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After Paul Henry exhibition at Ballymaloe

Barnynagappul Strand, Achill by Gentian Lulanaj, oil on board, 38x25cm.
Barnynagappul Strand, Achill by Gentian Lulanaj, oil on board, 38x25cm.

AFTER PAUL HENRY

Ballymaloe Grainstore, Shanagarry, Co. Cork, Ireland

Sat 19 Jul – Sat 8 Aug 2015

Exhibition Opening Hours 10am-5pm Mon-Sat, Closed Sun.

Official opening by Peter Murray, Director of the Crawford Art Gallery on Sat 18 July at 6pm

After Paul Henry is a collaborative project by archaeologist and photographer Brian Mac Domhnaill and painters Gentian Lulanaj and Paul McKenna.

Coach (€5 return) departs St. Patricks Quay, Cork City 5.30pm. Departs Ballymaloe at 8pm. To book a place email Brian at b_mac_domhnaill@hotmail.com.

Arteology

A flat-roofed house in Dookinella (Digital Photograph: Brian Mac Domhnaill, June 2014)
A flat-roofed house in Dookinella (Digital Photograph: Brian Mac Domhnaill, June 2014)

When I was initially invited by my two friends Paul and Gentian to start this project, it was as a photographer, archaeologist and project manager. At first I didn’t know how it would all work out but it sounded like a fun challenge. One of my first tasks was coming up with a name. Our shared goal was to learn more about Paul Henry and his chosen locations. The resulting body of work comprising paintings and drawings by Gentian and Paul and my photographs would not necessarily be in imitation of the style of the artist therefore requiring the art world label ‘After Paul Henry’, but there would be a connection in terms of subject matter, motivation and location. So I felt that as a project title ‘After Paul Henry’ suitably reflected our geographical retracing of the artist’s footsteps and the reflective nature of our research.

Although I am not a painter like my two APH colleagues and our esteemed subject I have a huge appreciation of the medium and its possibilities, as a means of expression but also as a recording tool. Paul Henry had a style of painting that was very aesthetically pleasing but in my opinion his most successful paintings are those in which his enthusiasm for the subject is tangible. It is as if he delights in his compositions, the colour palette, the application of the paint and his role as a tour guide of sorts.

I naturally took up an administrative and documentary role on our trips photographing with a very broad brush and keeping our fans up to date on Facebook. Now that we have an exhibition looming I feel a certain amount of pressure to look at my own contribution to the project in terms of creative output, or maybe not. Having completed an MA in Art & Process at the CIT Crawford College of Art & Design I find myself working on a number of projects that sit very comfortably in an interdisciplinary space between contemporary art and heritage, a specialism that Paul has dubbed ‘arteology’. With all this in mind my part in our first After Paul Henry group exhibition may not be exclusively photographic, there may also be elements that are derivative of the research and documentation processes.

It is difficult for us not to behave like tourists whilst on Achill because that is what we are. Paul Henry earned the right to be more than a blow-in and in doing so he could focus on his surroundings with greater concentration. In amongst our somewhat frantic and urgent explorations and interactions I did find a few items of particular interest, which I will expand on further in future posts. I was particularly taken with the flat roofs of Dookinella that were built using shuttered concrete, probably in the 1950s or 1960s. The result is a village with numerous examples of hacienda or villa style houses and bunker-like outbuildings, some with sloping roofs and ventilation holes near the eaves. Since the beginning of the project I have had an interest is the work of Grace Henry, more specifically her paintings by moonlight. I made some relatively unsuccessful experiments with digital photography one night in Keel. My next attempt will be with medium format film and this time I’ll try harder to resist the lure of the pub. I am also excited at the prospect of new adventures in Connemara where I expect I will be in search of leaning, weather-beaten trees.

Brian, April 2015

It was no laughing matter for the sheep. Paul and Gentian having the craic at the deserted village on Slievemore in 2013 (Digital Photograph: Brian Mac Domhnaill, July 2013).
It was no laughing matter for the sheep. Paul and Gentian having the craic at the deserted village on Slievemore in 2013 (Digital Photograph: Brian Mac Domhnaill, July 2013).

