Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Portrait of the 'Sketcher'

PAUL Henry was an exceptional artist. He was something of a pioneer in the world of early twentieth century painting.

PAUL Henry was an exceptional artist. He was something of a pioneer in the world of early twentieth century painting.

From an early age this son of a Baptist family - his father was minister of Gt Victoria St Church - wanted to be an artist.

While attending Royal Belfast Academical Institution at the age of 15 he decided to be one.

For the rest of his life, apart from a short period as an apprentice designer in the Broadway Damask Co, until his death in 1958 painting was his forte.

Studies at the Academie Juilian in Paris, where Countess Markevicz was a fellow student, gave him an insight into life much different to that he had known in Belfast.

In fact, the childhood he experienced led him in later years to recall the home atmosphere as being 'restrictive.'Brian Kennedy in his 'Paul Henry', ( Yale University Press, price £30), has produced what must be the most definitive study yet of the Belfast artist.

In what has to be a labour of love, Dr Kennedy has revealed in full the life of an artist who will be remembered and appreciated for a long, long time.

He has given us the Henry, who is well recognised for his West of Ireland Achill landscapes, with their weak blue mountains and thatched seaside cottages.

Away from Achill, which must to Henry have been his Damacene conversion, there were lives before the idyllic island sojourn.

Dr Kennedy says Henry's quintessential views of the Irish scene are now as universally familiar as Cezanne's views of Provence or Constable's representations of Suffolk.

"Henry stands alone as the most influential landscapist to work in Ireland in the twentieth century," states Kennedy.

Some may disagree but I've a feeling they would be in the minority.

The ardour with which Henry's works are now pursued at Sotheby's , Christies, Adams and other auction houses also bears testimony to the current popularity of the artist and his efforts.

Kennedy, in a highly informative narrative, takes us along with Henry from Victorian Belfast to Paris, then on to London, over to Achill and finally to DublinVividly he brings to life the atmospheres of Henry's various 'resting' places.

We sit with him as he studies under Whistler in Paris, encounter him with his great friend Robert Lynd, the journalist/writer in London, and wander with him around Achill, where he became known to the friendly islanders as 'the sketcher.'His time there must have been something of a 'homecoming' for an earlier ancestor, his maternal grandfather, the Rev Thomas Berry had preached the gospel on behalf of the Irish Baptist Society to the islanders in the mid 1830s.

Achill, its people and its landscape, gave Henry much to draw on .

But, to his first wife Grace the place must have been quite inhospitable after her earlier comforts in London.

According to Kennedy, Grace's dislike of Achill may have accounted for their move to Dublin where Henry and his art encountered 'an uphill fight.'It did afford him the opportunity, however, to 'wear a silk hat without embarrassment ... and my black sombrero as I had done in Paris.'There was more to do in Dublin ... more involvement ... more people.

Exhibitions followed in Dublin and in Belfast.

And he was credited, quite rightly I'm sure, with having attracted thousands of British and American people to Ireland with his Connemara poster for the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company issued in 1925.

There were turbulent times too.

They culminated in the end of Henry's twenty-six years of marriage to Grace, whose works now enjoy much recognition.

It would seem though the twenty years or so he spent at Carrigoona Cottage, near Enniskerry in Wicklow, were the happiest.

Testimony to this is found in the fact that, when he died at his home in Bray on August 24, 1958, he was buried at St Patrick's Church, Enniskerry.

Near to where his brother Bob is buried and close to where he met Mabel Young , his second wife, thirty years earlier.

She too lies in St Patrick's churchyard, Enniskerry.

After all his travels and travails Paul Henry had come home.

Brian Kennedy recalls and records it all in a most educational, but by no means dry academic, read.

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