RCC Curated Content

Week 8: Adrian Kelly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have invited artists, curators and poets to take over our new RCC Curated Content to present their work, thoughts and ideas. Each artist will present curated content for seven days.

From 29th May – 4th June, we welcomed Adrian Kelly, curator and manager of the Glebe House and Gallery, Churchill.

Glebe House, the home of renowned artist Derek Hill for nearly thirty years, is situated on rising ground, beside Lough Gartan, east of Glenveagh National Park. Originally known as St Columb’s, the 1828 Regency-style house is decorated with William Morris textiles, and collections of Islamic and Japanese art, as well as 300 works by leading twentieth-century artists such as Picasso and Kokoshka.

Over the week, Adrian presented a selection of works from the Glebe Gallery’s eclectic collection, some well-known, but also some of of the lesser known treasures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAY 1

 

 

 

‘Jean in Bed with Jaundice’ (circa 1950) by John Bratby (1928 – 1992)
Oil and canvas, 45 x 55cm
Derek Hill Collection, Glebe House and Gallery, OPW

 

I began working here at the Glebe House and Gallery in the late 1980’s. It was a summer job taking guided tours while I was at Art College. I’ve been here since. John Bratby’s painting ‘Jean in Bed with Jaundice’ was probably the first painting I saw on my very first day and I loved it straight away. I had never heard of John Bratby – he never came up in college.

 

Bratby was known as the kitchen sink painter, he painted domestic working-class people and situations and was part of a movement across the arts that is better remembered today as the “angry young men”. They were disillusioned with contemporary society. They explored previously taboo themes like abortion and homelessness. And were a refreshing contrast to the ‘well made’ art that they felt no connection with. This is a classic Bratby painting; It’s of his wife who was sick in bed. You can even make out the corner of a kitchen sink and a packet of OMO washing up powder. They were staying in a bed-sit and all the oranges in the picture were the treatment for the effects of her jaundice.

 

I have been thinking a lot lately about the function of Art Museums and how we do our business. About the stories we tell and how we tell them, but most importantly, who we tell them to. Being a museum curator is a huge privilege but there’s a risk that we communicate best with most the privileged in society; after all museums did emerge from the private collections of the super wealthy and naturally reflect their values and politics. It’s so important to be aware of this and to make museums all-inclusive. And also to be more careful about how artworks are interpreted. The RCC’s kind invitation to take over their Curated Content is a wonderful opportunity to take a look at some of the funkier things in the Derek Hill Collection.

 

I always felt that Bratby was a bit of an outsider. He had a big personality. He was very successful for his ‘Kitchen Sink’ paintings in the 1950’s. But I don’t think he played the Art World game very well – I bet he made his peers uncomfortable by shining a light on parts of society that others chose to ignore. Figurative art wasn’t long for that world anyway. The Art scene was quite rigid then and Abstract Art, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and all the other art fashions of the 50’s 60’s and 70’s took care of his legacy and he lived quite obscurely until a few years before his death. He fitted much better into the Post Modernism of the 80’s and 90’s and he did come back into fashion before his death.

 

Art should reflect what’s happening in society and John Bratby’s paintings of the 50’s certainly did that. The fact that he didn’t fit in is sad but we do have a wonderful legacy to celebrate now.

 

Adrian Kelly
Glebe House and Gallery

 

 

 

DAY 2

 

 

‘The Mill (undated) by Norah McGuinness (1901 – 1980)
Watercolour on paper, 18 x 24.5 cm
Derek Hill Collection, Glebe House and Gallery, OPW

 

Norah McGuinness was born in Derry in 1901. She went to Paris to study art in 1929 and it must have been a huge culture shock compared to her life in Ireland. Remember this was shortly after the Irish Civil War and during the modernization of Ireland. Paris was the great contemporary metropolis and was firmly at the center of the art world. But she had come from a country where women were considered emancipated, where she had a vote, and she travelled to a sexist society where women wouldn’t get to vote for another two decades. I don’t know if any of this mattered to her; Paris was probably sexist and sexy in equal measure. In art history, as in all history, revisionism relies on new discoveries of facts and accounts, but art history doesn’t go back nearly as far as political history, we’ve only really been at it seriously for a century or so. I’ll take a jump here all the same, Paris must have been brilliant in the 20’s and even just the exposure to the most modern art and to bohemian society had to benefit her own painting.