Marine debris: concern and inspiration

Winds of Progress - Paul McKenna, Acrylic on canvas, 70x80cm.
Winds of Progress – Paul McKenna 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 70x80cm.

Having lived abroad for many years and worked primarily on urban landscapes, this project allowed me to bring my painting practice into a rural Irish setting. I have been a fan of Paul Henry’s work since I first saw his paintings in school. I love his use of colour, which is very much influenced by post impressionist painting, and the romantic view of Irish life that is synonymous with his work. Our initial visit to Achill was a broad survey of the island with some targeted efforts to find and photograph some of the exact scenes he painted. My particular focus was on modern life on the Island and how it sits along side the remaining relics of Paul Henry’s time. After reading Paul Henry’s Biography I was intrigued by how he felt he had to capture a time in Ireland that was fast disappearing. This is one reason why his artistic legacy is so important.

So what does remain the same? Well, the natural landscape for one although there are some introduced plant species such as mombrisha and fuchsia. There are some remnants of traditional practices such as turf cutting and fishing but overall there has been a move towards modern living as would be expected. Over time the inhabitants of Achill became increasingly dependent on off-island resources and this continues to be the case today. There are a dwindling number of old stone houses although there are others that survive as sheds adjacent to more contemporary buildings. The island still retains its charm due to its scenery and the ever-shifting light.

The results of my first couple of visits were mostly paintings in which I began to capture the contemporary landscape but then an unlikely new subject matter presented itself last June whilst walking on the beach in Dookinella. The winter storms in 2014 had caused great destruction to the coast, eroding the beaches and washing up huge amounts of marine debris onto our shores, a reminder ­­from nature of the human impact on the environment. And so my new work for our exhibition in July is based on weathered and worn plastic objects that I collected from the beach. The aesthetic of the objects is far removed from nature yet reformed by it. The plastic, sometimes in colour shades reminiscent of a Paul Henry painting, seems to have a beauty all of its own. I believe a landscape painter is challenged by nature in many different ways, a constantly changing atmosphere being the most illusive element for the artist to capture. My work focuses on a by-product of that ‘change’. I am not finished with the landscape itself by any means but for this exhibition I want to focus on this particular subject.

Paul, April 2015

Preparatory drawing for acrylic work on canvas. Paul McKenna 2015.
Preparatory drawing for acrylic work on canvas. Paul McKenna 2015.

Discovering the West with Paul Henry and friends

achill 3-2
Near Dugort, Gentian Lulani 2015, Oli on board, 10 x 15 Inches.

When I first visited the National Gallery of Ireland in 2000 I was immediately captivated by the work of Paul Henry. For me art is very connected with history, and in the case of this artist, there was a personal and professional history that was of great interest to me. When Brian, Paul and I first started talking about Paul Henry, we felt that more could be learned about him outside of the gallery and books, in the landscape that he painted. So we set out to follow in his footsteps making out first trip to Achill in 2013 and returning again in 2014, and as it was my first time there it was a great personal discovery. It is a beautiful natural landscape so I could see why Henry found it hard to leave. I was also very interested to see how much of the architecture was left. Buildings from his time are quite rare now, especially the cottages that feature in so many of his paintings. On the way back from our last trip I also had my first glimpses of Connemara via Killary Harbour and I look forward to returning very soon.

For me this project provides a different kind of opportunity to learn from a Master like Paul Henry, by visiting new places and having direct experience of the landscape and conditions that he was responding too. It provides a new perspective when looking at his work. It is a very interesting project and I am happy that I can share the experience with two friends. Our first exhibition together in July will be another learning experience but it will not be the end of our journey. We have so much more to learn about Paul Henry and his experience of the Irish landscape and country life.

Gentian, April 2015

Up in Smoke

Local sources in Achill Sound have told us a story about a galvanised lean-to shed that was once located on the site of the library. The shed, which was attached to Coynes sweet shop, was apparently rented by an artist and used as a workshop/studio. Martin Coyne, a retired guard, reputedly cleared out the shed after the artist’s departure and found a lot of sketches books, drawings, unfinished paintings, an easel and paint brushes. Unfortunately he took this material down to the across the road and set fire to it.

