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Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks (1920) The Lobster Fisherman by Paul Henry

06 December 2014

In this week’s article Yvonne Scott discusses Paul Henry’s calm portrait which ‘captures the challenge Irish artists faced in combining modernism and nationalism.’

The painting which is described as an ode to Achill Island, was originally begun by Paul Henry back in 1920 when Ireland was in the midst of conflict. It is one of his last paintings to centre on a human figure. It was the culmination of a decade during which he explored the relationship of poor westerners with their often hostile environment.

Read the full Irish Times article.

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Catch up on all of the Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks features.

Learn more about the Art and Architecture of Ireland project.

Read more about the artist in his Dictionary of Irish Biography entry.

Paul Henry, by Claudine Dauphin

Henry, Paul (1876–1958), painter, was born 11 April 1876 at 61 University Road, Belfast, third of four sons of Robert Mitchell Henry (1824–91), minister of the Reformed Presbyterian church, and his wife Kate Anne (1838–1928), eldest of four daughters of Thomas Berry, minister of the baptist church, Athlone. Robert Mitchell Henry became a baptist in 1858 and pastor of Great Victoria St. baptist church, Belfast, resigning from it in 1875 to join the Plymouth Brethren.

Education and early career Paul Henry began to draw in pencil and watercolours at the age of four, even before entering the kindergarten at Methodist College, Belfast. From early 1891 he wrote poetry and was stimulated artistically by his drawing master, John Sumner, who had taught at Reading School of Art and at the Belfast Government School of Art. On 1 September 1891, having left Methodist College, he transferred to the RBAI, where he befriended James Winder Good (qv), future journalist and founder member of the Ulster Literary Theatre; Walter Riddall (1874–1914), another budding artist, playwright, and journalist; and Robert Lynd (qv), future journalist and celebrated essayist. After the death of Henry's father in June 1891, his close friend the portrait and miniature painter Thomas Bond Walker gave him free drawing lessons and introduced him to the work of the English landscapist Robert Fraser, whose views of Norfolk, Bedfordshire, and Kent influenced Henry's earliest surviving oil-painting, ‘Seascape’ (1892). In keeping with his own training at the South Kensington Schools, London, Walker also taught him the techniques of industrial design, thus enabling him to be apprenticed to the Broadway Damask Co., Belfast, as a designer. After a couple of years, he left and joined the Belfast Government School of Art. Under the guidance of its painting master, Alfred Rawlings Baker (1865–1939), who had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and at the Central School of Art in London, and specialised in ‘impressionist’ portrait and genre scenes of country life, Henry gained the school's first prize for modelling from the antique (1897–8), and second prize for drawing from life (1898–9). Frustrated by lack of funds from joining the Herkomer School of Art at Bushey, Hertfordshire, he jumped at the offer of his cousin John Henry Macfarland, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne (where he ultimately became chancellor), to cover the costs of his education.

Paris, 1898–1900 The two years (1898–1900) spent by Henry in Paris were the first great turning point in his life. At the Académie Julian – also frequented by Constance Gore-Booth (qv) and Egerton Coghill (1853–1921) – he concentrated on nude drawing under the guidance of Jean-Paul Laurens (1838–1921). In Belfast he had been deeply affected by illustrations in Alfred Sensier's Jean-François Millet, painter and peasant (1881). Studying Millet's paintings in the Louvre, Henry absorbed his emphasis on nature and peasant life to a degree that would be palpable in his 1910–13 depictions of Achill islanders. In the autumn of 1898 he switched over to the Académie Carmen, recently opened by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), whose atmospheric compositions Henry greatly admired and who taught him to set down harmoniously in closely modulated tones observations couched in simple, direct terms. The benefit which he derived from tuition in the techniques of illustration by the Czech painter and graphic designer, Alphonse Mucha, is strikingly apparent in Henry's 1920s posters of west-of-Ireland landscapes for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway board. He began to work in charcoal, whose soft, velvety quality he found a particularly sensitive medium. At the 1900 Salon des Indépendants in Paris, he exhibited two charcoal portraits, the most notable of which was a study of James Wilder, the future leader of the Boy Scout movement in the USA. His ramblings in the Rambouillet countryside west of Paris led him to turn temporarily to painting.

In the spring or early summer of 1900, Henry met the painter Emily Grace Mitchell (qv), eight years his senior, but like him a child of the manse and also influenced by Whistler. They married 17 September 1903 in London at St Peter's anglican church, Bayswater.

