Patrick Hennessy at Imma: Temperament, truths and brooding youths

The Cork artist had his critics, but his sexuality was not the issue

 

De ProfundisPatrick Hennessy
Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
★★★★

In 1934 the Scottish artist Edward Baird painted an untypical work as a wedding present for his friend and fellow artist, the celebrated landscape painter James McIntosh Patrick. The Birth of Venus depicts a pale female nude posed against the sea, ankle-deep in water. The beach setting is framed in the foreground by a fragmentary view of a boat, elaborate sea shells, what looks like an iris flower, and fragments of driftwood, all rendered in hyper realistic close-up. Baird, a Scottish nationalist from a seafaring family, was a consummate technician, and the unusual quasi-surrealism of the painting surprised Patrick as much as this act of generosity from a man who was not prolific and rarely gave his work away.

The previous autumn, a young Patrick Hennessy had embarked on Patrick’s four-year drawing and painting diploma course at Dundee School of Art. How familiar was he with Baird’s Venus? It must have lodged in his mind, because the painting strikingly anticipates several of the motifs and pictorial devices he was to develop in his work much later on: shells and flowers foregrounded in startling close-up, incongruously set against wider, distant vistas, the human figure as object of desire yet oddly cool, at one remove.

Hennessy was born in Cork in 1915. His father, a career soldier from Kerry, was, according to some accounts, killed at Passchendaele in 1917. A few years later his widowed mother moved to Arbroath in Scotland, where her mother was living (she subsequently remarried there, in 1937). Hennessy received a good education and his artistic flair gained him a place in Dundee. There he befriended another student, Harry Robertson Craig. Subsequent separations notwithstanding, they became lifelong companions.

He flourished in Dundee, winning a scholarship for post-graduate study, and exhibiting as soon as he graduated. A travel scholarship allowed him to go to Paris in 1938, and from there he travelled south with two Scottish artists, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. Back in Scotland, with war imminent, he decided to go to Ireland and, based in Dublin, quickly established himself locally. Craig, meanwhile, was called up to serve in the army. His arts background meant that he was put to work with army intelligence, and was involved with map-making, designing camouflage and preparing forged documents for undercover operatives.

From 1941 Hennessy showed annually with the RHA, and gained many commissions. As an outsider, it is suggested, he wasn’t asked to paint portraits of prominent men but relegated to female subjects. The curatorial introduction suggests a relative coldness in his studies of women and girls as opposed to his lively engagement with men. That all seems slightly unfair given that the studies of men were more personal to begin with, and his female subjects numbered, for example, the well-known pianist Tilly Fleischman. Generally, the portraits are very good indeed, each thoughtfully and expertly made.

The term surrealist has been bandied about a little too freely in relation to Hennessy. Rather he was inclined towards pictorial allegory with a Gothic touch, and in quite a stilted way, a quality that persisted in later trompe l’oeil pieces. After the war Craig joined him in Ireland. They moved to Cork, settling first in Crosshaven, then Cobh (eventually they made a home in Raglan Lane in Dublin). They found a loyal patron in Lady Ursula Vernon who, with her husband Major Stephen Vernon, ran a stud farm at Bruree, Co Limerick for her father, the Duke of Westminster. Some years after her death, her husband gave one of Hennessy’s most significant portraits, of the writer Elizabeth Bowen at home in Bowenscourt, which was subsequently demolished, to the Crawford Art Gallery.

From 1956 Hennessy exhibited regularly at David Hendriks’ gallery on St Stephen’s Green. Both his and Craig’s work sold well, the latter particularly well in the US when they were taken up by the Guildhall Gallery in Chicago. Always keen travellers, they decided to winter abroad from the end of the 1950s, when Hennessy became seriously ill with pneumonia. From then on they stayed in Morocco for part of each year, eventually relinquishing their Dublin base in 1968 and settling in Tangier. Ill-health prompted a further move, to the Algarve, but Hennessy was only 65 when he died, in London, in 1980. Craig died in 1984.

Both artists lived as gay men in socially conservative communities, but at the same time they were by no means isolated or ostracised. From early on Hennessy seems to have been able to find his way around the gay community, making connections and friendships – though even those who knew him well said he maintained a reserve and liked to remain elusive. It is fair to say that criticism of his work – and there was quite a bit of negative comment – was not prompted by disapproval of his sexuality. It is true that he made references to exclusion and estrangement in several works (including his evocation of Oscar Wilde in the painting that gives the show its title), and he addressed sexuality in oblique and, later, overt ways, with references to cruising locations, bath houses and many studies of brooding youths.

There is no doubting his technical skill, but his aesthetic sense was limited and increasingly he relied on realist flourishes that are virtuosic just for effect. It could be that he had the market in mind, but that is by no means clear. Equally, he could accurately capture the drabness of a stretch of landscape in a way that critics accurately labelled dull, but there is truth in this aspect of his work, and the subtlety becomes apparent when you see the paintings in the flesh.

What emerges in this long overdue survey is that, given the quality of his early work, he might have been a more significant artist than he turned out to be, but for reasons that have more to do with his own temperament and personality than issues posed by his sexuality.

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