Paintings of taoisigh stick to the middle of the road

Some of our best artists have created uninspiring portraits of former leaders

There are several accomplished portrait painters around today to tackle Brian Cowen. Photograph: Eric Luke

There are several accomplished portrait painters around today to tackle Brian Cowen. Photograph: Eric Luke

Mon, Jan 6, 2014, 01:00

It’s not surprising that most of the portraits of former taoisigh hanging in Leinster House do not scale the heights of artistic excellence. However, they fulfil their intended role.

After all, if the taoisigh – so far all male, of course – had the political skill to negotiate the vagaries of the electoral process and the labyrinthine inner workings of their own parties and emerge on top, they are going to look for benign confirmation of their greatness and solidity, not iconoclasm.

Certainly that’s the impression you get from the collection thus far, which is generally middle of the road, even when an artist as incisively perceptive as Edward McGuire is involved. One of the best Irish portrait painters with, for example, an iconic 1974 painting of Seamus Heaney to his credit, McGuire painted Liam Cosgrave in 1982 and the result is curiously bland, as though the artist is engaged technically but not creatively with the task.

More recently, James Hanley rose to the challenge, producing a sharp, even high-definition picture of Bertie Ahern against an expanse of Dublin team blue. Hanley’s visual precision made him an interesting choice given Mr Ahern’s great talent for not being pinned down and keeping things ambiguous.

Garrett FitzGerald’s woolliness, on the other hand, in a disarmingly casual, sketchy study by Derek Hill, is agreeably consistent with his character, even his manner of speech. It is not, though, a great example of Hill’s work.

Mainstream academic portraits dominate. Carey Clarke, one of the more technically exacting academicians, has an exact, formal study of Albert Reynolds that captures significant aspects of his character. Less exact in style but still formal are John Kelly’s portraits of Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey. The latter is a slightly strange painting that captures a sphinx-like quality in Haughey.

Leo Whelan was the main Irish portrait painter of his day. His Éamon de Valera, painted in 1955, is a thoroughly competent study that conveys an edge of severity in the sitter.

Seán O’Sullivan, a virtuoso draughtsman who could be pat and formulaic in his numerous portraits, painted both William T Cosgrave and John A Costello at the beginning of the 1960s. In O’Sullivan’s portrait Cosgrave appears to look back on his tenure with amusement.

Edward Plunkett painted an exceptionally wan-looking John Bruton – not a comment on his tenure, more a matter of miscalculating the tonal balance between figure and background.

There are several accomplished portrait painters around today to tackle Brian Cowen, apart from Hanley, widely regarded as the establishment’s portrait artist of choice. Michael O’Dea’s name has been mentioned as a likely candidate. Maeve McCarthy and Nick Miller are both very capable if less orthodox in their approaches and, despite painting many a politician, including a private commission to paint Haughey, Robert Ballagh has not so far been recruited for the task.

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