London, 1900–10 The decade during which Henry worked in London was the second great adventure of his life. At first, it was dominated by his failure to establish a school of painting in the flat which he shared with Robert Lynd at 72 Pembroke Walk, Kensington, and his attempts to find commissions for freelance work as an illustrator. After their marriage, Paul and Grace lived at Knaphill in Surrey. From 1902 to 1905, Paul contributed atmospheric ‘Whistlerian’ illustrations to short stories in the weekly journal To-day, charcoal portrait drawings of personalities ‘In the public eye’, notably G. K. Chesterton, Winston Churchill, and the Irish political leader John Redmond (qv) MP, and of ‘types’ (such as ‘The grandmother’ or ‘The ballad-singer’). From 1905 he expanded his range of graphic work to include illustrating books, such as Keats's Isabella, and his network of clients (The Graphic, The Lady, The Woman at Home, and Black and White). For his first show, at the Goupil Gallery Salon early in 1906, three out of his four charcoal drawings were of ‘romantic’ landscapes. His growing involvement in landscapes was clear from the Goupil winter exhibition (December 1906), and from the Henrys’ first exhibition together (September 1907) at the Ulster Arts Club under the instigation of its influential member, Paul's elder brother Robert Henry (qv), on the eve of becoming professor of Latin at QCB. Their enthusiastic reception by the press led to their election as members of the Belfast Art Society.

Henry's attendance at the Saturday ‘at homes’ of the painter Walter Sickert (1860–1942) in his Fitzroy St. studio in 1908–10 brought him into contact with Hugh Lane (qv), George Moore (qv), and Jack B. Yeats (qv). Although Whistler's influence remained paramount, Henry had already developed his own compositional techniques with a deliberate lack of definition of foreground or background, and a handling of paint characterised by an almost monochrome palette, and paint applied thinly, evenly, and precisely, as in ‘Thames barge, Chelsea’ (1908). Paul and Grace participated in the founding by the art critic Frank Rutter of the Allied Artists’ Association, which held an impressive exhibition (July 1908) at the Royal Albert Hall, London, to which Henry contributed five charcoal drawings. Exhibitions succeeded each other rapidly between 1908 and 1910 in London, Belfast, and Santiago da Chile. At the invitation of Dermod O'Brien (qv), president (1910–45) of the Royal Hibernian Academy and friend of Hugh Lane, Paul submitted in April 1910 two works and Grace three; their first trip to Dublin and their attendance at the annual show strengthened their links with the Irish art world.

Achill Island, 1910–19 In midsummer 1910, although financially strained, the Henrys vacationed on Achill Island off the west coast of Co. Mayo. The visual experiences of their two-week stay, which turned into almost a year and from 1912 to another seven years, fed Henry's art for the next three decades and made him into the painter of western Ireland par excellence. His studio paintings of the islanders (whom he sketched surreptitiously at work in the fields, digging potatoes, cutting rye, fetching turf, harvesting seaweed, launching the curragh to go fishing, checking lobster pots, and watching a dance) are forceful, simple compositions in blocks of shapes and in slabs of a limited range of colours. Imbued with a monumentality and pathos reminiscent of Millet's ‘L'Angélus’ and ‘Les glaneurs’, and Van Gogh's ‘Potato eaters’, they have the same dramatic quality as John Millington Synge's (qv) ‘Riders to the sea’, which had touched a chord with Henry after he had been introduced to Synge by W. B. Yeats (qv) in Paris. The moderate success of the Henrys’ exhibition ‘Paintings of Irish life’ in Belfast (March 1911) resulted in Paul's election to the Ulster Arts Club. Despite the Dublin arts critics’ deprecating judgements of Henry's joint show with George Russell (qv), the Henrys were included in the prestigious exhibition of Irish art at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1913. From then on, Henry's almost annual participation in exhibitions in Belfast and Dublin provided a meagre living. The dim, misty blue shapes of the mountains of ‘Clare Island from Achill’ (1911) heralded his return to landscape-painting. Steeped in stillness and in the soft early morning light, depth being rendered by a succession of closely modulated tones melting away into the distance, tranquil ‘Whistlerian’ studies (‘The lake of the tears of the sorrowing women’, ‘The lake of the glittering sword’, ‘Dawn’, and ‘Out of the north cometh golden splendour’) dominated Henry's production from 1913. His travels in north Co. Mayo in 1917–18 as paymaster for the Erris peninsula on behalf of the Congested Districts Board (a position he had taken up in May 1917 to mitigate his financial insecurity) broadened his subject matter and increased his interest in ‘pure landscapes’, notably of Leenane and Killary Harbour and Bay, with their unique blending of earth, water, and sky.

