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.
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.