Obituary: Painter Basil Blackshaw an unassuming genius of Irish art
He was one of Irish art’s most reclusive and elusive artists, but though Basil Blackshaw shunned the limelight and wouldn’t talk to the media, another side of the celebrated painter who died on Monday has emerged.
Blackshaw (84) was yesterday praised for the unstinting and selfless support he gave to young artists as they started out on their creative journeys.
The painter, who was born in Glengormley and raised at Boardmills near Lisburn, took a passionate interest in the careers of other fledgling artists.
Acclaimed sculptor Ross Wilson told me recently how he had received huge encouragement from his hero Blackshaw. He was first shown his early work by one of his teachers at Glengormley High School.
Painter Colin Davidson, who has completed a towering portrait of Blackshaw, said he could have been Europe’s most important artist — “but he wasn’t interested”.
Blackshaw, who lived with his long-time partner Helen Falloon near Antrim, was one of the last of the great Ulster artists of his era, but he inspired a new generation of painters in Northern Ireland who saw him as a role model.
Eamonn Mallie, who wrote a book on Blackshaw in 2003 and conducted a rare interview with him for a documentary — which is to be repeated tomorrow at 10pm on BBC2 — said he was among the top three most intelligent men he’d ever met.
Blackshaw’s paintings command huge prices in exhibitions and at auction, but he wasn’t interested in money, according to Mallie.
“Not at all,” he said. “He was bohemian, and he was highly intellectual and very generous.”
Friends said he was also a down-to-earth man who used to train greyhounds and horses, which featured frequently in his work.
My sister Caroline Mullan, who runs the Mullan Gallery in Belfast, knew Blackshaw well but has never spoken publicly about him. Until now.
“Basil was a lovely, unassuming man. A shy man,” she said.
“He was a fantastic supporter of our gallery and the new artists we were exhibiting. He rarely came to our opening nights, preferring to drop in the next day after the crowds had gone.
“It was obvious that he enjoyed seeing the work of the younger artists and he would walk slowly round the gallery and talk about their paintings or sculptures. He bought a number of pieces, and I know of other young artists whose paintings he purchased.”
On one occasion Blackshaw was at a party in Caroline’s house and took a liking to a painting on a far wall.
He said: “I really like it. It’s well painted. Who’s the artist?” From the distance, he genuinely didn’t recognise the landscape as one of his own works, and when the penny had well and truly dropped, he took a closer look. And laughed.
Another time he admired a drawing that my nephew Gavin had done of one of Blackshaw’s paintings of a Lough Neagh fisherman.
Clearly taking imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, the artist signed the sketch with the message: ‘Well done, Gavin’.
Blackshaw’s last major award in a glittering painting career was for a rare sculpture — of a horse — at the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition last year. RUA president Denise Ferran said: “We have lost one of our most celebrated and cherished Academicians. His like will never be seen again.”
Blackshaw’s last portrait was one of the broadcaster and photographer Bobbie Hanvey from Downpatrick. It was never finished.
His health had been in decline for a number of years but his death still came as a shock.
He’d been watching horse racing and snooker on the television over the weekend, but passed away peacefully in his sleep.
It’s understood his funeral will be held early next week.