 

Unless there’s something concrete to go on it’s impossible to say why an artist paints something. This beautiful little watercolour is even trickier as we know nothing about it. It is signed so it’s by Norah McGuinness. It’s called ‘The Mill’ but again it doesn’t say that anywhere on the back so I guess Derek Hill must have known. It’s also undated. It does look like an industrial building and the river right beside it would indicate that it is a mill. This kind of Industrial history is the fascinating because it straddles the modernization of Ireland. Mills, even large mills like this, go back quite far, right back into the Industrial Revolution. So it wasn’t part of the Free Irish State modern building project that Sean Keating depicted so well in his series Electrical Power Plant paintings.

 

We have a unique relationship with colonization here in Ireland. We were part of Great Britain during colonialism but we weren’t a colony and we became an independent state just as the sun was setting on that empire so we can wash our hands of the whole affair. We weren’t asset stripped like the ‘colonies’ were and out National Cultural Institutions are full of Irish treasures.

 

Buildings like The Mill remind us that it isn’t as simple as we might like to think. I can see Glenveagh National Park from where I live and work. That estate was cleared of tenants in the horrific Derryveagh Evictions of 1861. The unspoiled beauty of our National Park didn’t happen by accident. Landscape art is far more political than one might think. It can capture a beautiful moment or natural event but it also trades in the ownership of land and lives.

 

I don’t think Norah McGuinness contemplated these things when she painted this exquisite little watercolour. I don’t even think she had a responsibility to consider them. We do though and we can learn a lot.

 

Adrian Kelly
Glebe House and Gallery

 

 

DAY 3

 

 

 

‘Bishop (circa 1950) by Giacomo Manzù (1908 – 1991)
Watercolour on paper, 29.5 x 20cm
Derek Hill Collection, Glebe House and Gallery, OPW

 

Derek Hill worked at the British School in Rome in the late 40’s and early 50’s and along with talented British artists attending on scholarships he met many of the brilliant young Italian artist of the day. Giacomo Manzù is perhaps the most interesting of these. He revived the ancient tradition of creating sculptural bronze doors for ecclesiastical buildings and made a set of monumental bronze doors for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He sculpted the official portrait Pope John XXIII, and made his death mask. These were extremely prestigious commissions and I’m always intrigued as to how he got them. Manzù’s was a communist and an atheist and Vatican officials were unsettled by him and his friendship with the Pope.

 

The Catholic Church was the great commissioner of art up until relatively recently so a huge amount of significant Western Art originated from it. This came at a price and artists were not always free to do what they wanted; their work had to reflect their paymasters’ values and politics. There was also a distinction between Western Art and other art.

 

The model that we now see in contemporary museums where public art is commissioned with public money breaks with this tradition somewhat. But museums have a ‘hold’ over us; they are ideological spaces. It’s important to recognize this and know how to ask questions. The Art Market is a big money racket and we would be foolish if we didn’t acknowledge that super-wealthy collectors do have values and politics and like to see them reflected in their collections. Having said that it’s more important that the monetary value of the artwork increases so artists have greater freedom to express themselves.

 

Manzù lived at a time when he had some religious and political freedom and could make and sell secular work, but just like today, he needed commissioning bodies to enable him to produce monumental work.

 

The Glebe Gallery collection contains plenty of religious art with artworks form the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions, religious themed pictures by Irish and Italian artists, along with Islamic pattern and design, which is also religious in origin.