Dublin, 1919–30 In August 1919, to fulfil Grace's longing for more comfort and society than Achill could provide, and in the hope of being more accessible to potential buyers, the Henrys moved to Dublin, at first renting a furnished flat at 19 Lincoln Chambers, Lincoln Place, and from the summer of 1920 a studio at 13A Merrion Row – Henry's base until 1930. Faced with the conservative Royal Hibernian Academy's refusal to acknowledge recent developments in art, Henry, together with Grace, Clare Marsh, Jack B. Yeats, E. M. O'R. Dickey (1894–1977), Laetitia Hamilton (qv), Mary Swanzy (qv), and Harry Clarke (qv), founded the progressive Society of Dublin Painters which held its first exhibition in August 1920. Henry's first one-man show, in December 1920 in Oxford, resulted in one sale and his presentation to the Latinist and novelist Helen Waddell (qv) at Somerville College of his ‘Early morning in Connemara’ which prefigured ‘Dawn, Killary Harbour’. The landscape in both paintings verges on an abstractness that embodies its very essence. Unexpectedly, however, Henry turned henceforth towards more realistic renderings of the rugged countryside, characterised by the division of the picture-plane into two unequal parts – the sky turbulent with moving clouds occupying the upper two-thirds of the composition, the lower third being devoted to a depiction of thatched cottages and turf stacks by a lake, often set against a massive, dark, mountainous backdrop.

International recognition came in 1922 in the form of the purchase of his ‘West of Ireland village’ by the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Commissions for portraits in charcoal, notably of W. T. Cosgrave (qv), illustrate Henry's total mastery of the medium, but did little to alleviate his financial problems. As his marriage disintegrated and Grace travelled increasingly often to Italy, Paris, and London, Henry embarked on an affair with Mabel Young (1889–1974), who had recently moved from the Isle of Wight to Dublin and worked at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. In February 1925 the Henrys contributed to the New Irish Salon, and in July Henry held his second one-man show, ‘Pictures of beautiful Ireland’, in his studio. Reproduced as posters by the London, Midland & Scotland Railway board, ‘Connemara’ and ‘Lough Derg’ sold the unspoilt romantic splendour of the Irish countryside, reassuringly peaceful after the struggles of independence and the civil war. From the formula combining a rough path, cottages, a lake, rocks, hills, and brooding mountains under cloudy Celtic skies, emerged an archetypal, ‘symbolic’ Irish landscape. The perfect balance between the stillness of the lake which stretches in the foreground, the static massiveness of the mountains, and the transience of the cumulus clouds ‘In the west of Ireland’ (NGI, 1927–8) epitomises Henry at the height of his artistic maturity. As in ‘Lough Altan, Co. Donegal’ (1927–34), the landscape is imbued with a monumentality akin to that inherent to Cézanne's views of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The popularity of the quintessential ‘Paul Henry’ interpretation of western Ireland, accompanied by a strong demand for original paintings, led to repetition and decline in quality. Sclerosis, however, was avoided by technical experimentation in the association of oil and charcoal on board instead of canvas, as in ‘The Customs House, Dublin’ (1929), whose rich browns and purples are strikingly offset by the gold-tinged early morning clouds hovering above the River Liffey and clustering in the lavender-blue sky. In 1926 Henry joined the United Arts Club in Dublin; in 1928 he was elected a full member of the RHA; and in 1930 he became one of the first twelve academicians of the Ulster Academy of Arts.

Henry's first American exhibition (March–April 1929) in New York encapsulated the recent developments of his private life: he sold three of his seven paintings on show, while Grace sold none of her three. Mabel Young (who had become a landscapist by osmosis) exhibited a view of the Sugar Loaf mountain at whose foot nestled Carrigonna Cottage, which she had organised as a guest house and where she was joined by Henry (September) after he had set in motion legal proceedings in order to divorce Grace. A trip to northern Donegal with his brother Bob, followed by a two-month stay in North America from December for exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Toronto, shows in Brussels, Dublin, and London, sales, and commissions (such as of Bob's portrait for QUB in 1933), as well as a calmer domestic life, all contributed to a phase of settled maturity.

