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Meet the west Belfast-born artist commissioned to accompany Prince Charles on official royal tours and whose paintings hang on the walls of Ireland's rich and famous

As his new exhibition opens in Belfast, the man once namechecked by critic Brian Sewell as one of the 10 most promising young painters in Britain tells Linda Stewart how his love of art was fostered by his mum

Artist Martin Mooney ahead of his Colour and Light exhibition in Belfast
Artist Martin Mooney ahead of his Colour and Light exhibition in Belfast

By Linda Stewart

Artist Martin Mooney says his mum Anna always had an eye for beautiful things. She practically lived in Belfast's auction houses when he was growing up, he says, and loved to pick up bargains, which she would often sell on soon afterwards.

As a schoolboy in west Belfast he remembers spending school holidays at the auction houses with his mum, recruited to carry her purchases home.

"She had a great eye for picking up bargains and buying antiques. I think people thought she was an antique dealer, she was there so often," Martin says.

"My dad didn't really approve, so she took out an old-fashioned shopping trolley, we would come home with some sort of bronze figure stuffed into the shopping trolley and a couple of loaves of bread on top. Then when my dad was in a good mood she would produce this figure, and later she would put it back in the auction and buy something else.

"In the summer she would be there five days a week and I used to have to go to carry her things.

"One particular auction I remember her rummaging around the auction from 11am to 4.30pm in the evening because she was really interested in this clock and it was the last lot. Thankfully, we got the clock and I still have it."

Now 59, Martin is married to Aislinn and has five children aged between 20 and 30. More than a decade since he last exhibited in Belfast, he is back in the city launching his new solo exhibition, Colour and Light, at the Charles Gilmore Art Gallery today.

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The exhibition is being opened by journalist, broadcaster and producer Eamonn Mallie and features a series of work inspired by the Irish landscape, nature and the elements.

Martin grew up on the Andersonstown Road in west Belfast at the time of the Troubles and admits art was something of an escape for him.

"Belfast was a very different city growing up to how it is now," he says.

Martin Mooney with a couple of his pieces
Martin Mooney with a couple of his pieces

"I suppose in many ways painting became my escape. I was born in 1960 and therefore I grew up during the Troubles.

"My parents encouraged my interest in painting and sent me to painting classes when I was 12 years old. This was probably the best thing that could have happened to me as I knew I wanted to be an artist and this confirmed it."

The Troubles didn't really make much of an impact until he was around nine and his mother would take him to the shops after school.

"Suddenly, one day we went down to the shops and they were on fire and there were buses burning in the street. At nine it was such a contrast to what you were used to. I remember the Co-op was in flames - it's so bizarre looking back," he says.

A students at St Mary's Grammar School, he was keen on sport - "football, Gaelic football, but mostly basketball - I was playing basketball five days a week after school".

But noticing his love of drawing, his mum paid for lessons when he was around 12.

Relaxing with Aislinn
Relaxing with Aislinn

"It was brilliant. His name was Sean McLoughlin. I only knew him as Mr McLoughlin, and he showed me how to lay out a palette," Martin says.

"I remember him showing me how to paint a sky, putting colours in the sky. I always thought clouds were white, but he showed me that it wasn't white, but a mixture of yellow, ochre and raw umber. I still apply the same principles now as when I was 12. I was with him about twice a week for two-and-a-half years and he moved away, but at that stage I knew I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to go to art college."

Martin's dad Patrick used to work in a bakery and would cycle to work in Cromac Street.

"If dad was working nights, he would cycle back first thing in the morning and I was always guaranteed a great breakfast with scrambled eggs and all that before I went to school," Martin says.

As a youngster he remembers doing a lot of drawings of buildings, including Belfast's beautiful old Art Deco cinemas, many of which are now gone.

"I think if I'd never been an artist, what I'd like to have been was an architect. I was always very passionate about architecture," he says.

Prince Charles
Prince Charles
Mourne Mountains

"But I never thought I'd make it as an architect because you had to have maths and that was never a great thing for me."

Martin remembers his fellow students piling into Bill Gatt's red Vauxhall Viva every morning to go to art college. Its roof inside was pasted with postcards of the Sistine Chapel.

"It was like having the Sistine Chapel on the roof!" he says.

"The foundation course was excellent and there were very good tutors. Neil Shawcross was there teaching at the time, and Norman Fraser. He was a great tutor, you were really well prepared. They really taught you how to draw and observe things."