 

Adrian Kelly
Glebe House and Gallery

 

 

DAY 4

 

 

‘Tory Gully’, circa 1970, by Derek Hill (1916 – 2000)
Oil and canvas, 92 x 61cm
Derek Hill Collection, Glebe House and Gallery, OPW

 

Derek Hill painted this view of Tory Island in the early 1970’s. For over forty years he rented a hut on the Atlantic side of the island and if he stood with his back to the cliffs and looked over Tory towards the mainland he could just see Donegal in the distance. I sincerely disliked this painting for the longest time. On my first trip to Tory I came upon the spot he painted it from and turning to see the gully changed my mind. I now regard it as an incredible accomplishment; it’s breathtaking and he captured the mood and magnificence of the Island landscape perfectly.

 

Derek Hill had a fascinating relationship with Tory. It is a complex relationship and one that we don’t tease out very often. He did some of his very best painting there. He went intending to paint the island and its sweeping seascapes but over the years painted islanders too and they’re some if his best portraits. At the same time he inspired the islanders to paint and championed them and here’s where the plot thickens.

 

The story goes that he was painting on Tory one Sunday and a group of the islanders came down to watch after Mass. One of them, James Dixon, claimed that he could do better himself if he tried and Derek encouraged him to try. He sent him paint and paper but Dixon made his own paintbrushes from donkey hair. This account sounds romanced but I have no reason to doubt it. Dixon painted ‘West End Village’, which is an iconic Irish painting, one of the few international museum quality artworks in the Glebe Gallery collection. But it didn’t end there. Derek encouraged Dixon and brought his paintings into the Irish and British art scene. Anne Crookshank, professor of art history in Trinity College, Dublin, claimed to have bought the first two Dixons to come off the island. So Derek carefully laid a trail that enticed the art world to this little island off the Donegal coast. But more about James Dixon tomorrow.

 

There are obvious similarities with the Saint Ives artists championing of Alfred Wallace earlier in the 20th Century and indeed Derek had a Wallace painting in his kitchen alongside his Tory art. The similarity wouldn’t have been lost on Derek and it certainly added to his legacy. I find it difficult to see how Derek could have anticipated that and I have to believe that he was sincerely philanthropic.

 

As I have been looking at in these posts, ‘culture’ is not neutral. And we see that again here, on one side Derek Hill had his Tory Island artist friends and on the other his neighbour, Henry Mc Elhinne, the wealthy American collector who owned Glenveagh Castle. That must have been a fascinating landscape to navigate. Off the coast, a group of Tory Island fishermen who couldn’t have understood how important their contribution to contemporary art was and on the other, the Philadelphia museum patron, who worked at one of the huge international museums with a universal collection policy. There was no bridge between the two; I wouldn’t know where to find common ground between them and their values and politics.

 

I wonder if the contradiction ever occurred to Derek Hill while he was painting on Tory or if he was just swept up by its beauty.

 

Derek’s work with the Tory Island painters gained him Honorary Irish Citizenship, a rarely given gift. And he is one of only a dozen or so Honorary Irish Citizens.

 

 

Adrian Kelly
Glebe House and Gallery

 

 

DAY 5

 

 

‘Tory Gully’, circa 1970, by Derek Hill (1916 – 2000)
Oil and canvas, 92 x 61cm
Derek Hill Collection, Glebe House and Gallery, OPW

 

Derek Hill painted this view of Tory Island in the early 1970’s. For over forty years he rented a hut on the Atlantic side of the island and if he stood with his back to the cliffs and looked over Tory towards the mainland he could just see Donegal in the distance. I sincerely disliked this painting for the longest time. On my first trip to Tory I came upon the spot he painted it from and turning to see the gully changed my mind. I now regard it as an incredible accomplishment; it’s breathtaking and he captured the mood and magnificence of the Island landscape perfectly.

 

Derek Hill had a fascinating relationship with Tory. It is a complex relationship and one that we don’t tease out very often. He did some of his very best painting there. He went intending to paint the island and its sweeping seascapes but over the years painted islanders too and they’re some if his best portraits. At the same time he inspired the islanders to paint and championed them and here’s where the plot thickens.

