Conor O' Connell
Top 5 artists that inspire me: 3. Paul Henry (1876-1958)
It was definitely about time that I included a landscape painter in this series- if you have looked at my art it will be obvious that I hold a deep affliction for nature and the landscape. I am enthralled especially by remote, mountainous, rocky areas which often show in my art, and I am lucky enough to live relatively near to beautiful places such as Connemara and the Mayo coast. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that number three on the list is probably the most famous Irish painter of all time, Paul Henry.
Irish readers will definitely be familiar with that name, and quite rightly I might add. There is no getting away from his paintings in this country even 60 years after his death.
As always, I won't bore you with a biography, apart from the fact that Paul Henry was born in Belfast. Having spent a time studying art in Paris and subsequently working in London, where he gained a moderate acclaim for his illustrative works, the turning point in both Henry's professional and personal life came when he visited the island of Achill on the Mayo coast for a short holiday with his wife. The Paul Henry we all know was born there and then, ultimately remaining there to live and work for several years. He romantically describes in his memoir, An Irish Portrait, how, seeing the stark beauty of the landscape and the traditional, simple life of those who lived there, he took his return ticket to London out of his pocket, tore it up, and threw it into the sea. My respects to him- if that had been me I'm afraid I would have been diving in there after it after that initial burst of passion!
I had hoped at this point to include a picture or two of Henry's early charcoal drawings from his time in London. However after a brief internet search I was unable to come across any, and it's 1.30 am so couldn't really be bothered wasting half the night looking for one. I did, rather incorrectly, describe Henry as a 'landscape painter' at the start of this post; yes he has become primarily known as that, but he also showed an extraordinary ability with figurative work, especially in charcoal. I consider some of the drawings of theatrical performances he made in London to be among his best works in this area. Below are two of his most famous oil figuratives - The Potato Diggers and Launching the Curragh, both painted in Achill.
Like the work of any great landscape artist, Henry's landscape art simply enchants the viewer. His trademark billowing clouds soar upwards like classical columns, which lead the eye down towards blue and purple mountains standing boldly and proudly against the sky. Below it, a bog or lake rests often only in the bottom quarter of the canvas, but contrasting heavily with the cool colours of the rest of the piece. They can only have been painted by someone who lived and breathed the place, and Paul Henry did just that, declaring that in order to paint 'the country which I had adopted' (or something to that effect), he had to live there and immerse himself in the culture and ways of the islanders. There wasn't enough hours in the day to sketch and paint what he saw in every direction. His bold, unflinching use of colour shows a deep understanding of the area, and in my opinion no other painter comes close to capturing the unique atmosphere and aura that only exists in places like the west of Ireland. It's a simply magical and enchanting area. Just take a look at Dawn, Killary Harbour, and tell me you don't feel exactly as if you're in the artist's shoes, staring in awe at the magical vista below you very early on a summer's morning.
Semi-influenced by the Impressionist movement, Henry was a watershed in Irish painting, whom the public didn't warm to in the beginning. Before him, Ireland, especially the West, was largely overlooked in art, and most 18th and 19th century Irish landscapes looked exactly like scenes of Italy or other places on the Continent. See the painting below by William Ashford to see what I mean.
Henry's bold, confident brushstrokes only describe, in vivid colour, what needs to be in the picture. Looking at a painting up close you can see how quick he worked, and he was better for it. His paintings make me want to take out a box of oil paints and completely 'have at it'! Of course, an effort by me wouldn't even come close. Despite the different tastes of many I know, I completely adore the Irish landscape, be it towering mountains in Connemara or equally a simple weather- beaten hawthorn by a stone wall. It's one thing just to draw them, but injecting that all-important atmosphere is a completely different ball- game, and something that 99% of artists often fail to do. In short: It's one thing to paint what you see, but to simultaneously paint what you feel is very difficult. Henry, with thick, creamy oil paint and swift economical brushstrokes, could do it in minutes. You feel you can step through the frame into the windy bogs of Connemara and Achill, you can feel what he felt painting the picture. I have not come across too many artists like that.
Below I'll leave you with a few paintings from Henry's later years- the '30s and '40s is when he fully matured as a painter and in my opinion his paintings from this era are among his finest. He did see much success in his later years especially, his work being seen by huge audiences when it was used for posters for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. He was also commissioned by notable public figures for portraits, usually masterfully executing these in charcoal. An example is W.T Cosgrave, the first Taoiseach of Ireland. Unfortunately, Henry unwittingly became somewhat embroiled in the politics of the times- he was in many respects the painter of the fledgling Free State, becoming the 'poster boy' for de Valera's 'dancing at the crossroads' vision of Ireland. This led to Henry's work becoming somewhat frowned upon, and he became known almost as a 'chocolate box' type painter for a while, due to the many paintings of thatched cottages and mountains he produced to satisfy demand. This notion could not be further from the truth and is simply dismissive of his skill and ability as an artist. Thankfully, this has once again become hugely recognised, and his art has grown once again in popularity in the last 30-40 years. It stands among the greatest this island has ever produced.