he’s clearly in command of the fight.

The title of the exhibition comes from a letter to Yeats from Walter Sickert in which he described Yeats’s practice as pursuing “life above everything”. He roamed the country with his ever-present sketchbooks drawing inspiration from all around him and preserving what he saw in watercolours, notes and drawings.  He depicts people and animals in the midst of life – in action. Freud in contrast paints arrested life. There is also a costive, enclosed, feel to a lot of his paintings. He admitted as much describing his work as  “purely autobiographical – it is about myself and my surroundings”. This difference is made explicit in Dead Cock’s Head and in his superb death-like Portrait of his Mother Sleeping. Contrast these cruel almost lepidopterous works with the joy and energy in Yeats’ truly wonderful painting Left, Left, We Left Our Name on the Road. Get up to IMMA and see for yourself.

John P. O’Sullivan
July 2019