After completing the foundation course he went on to study at Brighton Polytechnic College of Art & Design, graduating in 1983, and later completed a postgraduate course at the Slade School of Fine Art.

As a student there he was selected by respected art historian and critic Brian Sewell (above) as one of the 10 most promising young artists in Britain

Sewell remained impressed by Mooney's artistic development and for many years he acted as a mentor. After graduating from Slade Mooney won the Richard Ford Award from the Royal Academy, which allowed him to study at the Prado in Madrid.

With the support of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, in collaboration with The Spanish Cultural Institute, Martin was able to establish a studio in Barcelona, where he lived and worked for eight years.

"Barcelona then was such a vibrant place - it was pre-Olympics. I've been back, but I much preferred it then," he says.

"My first daughter was born in Barcelona in 1992, the year of the Olympics, and all the babies born that year got an Olympic medal."

After leaving Ireland at 19 Martin had been away for a long time and his thoughts turned to home. He realised it could become complicated if his daughter was educated in Catalan and the family decided to move back.

"I decided to come back to Ireland very much with the idea if it doesn't work, I can go back," he says.

"I'd started to work with a gallery in Dublin and it was like taking a pin to the map and sticking it somewhere and thinking I could go there. Dad was from Downpatrick and I knew the area, I had zillions of cousins there. And I thought about Westport, but eventually I got a place in Donegal and I decided I didn't want to go back to Dublin.

"There were too many things going on there and I wanted something that was quite peaceful, and Donegal has that."

Now he lives just outside the village of Ramelton.

2019-11-14_lif_54877722_I4.JPG
Mourne Mountains

"It's a lovely Georgian village with a lovely river running through it and this lovely 18th century warehouse just outside the village and right on the water," he says.

"That has been my biggest inspiration, every day walking over to the studio and looking at the sky and looking at the water. At first when I looked at Ireland I couldn't see any colour because I was so used to vibrant colours in the Mediterranean. I think suddenly you absorb it, but it takes time.

"I was in Connemara last year and the water was a perfect crystal colour and in the evenings there was this incredible sky, and that has inspired a lot of these new paintings."

Martin was selected twice as the tour artist for The Prince of Wales, when he accompanied him on official royal visits to the Baltic States and Russia.

Meanwhile, four of his oil sketches, painted on the spot during the visit to Russia, now hang in the newly refurbished drawing room of Hillsborough Castle.

And his paintings are also displayed on the walls of a number of private collections in celebrity homes, including the Prince of Wales, Sir Anthony O'Reilly, Chris Patten, Michael Smurfit, Dermot Desmond, Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce and singer Enya. He laughs about one particular commission he was asked to do for the Merrion Hotel in Dublin, painting 12 architecture-themed panels to be displayed on the main staircase, which has now been nicknamed the Mooney staircase.

"It was a terrific opportunity to be given as a young painter," he explains.

"It's still there today and they look great."

He also dubs the late Joan Rivers "the funniest person I've ever met" after he was asked to give her a painting lesson while they were staying at a chateau in the south of France owned by the Forbes family.

"It was terrific, just very funny," he says.

"I met her in the hallway of the chateau on the steps and she was carrying her painting box and I said 'I'll carry it'.

"I went to lift it and it nearly pulled my arm off.

"She had 50 tubes of paint in every colour you can think of. I said: 'Joan, you only need five tubes'."

The comedienne nicknamed him Martino and made a speech after dinner thanking him for the masterclass.

"She goes '... And I said to Martino, Martino what do you think?' And he said: 'Joan, you poor bitch, you can't paint'. It was such fun working with her."

The latest exhibition captures the drama of vast Irish landscapes and sweeping skies.

"I've been working more expressively than previously and feel this is a significant turning point in my career. I've discovered that a greater use of colour has led to a stronger sense of light in the paintings," he says.

"Working on these very large landscapes that have that spontaneity and freshness - it almost brings me back to when I was 12 and working on clouds.

"It feels like I've had a whole new burst of creativity in different directions; it all comes round in a circle."

And he's thrilled to be showing in Belfast for the first time in 10 years.

"I love the city for the warmth of the people, and its straightforwardness. What you see is what you get.

"I think it's fantastic when I am home, it's a really vibrant city. But what it was like then, when you were strolling through the city at night, Royal Avenue was completely empty after 6pm. There was nobody there. It's great to see the city come back to life," he says.

Colour and Light will launch in the Charles Gilmore Gallery at 1 Lanyon Quay, Oxford Street, Belfast today, Thursday, November 14. For further information, visit www.charlesgilmore.com

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