There is some confusion as to the identity of the artist. We were told the story because it was believed to be associated with Paul Henry, but there is a strong possibility that the shed was actually used by Alexander Williams RHA (1846-1930), who is known to have lived nearby at Bleanaskill Bay.  The source for the story referred to the artist as ‘the sketcher’, a nickname that was possibly used for both Williams and Henry, hence the confusion.

The former location of a lean-to shed in Achill Sound used by Paul Henry.
The former location of a lean-to shed in Achill Sound used by Alexander Williams RHA.

It is unlikely that Henry would choose to spend money on a second rented premises on the island given his well known financial situation. He frequently paid Sweeney’s shop (Achill Sound) in kind with paintings, but all of these also went up in smoke in a fire at the premises in 1926.

John Sweeney at the site where Martin Coyne reputedly burned sketchbooks, drawings and unfinished paintings left behind by Alexander Williams RHA.

Henri and Henry

Although Paul Henry was an accomplished portrait artist he usually only worked on commissions. He was clearly very engaged with the local community during his time on Achill but he found it difficult to get anyone to pose for him. This is was partly due to an uneasiness with having their image taken, but it also transpires that there was an economical reason. Paul Henry couldn’t afford to pay his sitters.  However money was not a problem for the American artist Robert Henri, who painted a multitude of portraits on the island. His sitters were primarily children, many of whom are still alive and living in the UK and America. Henri also painted some of Paul Henry’s friends including Brian O’Malley (1840s-1914). One cant help but wonder about Henry’s reaction having returned to Achill from a stay in Connemara in 1913 to hear of Henri’s blitz of portrait painting and the mini-economic boom it created for the local people he admired so much. Henri rented and eventually bought the house that Henry had been offered but couldn’t afford. To add insult to injury Henri and his wife only used Corrymore House in the summer. An exhibition of prints of Henri’s island portraits is currently being shown at Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil Acla. The project was the brainchild of Tommy ‘The Boley’ McNamara, the grandson of John McNamara, with whom Paul Henry used to fish on the lakes or trawl at sea from a curragh.

APH getting a tour of the Robert Henri exhibition with Tommy ‘The Boley’ McNamara, at Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil AclaComhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil Acla.
APH getting a tour of the Robert Henri exhibition with Tommy ‘The Boley’ McNamara, at Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil Acla.

Tommy did a lot of work finding the Henri island portraits in collections across America and negotiating copies for his exhibition on Achill. One of his childhood friends features in the exhibition as does the grandmother of a girl working at the centre. There is no doubt that Henri’s paintings are an invaluable record of the faces of Achill at the time. Apparently Henri was known to complete the portraits in half an hour, yet hey are very well executed.  We were delighted to get a personal tour of the exhibition by Tommy, a pillar of the community and a true gentleman.

Bogs

Approximately 87% of Achill Island is peat bog.  On our first trip to the island in 2013 we paid a visit to the peat cuttings at Tonatanvally, which lie on the eastern boundary of Doogort East Bog, a natural heritage area.

Bog cotton at Tonatanvally, 2013.
Bog cotton at Tonatanvally, 2013.

The road that runs north to south through Tonatanvally rises and falls with the undulating ground surface, as if the tarmac has been rolled our across the bog like a rug. Occasionally there is a short stretch of track to the left or right, just enough distance for people to park a car and load up their turf. Turbary or the right of private individuals to cut turf for domestic use has been carried on for centuries in rural Ireland but it is now being phased out and not without controversy and protest. The annual turf harvest is a family occasion and it is a common sight to see a couple of cars pulled up and two or three generations cutting, stacking or bagging the small rectangular bars of peat.  A picnic with a flask of tea completes the ritual.

Gentian and Paul taking photographs at Tonatanvally in 2013.
Gentian and Paul taking photographs at Tonatanvally in 2013.

