The tentative beauty of Basil Blackshaw's art
Basil Blackshaw cleared himself a corner in Northern Irish art in the 1950s, and he has lost none of his ability when it comes to the exploration of the 'purely visual image'
Basil Blackshaw is one of the most highly regarded Northern Irish artists to have emerged during the 20th century, and he is also one of the most brilliant. To mark his 80th birthday, the Royal Hibernian Academy and the FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio in Co Down jointly invited the artist to select a retrospective exhibition. As even a cursory glance around the show at the RHA will confirm, he is a brilliant draughtsman and painter, fluently adept while never interested in showy virtuosity. In fact, a significant component of his brilliance has to do with this quality of reticence, a reticence that could even be described as evasiveness.
Blackshaw was an early developer: he was acclaimed as a precocious talent and enrolled in Belfast College of Art when he was 16. But from early on he managed to sidestep any of the things that might have stereotyped him as a great, “official” Ulster painter, or as pretty much any other kind of establishment figure. In his 1957 essay A Portrait of a Young Man as the Artist, John Hewitt presented a concise overview of Northern Irish art of the time and concluded that Blackshaw was “clearly the most promising of the Northern painters of his age group. He has, in spite of his youth, cleared a corner for himself among the artists of this country.”
“Cleared a corner” strikes just the right note for a distinctly rural artist. Blackshaw’s instinct has been to keep that corner consistently clear. Traditionally, artists tended to make a living by teaching part-time in the schools they have attended. In Belfast, Blackshaw found himself working as an assistant to his teacher, Romeo Toogood, whom he admired greatly and acknowledged as an important influence. But, as he put it bluntly: “I wasn’t interested in teaching.”
When a heavy spell of snow prevented him getting in to the college, he simply didn’t go back once the snow had cleared. He walked away from a subsequent job in a technical school in the same way.
It has been noted that Blackshaw’s work does not engage directly with the Troubles, which echoes similar criticism of Seamus Heaney. Equally, it could be said, Blackshaw did not get pointlessly diverted into mainstream modernism, gravitate towards the British art world, or relax into a provincial version of either, a fate that befell many Northern Irish artists preceding and contemporaneous.
Not that his record is unblemished. Blackshaw has owned up to being unduly swayed for a while by the 1980s vogue for neo-expressionism, an influence evident until about 1990. But in general he has not been averse to influences. There are many, some obvious, but he has usually managed to absorb them well, infusing them with what Hewitt termed his “characteristic intensity”, an intensity deriving from and “within the circle of his experience”. It is this immediacy that comes through strongly in his best work.