 

The story goes that he was painting on Tory one Sunday and a group of the islanders came down to watch after Mass. One of them, James Dixon, claimed that he could do better himself if he tried and Derek encouraged him to try. He sent him paint and paper but Dixon made his own paintbrushes from donkey hair. This account sounds romanced but I have no reason to doubt it. Dixon painted ‘West End Village’, which is an iconic Irish painting, one of the few international museum quality artworks in the Glebe Gallery collection. But it didn’t end there. Derek encouraged Dixon and brought his paintings into the Irish and British art scene. Anne Crookshank, professor of art history in Trinity College, Dublin, claimed to have bought the first two Dixons to come off the island. So Derek carefully laid a trail that enticed the art world to this little island off the Donegal coast. But more about James Dixon tomorrow.

 

There are obvious similarities with the Saint Ives artists championing of Alfred Wallace earlier in the 20th Century and indeed Derek had a Wallace painting in his kitchen alongside his Tory art. The similarity wouldn’t have been lost on Derek and it certainly added to his legacy. I find it difficult to see how Derek could have anticipated that and I have to believe that he was sincerely philanthropic.

 

As I have been looking at in these posts, ‘culture’ is not neutral. And we see that again here, on one side Derek Hill had his Tory Island artist friends and on the other his neighbour, Henry Mc Elhinne, the wealthy American collector who owned Glenveagh Castle. That must have been a fascinating landscape to navigate. Off the coast, a group of Tory Island fishermen who couldn’t have understood how important their contribution to contemporary art was and on the other, the Philadelphia museum patron, who worked at one of the huge international museums with a universal collection policy. There was no bridge between the two; I wouldn’t know where to find common ground between them and their values and politics.

 

I wonder if the contradiction ever occurred to Derek Hill while he was painting on Tory or if he was just swept up by its beauty.

 

Derek’s work with the Tory Island painters gained him Honorary Irish Citizenship, a rarely given gift. And he is one of only a dozen or so Honorary Irish Citizens.

 

 

Adrian Kelly
Glebe House and Gallery

 

 

DAY 6

 

 

‘The Last Rose of Summer left Blooming Alone’, 1969
by James Dixon (1887-1970)
Oil on paper, 55 x 25 cm
Derek Hill Collection, Glebe House and Gallery, OPW

 

James Dixon painted this beautifully lyrical picture on Tory Island in 1969, the year before his death. Having spent most of his life there, never wandering very far from the island, he died just as Tory was seeing the first glimmers of modernization. Most artists never manage to paint with this sort of love and freedom; that’s the preserve of children. However there’s also poetry at work here, an intellect beyond childhood that is deceptively skillful and technically difficult. Picasso claimed every child is an artist. The problem, he said, was how to remain an artist. I don’t know if Picasso knew about James Dixon but I bet he would have been jealous.

 

1969 was the same year that the BBC broadcast the groundbreaking TV series, ‘Civilization’. Written and presented by Kenneth Clarke, it began with the Fall of Rome and worked through European history, much of it focusing on the Renaissance and the Moderns. The clear implication was that other art was primitive and other cultures uncivilized. Within that western tradition, he was surely not including folk art. Ireland also has a peculiar place within that Western tradition. We were neither a colony nor a nation for most of the last millennium. The visual art made here was by and for the establishment. Irish, or  probably more correctly, Anglo Irish, artists made art in the British style up until the 20th Century when they looked to establish an Irish tradition.

 

The Tory Island artists trade as ‘Primitive’ painters and this unsettles me. It implies that they’re unsophisticated people and they are not; they are every bit as cultured as anyone else in Ireland. I prefer to describe them a folk artists. People complete PhDs in folk art; it is a scholarly field of study.

 

Artists have a unique and curious place in society. I’m being general here so please indulge me. They generally come from the middle class, are paid like working class (if they’re lucky), but have colossal cultural capital and can move with the elite. It seems an unsteady perch. Folk art is sure-footed, it doesn’t struggle with its ‘self’ in the same way as cultivated art. It may lack technique but anyone can learn technique (Picasso again).

 

All Tory Island’s folk artists have a strong sense of place and I envy them for it.

 

Adrian Kelly
Glebe House and Gallery