Mature works, 1930–46 The familiar compositional format and theme were retained, but rapid execution (with little repainting or conceptual changes) and simplicity of shapes expressed Henry's profound understanding of the essence of the landscape: a dank, boggy, peaty soil, with horizons blocked by dark, massive mountains and brooding skies. Within a limited palette (subdued ochres, umbers, dark purply greys, and black), he skilfully handled light, rippling white and luminescent on the marshy lake in ‘Cottages by the lake, Connemara’ (1927–30), or radiating pinkish from the sky in ‘Connemara landscape’ (1930–31). From the mid 1930s, his work was characterised by the use of oil-laden pigments lusciously spread on the canvas in recognisably large brushstrokes, as in ‘A Connemara bog’ (1932–5).

A trip to Kerry on his own, and one with Mabel in Dingle, resulted in vastly different works. While the timeless ‘Mountains and lakes, Connemara’ (1934), with its variations in blue, purple, grey, black, yellow ochre, and white, is pervaded by clarity of atmosphere, ‘The Dingle Peninsula’ (1934–5) and ‘Cloudy day, Connemara’ (1934–6) owe their sensuous, tactile quality (strongly felt in the turf and layered peat) to pigments heavy with linseed oil and flat brushstrokes which internally structure shapes. Paul and Mabel's trip to Northern Ireland in the summer of 1936 produced a spate of views of coastal and mountainous Antrim for an autumn show in Toronto – his last in North America. The paintings conceived during their 1938 trip to the Twelve Pins area of Connemara (such as ‘Slievemore’ or ‘On a lake, Connemara’) and exhibited that autumn in Dublin, show much lighter tonalities and unmuddied colours.

A BBC Belfast radio broadcast of reminiscences in March 1937 was the first of several until 1954, which ultimately formed the basis of Henry's autobiography An Irish portrait (1950) and Further reminiscences (published posthumously), and provided some much-needed income. After a winter trip with Mabel in Paris and the Riviera, Henry travelled around Ireland in the winter of 1939 with Sean O'Faolain (qv), whose Irish journey (1940) he illustrated, partly in sepia wash – a technique he had already used for Bulmer Hobson (qv) in the Irish Free State official handbook (1932). Exhibitions of new paintings, fed by old sketches and further travels in Kerry, continued unabated in Dublin, Limerick, and London, and by 1940 Henry was very much part of the Irish artistic establishment. In 1946 he suffered a stroke or nervous breakdown that seriously impaired his sight, already affected since 1910 by red-green colour-blindness, which may have influenced his predilection for the muted greys and blues of what he termed ‘the mystery of dawn’.

Final years, 1946–58 His painting days were now over, but Henry turned his attention to dictating his memoirs and short stories. In 1950 he and Mabel moved to 1 Sidmonton Square, Bray. A one-man show in Dublin in 1952, his final exhibit (‘The Maam valley’) at the 1953 RHA show, an exhibition in his Bray studio and the international distribution by Bord Fáilte (the Irish tourist board) of ten thousand copies of a poster reproducing his 1943 ‘Connemara landscape’ (both in 1956), were preludes to a retrospective in Dublin, in Belfast, and at Shannon airport in celebration of his eightieth birthday in 1957. Grace's death in 1953 had freed him to marry Mabel in 1954 in Killiney, Co. Dublin. On 24 August 1958 he died at his Bray home, and was buried at St Patrick's church, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow. His papers are in the libraries of the NGI and TCD, and his sketchbooks in the NGI.

Although he admired the bold brushwork and strong colours of the avant-garde painters Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, and applied the decorative lessons of modernism and Japonism, Henry was neither an adventurous artist nor an innovator. The tendency to flatten the picture plane and emphasise the geometric nature of some shapes, such as that of the magnificent ‘Fairy thorn’ (1917), did not lead him – unlike his younger Dutch contemporary Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) – from realism-naturalism to realism-abstraction. Ireland's first painter of peasants, and perhaps the most influential landscapist in twentieth-century Ireland, a naturalist and romantic at heart, Paul Henry painted the west of Ireland landscape in every mood and colouring, and captured its essence. He had no wish but to transfer on to the canvas ‘the very soul of Ireland’.

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