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Behind the mask of the reclusive artist Basil Blackshaw

Prodigiously talented Belfast artist Basil Blackshaw is the subject of a BBC2 NI documentary tonight. Ivan Little talks to Basil's family and friends, as well as documentary maker Eamonn Mallie, about the unconventional life of the painter whose work continues to captivate critics

By Ivan Little

Published 14/01/2016

Hidden talent: artist Basil Blackshaw at the opening of his exhibition in Cork
in 2005
Hidden talent: artist Basil Blackshaw at the opening of his exhibition in Cork in 2005
Leading light: the pipe-smoking artist
Racehorse
The american owner
Portrait of Mary McGrath
Portrait of John Hewitt

He's the Van Morrison of the art world. For Basil Blackshaw is even more reluctant to do interviews than the east Belfast singer songwriter who appears positively media-friendly by comparison.

And Blackshaw has at times gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that photographers and TV crews don't get any pictures of him.

In 2003 he tried to dodge UTV's cameras as I covered the launch of a lavish book about him in Belfast and later in Cork he even put a paper bag over his head at one of his own exhibitions.

So it is all the more remarkable that broadcaster Eamonn Mallie has managed to persuade the elusive painter to talk about himself on camera for a new television documentary called An Edge of Society Man.

Even Mallie, who produced the aforementioned book about Blackshaw 13 years ago, was surprised - pleasantly so - that the 82-year-old artist finally agreed to sit for him, so to speak.

"Basil's closest friend, the late film-maker David Hammond, had been trying to persuade him for years to let him make a documentary about his life. But he kept refusing," Mallie says.

"But after Basil's friend Seamus Heaney passed away, I asked him again to do an interview with me to put something on record and he agreed. His partner of 40 years Helen Falloon was a tower of strength for us.

"In the end Basil talked to me as if the camera didn't exist."

Mallie has long admired Blackshaw and his half hour documentary is clearly a labour of love. And in it he tries to mine into the psyche of the artist who has re-invented his style of painting many times during his illustrious career which stretches back over 60 years.

Mallie has also interviewed Blackshaw's artist daughter Anya Waterworth and a number of her father's friends about an enigmatic man who is undoubtedly one of Ireland's leading painters.

Anya says her father is very private, but very generous.

"He's not so keen on authority, she says. "He would toe the line, but he doesn't like to."

She says her father likes to call a spade a spade and hasn't much time for anyone who doesn't.

During the documentary Mallie asks the pipe-smoking Blackshaw if he could imagine not being an artist and he replies that at one time he could but not for years and years.

Which leads to the inevitable question about what he would have been if he hadn't been a painter and the query is greeted with a typical tongue-in-cheek answer.

"A butcher," says Blackshaw, who was born in 1932 in Glengormley to an English father called Samson Blackshaw and a Tyrone mother Edith Clayton.

He was raised in rural Co Down between Belfast and Lisburn and friends say he was every inch the countryman who was completely at home with horses and dogs at every turn.

But he was educated in Belfast at Methodist College and went to the Art College in the city where his creative light shone brightly among his peers.

College lecturer Romeo Toogood singled him out as a prodigious talent and told fellow pupils that "Basil is the daddy of you all".

A scholarship from the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) enabled Blackshaw to travel to study in Paris and in the documentary he says that the French artist Cezanne was a major influence on him in his early years.

But the young Blackshaw wasn't just an artist.

He also trained greyhounds which were winners as far away as Harold's Cross and Shelbourne Park in Dublin and he groomed horses, too.

In 1959 he married an Australian artist Anna Ritchie and three years later she gave birth to their daughter Anya.

The Blackshaw home at Ravernet outside Lisburn was an anything but conventional household as Anya Waterworth confirms with her first recollection of 'her slightly different' family life as she talks about her father changing her nappy with 10 dogs beside her.

"It was just chaos with people coming and going every day of the week. There were dog men, vets … there were lords, ladies, painters. Crazy.

"Both my mother and father had 55 greyhounds in training - other people's and their own. So it was between dogs and horses mainly. That was just their life. That was all there was - painting, dogs and horses.”

The animals which surrounded Blackshaw featured heavily in his work, but his life changed dramatically and chaotically in 1972 when his marriage ended.

He became a prolific drinker and the writer Jennifer Johnston, who had a home in Donegal, became friendly with him.