Large stacks of harvested turf featured in many of Paul Henry’s paintings. When we visited Tonatanvally the peat was stacked in little tepee formations or it had already been put in silage or animal feed bags, which were in turn stacked in an ad hoc fashion.  These stacks of colourful plastic sacks stood out in stark contrast with their surroundings, not at all like the harmonious palette of hues and textures observed by Paul Henry. The new form of bagged turf stack is clearly becoming a norm. It provides a new motif for an artist.

Bags of turf at Tonatanvally in 2013.
Bags of turf at Tonatanvally in 2013.

In addition to the stacked and bagged turf, the cuttings offer further interest both in plan and section. A considerable physical and chronological depth is exposed in the face of the cuttings. Each individually owned plot is marked out by a fence, wooden pegs or by long established cuttings. There is occasional mechanical wreckage from harvesting apparatus, long since rusted and overgrown. The most noticeable vegetation during our visit was bog cotton. It produced a beautiful visual effect as it danced in the wind. We will hopefully get to return to some bog locations on our 2014 visit.

Machine parts at Tonatanvally in 2013.
Machine parts at Tonatanvally in 2013.

Keel

When Paul and Grace Henry first on Achill in 1910, they turned their nose up at touristy Dugort and moved on to Keel which was the quieter of the two villages in those days. Paul famously tore up his return railway ticket and scattered the fragments into the sea. They convinced John and Eliza Barrett to provide them with lodgings at the post office in Keel. They had little money and survived largely on credit but the decision was made to sacrifice their relatively comfortable life in London in favour of life on Achill.

Keel Village, Ordnance Survey of Ireland 25” Map, 1899 (osi.ie).
Keel Village, Ordnance Survey of Ireland 25” Map, 1899 (osi.ie).

“Paul [Henry] described Keel as the most gregarious of villages, perhaps about fifty houses in all, huddled close together as if for warmth and companionship, devoid of all plan” (Kennedy, S.B., 2007, p.32). Using the Ordnance Survey of Ireland free public map viewer it is possible to look at the village in plan in 1899. From this we can get a good idea of how the village would have been laid out when the Henrys arrived 11 years later.

A rare example of a historic building in Keel.
A rare example of a historic building in Keel.

When we first explored Keel in 2013 we found that there were not many 19th or early 20th century buildings left standing in the village and those that did remain were concealed within modernisations, used as storage sheds or in ruins.  It was a pleasant surprise to see at least four uninhabited houses reasonably well maintained. It seems some people like to keep the old family home for both practical and sentimental reasons, but choose to build a new house in the vicinity.

Postcard photograph in Valentine's series (no. 62912) titled
Postcard photograph in Valentine’s series (no. 62912) titled “Keel Village (Beehive House), Achill Island. No date (Mayo County Library)

The site of the Amethyst Hotel was of great interest to the APH team as it was here that Paul and Grace Henry first lived on Achill.  A blue plaque on the wall outside records that “Paul Henry (1876-1958), Irish artist lived and worked here and at other locations in Achill 1910-1919”.

The Amethyst hotel, Keel, Achill in 2013.
The Amethyst hotel, Keel, Achill in 2013.

Unfortunately the building has been vacant for c. 27 years and has fallen into disrepair. There are plans for the building to be demolished to make way for a new development. Within the heavily vandalised remains of the interior the APH team found some 1970s fliers for the hotel and a couple of 1965 tourist maps of the island. We were also amused to find that the hotel vinyl collection included Classic Tranquility by Phil Coulter, an LP that has a Paul Henry painting as its cover image.

Postcard photograph of the Amethyst hotel, Keel, Achill. Photo by Charles McGill, Ardara, Co. Donegal. No. 95 (Mayo County Library)
Postcard photograph of the Amethyst hotel, Keel, Achill. Photo by Charles McGill, Ardara, Co. Donegal. No. 95 (Mayo County Library)

Bibliography Kennedy, S.B., Paul Henry: With a catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007.

A collaborative project by archaeologist and photographer Brian Mac Domhnaill and painters Gentian Lulanaj and Paul Mc Kenna.