Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Drumkeeragh, the painting depicting the story of Penny McAllister and Susan Christie

Artist and songwriter James G Miles

Ulster artist and songwriter James G Miles (53) finds inspiration from the wild landscape around his Co Down home. News stories, including the infamous killing of Army wife Penny McAllister by Greenfinch Susan Christie, also inspire him. But, Deborah Dundas asks, is it right that art imitate the taking of life?

Ulster artist and songwriter James G Miles (53) finds inspiration from the wild landscape around his Co Down home. News stories, including the infamous killing of Army wife Penny McAllister by Greenfinch Susan Christie, also inspire him. But, Deborah Dundas asks, is it right that art imitate the taking of life?







A NOTORIOUS killing inspired Ulster artist James G Miles to paint a picture which now hangs in Switzerland. The painting, bought by an art lover in Zurich, was inspired by the death of Penny McAllister at the hands of her husband's jealous mistress, Susan Christie.

UDR Greenfinch Christie, who was then 24, lured Mrs McAllister to a forest outside Ballynahinch in March 1991.

Christie cut her victim's throat with a butcher's knife, nearly severing her head.

After a two-week trial, Christie was acquitted of murder, but found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. She served less than five years.

Penny's husband, Captain Duncan McAllister, later left the Army and co-operated in the production of a book and a TV film about the tragedy.

Artist Miles says he wrote a song, called Drumkeeragh, about the killing before painting the picture. He says both tell the story from the perspective of Christie and how she, in fact, not only stole another's life, but ruined her own.

"It was an unusual crime for this area and I was moved to write a song about it," says Miles. "The song contains a message of the tragedy, futility and consequences of cruelly stealing someone's life. It also tells how the perpetrator 'stole her own life' by her actions."

The painting shows two women walking on a beautiful woodland path. They look intimate and friendly, but the dark surroundings produce a sense of foreboding and doom.

But might not the subject matter be offensive to some people ... Mrs McAllister's parents, for example?

Says Miles: "My dilemma was to consider the balance between the risk of raking up the pain of the family ... or even the perpetrator.

"In the end, I felt we mustn't forget such crimes and I chose to go ahead with the project.

"I'm always sensitive to people's feelings, or try to be. At the same time, sometimes a story is also important. I think you have to strike a balance between sensitivity and telling the story."

The painting caught the eye of a Zurich buyer, who knew the story behind the painting. Explains Miles: "They saw the tragedy of the whole situation, and that inspired them to buy it."



But, sometimes, there is a more personal connection to Miles' paintings. A recent Australian visitor to Northern Ireland was researching her heritage and discovered the cottage her great grandmother, a Mrs Moore, had lived in. She asked Miles if he knew of the cottage.

"It was funny," he says, "because I had painted the same cottage a few years ago, as a commission from another woman from Australia, who was also related in some way to Mrs Moore. A picture of it was already hanging on a wall somewhere. This woman also asked me to paint one for her, and I'll be shipping it to her soon."

He is also inspired by landscape, particularly around where he lives, in Tyrella.

"If you're familiar with this area, you will know the prevailing wind comes from off the shore," he says. "Sometimes, when it's windy, if I throw a tissue in the air it will swirl round and round the yard never leaving."



Inspired

Miles, who is 53 and a partner to Diane, has been painting full time for the past five years. Before that, he was a civil servant.

He was inspired to take up his art full time after his father died: "I felt I wanted to make a change and was confident I could make a serious go of it.

"I'm an artist because of the influence of my father and because I feel good about creating good paintings. Whenever that is reinforced by very positive comments, or someone buying the painting, that is the best reward I could hope for."

Like anyone running a small business, Miles has to be painter, promoter, exhibitor, accountant and marketing executive all rolled into one.

He says it takes a while to carve out a niche, to build a reputation and to get galleries to agree to carry your art. It also means accepting commissions to paint things near and dear to clients' hearts.

He explains: "Through experience, and sometimes mistakes, you learn how to market yourself in the way that suits you best. For example, I work between a mixture of going through galleries, advertising in the local press, running my own exhibitions and taking commissions."

Miles' paintings sell for be tween £175 and £3,500 and he shows at galleries around Northern Ireland as well as at the Kenny Gallery in Co Galway.

His work graces collections all over the world, from Colombia and Australia to Holland and New Zealand.

Indeed, his growing fame is starting to make headlines - like the one that appeared here recently declaring that Tina Turner had bought his pictures ...

"It wasn't quite like that," he says with an impish smile. "But I'm glad they took it that way - it got me the publicity."

He reveals that he and his wife were having a drink at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin one night, when they began talking to a Swiss couple at the bar. It turned out that they owned a restaurant. After a nice conversation, and an exchange of numbers, they parted ways.

Two years later, the Swiss couple showed up on Miles' doorstep and stayed for a couple of days. They asked him if he'd stage a show at their Michelin-starred restaurant in an exclusive village on the outskirts of Zurich.

Miles agreed - and suggested it would be a good idea to stage a themed show on St Patrick's day, with music and painting celebrating Irish culture.

The restaurateurs agreed, and decided to serve up a hybrid of Swiss and Irish food alongside.

One hundred people a night, including the local mayor and civic dignitaries, crowded into the restaurant to celebrate St Patrick's Day.

"I sold 15 paintings out of the 20 I'd brought," says Miles. "And two of them were bought by Tina Turner's butler! He showed up, diamond earrings in his ears, in a stretch limousine. He really looked like he was somebody!"

Miles now likes to joke that his paintings hang in Tina Turner's house - after all, that's where the butler's apartment is ...

A short time later, the deputy mayor of Champniers in the Bordeaux region, asked Miles to take part in an exhibition there.

You can check out his progress with this and other projects on www.jamesgmiles.com

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