She says in the programme: "We sort of liked each other and he needed, I think, someone to talk to. He had just broken up with his wife and he was a little bit crazy and quite a lot depressed. I liked him very much. He was a very nice decent man. He did a lot of drinking mind you."

Johnston recalls how she and Blackshaw were among a group of people who went swimming in the nude one night when they 'were all a little bit p*****'.

She and Blackshaw were kindred spirits in many ways, but Johnston was vehemently opposed to cock-fighting and other blood sports which he enjoyed.

She says she was outraged after he told her for the first time about cock-fighting. "But he just laughed at me. He didn't pay any attention at all. He would just go on telling you the stories.

"He was sort of two people in a way. One was the countryman and the other was this very sophisticated artist who really knew what he was doing and yet he couldn't quite believe what he was doing."

Blackshaw met his partner Helen Falloon in the Seventies and they settled in the house which is still their home outside Antrim town. He converted an outbuilding into a studio and he says it's probably one of the places where he feels most at home.

But the studio was destroyed by fire in 1981 and though Blackshaw lost a lot of his work, he found a new direction for himself as an artist and 'cleared away the past', according to friends, who also say he'd been growing restless with his realistic painting as the Seventies came to a close.

Neil Shawcross says the fire pushed Blackshaw into a more exciting and challenging area of painting, adding: "The paint was taking over and dictating where Basil was going."

Blackshaw himself says: "At the time the studio burnt down, I was painting realistic landscape-type paintings that were getting nowhere. It was nothing new, nothing exciting."

The studio was refurbished and Jude Stephens, who was Blackshaw's model for over 30 years, has happy memories of the space where the artist used to have bird cages.

"The studio always had a haze of dust and the whole place had this kind of rugged, well-used feel to it which I loved even though it was and still is quite bleak and barren in some ways," she recalls.

Blackshaw's style of painting seems to have been akin to performance art in itself. Jude says she used to love to watch him and recalls how he would quote the legendary words of Muhammad Ali - float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

"I think that was what he was doing," she adds. "He needed a lot of space to paint, leaping back from the canvas assessing where the next blow should be, then jumping in with the paintbrush jabbing at it and back again. It was a battle."

Jennifer Johnston says that having her portrait painted by Blackshaw was 'mindblowing' and poet Michael Longley calls the experience electrifying, adding: "There were these rubbing and scraping noises. In between bits of conversation, Basil was groaning and grunting and saying how impossible it was and that he would never get it right."

Longley says there's nothing that Blackshaw can't paint from a horse to a bunch of flowers to a landscape.

"But you are looking at much more than the subject," says Longley. "You are looking into the artist's own soul."

He says Blackshaw has a rare ability to capture a likeness in a portrait. "When you look at a Basil portrait, you feel that you have met that person and that you're getting to know them."

One of Blackshaw's most unusual portraits - of the actor Clint Eastwood - was made from pieces of cardboard and newspaper. So why, Mallie asks him, didn't he just paint it?

He replies with a laugh: "It didn't have any spirit or any excitement or anything like that. Painting a portrait of Clint Eastwood was not going to be enough. I mean I had to do something that was a bit more exciting."

Artist Neil Shawcross describes Blackshaw as a unique individual, a non-conformist maverick who's on the edge.

As the old millennium ended and a new one dawned, Blackshaw's increasingly abstract painting took yet another new turn and he started adding scribbled words and messages to his works.

A series of paintings called Windows was critically acclaimed and lauded by some as the best work Blackshaw has ever produced.

Shawcross tells the documentary makers: "When I saw those at the Ulster Museum, I genuinely felt they were the greatest paintings that I have seen produced in Ireland in my lifetime. They are beautifully painted, there is nothing to detract from just the purity of the paint on the canvas."

Blackshaw says he never knows where he will find inspiration for paintings. "It can happen anytime, anywhere, any day. You never know when it's going to happen."

Art critics, who are interviewed on the documentary, are effusive in their praise of Blackshaw who is variously described as a one-off, a total original, and an incomparable artist who is among the best painters in Europe.

But the last word goes to Neil Shawcross who sums up Blackshaw thus: "We are privileged to have shared through his paintings his individual way of looking at the world."

Basil Blackshaw: An Edge of Society Man is on BBC2 Northern Ireland tonight, 10pm

Belfast Telegraph

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