One of Ireland's greatest artists


LOUIS LE BROCQUY: LOUIS LE Brocquy was one of the foremost Irish artists of the 20th century, best known for his strikingly original portraits of literary and other creative figures.

He enjoyed a long, highly successful career as a painter, printmaker and designer from the late 1930s onwards, and was an influential champion of modernism in Ireland. His 1969 brush drawings for The Táin have not been surpassed. Much sought after by collectors, his work has consistently attracted high prices in the auction rooms.

Louis le Brocquy was born in Dublin on November 10th, 1916, to Albert and Sybil (née de Lacy Staunton) le Brocquy. The family lived on Zion Road and, from 1931, on Kenilworth Square.

His brother, Noel, was born in 1917 and his sister, the distinguished sculptor Melanie, in 1919.

The family name is of Walloon origin. Le Brocquy’s great-grandfather came to Ireland to buy horses for the Belgian army but instead married a Kilkenny woman and stayed.

Sybil, who used the nom de plume Helen Staunton, was actively involved in the Dublin literary scene, had a play staged at the Abbey and was friendly with WB Yeats, AE and James Stephens.

Louis attended St Gerard’s School, Co Wicklow, as a boarder. He went on to study chemistry at the technical school on Kevin Street and as an external student at Trinity College Dublin. The intention was that he work in the family business, the Greenmount Oil Company in Harold’s Cross, which had been established by his paternal grandfather.

Apparently from an early age le Brocquy exhibited the mixture of dreamy abstraction and canny practicality that will be familiar to those who knew him in later years. He had become fascinated by painting and when he fell in love, with Jean Stoney, Sybil boldly suggested that the couple elope to London and thence to Europe. There le Brocquy could pursue his artistic ambitions, although, as he later put it: “I did not know whether I was an artist.”

He and Stoney married in December 1938 and they had a daughter, Seyre, the following year. The couple separated in 1941 and divorced in 1948.

Le Brocquy, who was technically adept from the beginning, said he learned about painting by studying the great works of European painters in the major galleries. He returned to Ireland in 1940. Being away from Ireland, he later wrote, first made him aware of his Irishness.

During the war years he painted murals and stained-glass windows for public houses and designed stage sets, including productions for the Gaiety and the Peacock. He befriended the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, who was living in Dublin.

While he was not overtly political, le Brocquy’s instinctive liberalism, his sceptical attitude towards institutional religion and his aesthetic views served to situate him politically in a conservative society. Having made accomplished representational paintings, he quickly moved beyond traditional naturalism, stylising and fragmenting his imagery in ways that displayed a good grasp of Cubism and other modernist innovations, then still haltingly and cautiously embraced in Ireland.

When his paintings were rejected by the Royal Hibernian Academy for its annual exhibitions in the early 1940s, he became a founder member, with others including Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone and Norah McGuinness, of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. For several decades it remained the dominant modernist alternative to the academy.

Meanwhile, le Brocquy’s work caught the eye of Charles Gimpel who, with his brother, was establishing a gallery in London, Gimpel Fils. An enduring association ensued and in 1946, le Brocquy moved to London.

At about this time he began to make paintings about the way of life of Irish Travellers, including such outstanding works as Travelling People (1946) and Travelling Woman with Newspaper (1947- 1948). His reputation grew in a climate coloured by post-war angst, Sartrean existentialism and cold- war anxiety.

When his large painting A Family (1951) was exhibited at Gimpel Fils to considerable critical acclaim, including high praise from John Berger, a group of collectors offered to buy it and present it to the Hugh Lane gallery.

The gallery declined and a lively controversy ensued. Le Brocquy had the last laugh when the same painting won a purchase award sponsored by Nestlé at the Venice Biennale in 1956, at which he and Hilary Heron represented Ireland.

Fifty years after it was painted, Lochlann and Brenda Quinn bought it at auction in London for £1.7 million and gave it to the National Gallery of Ireland. It is now in contention for the accolade of being the most popular painting in Irish public collections.

After a relatively fallow period, a chance observation on a visit to Spain in 1955 set le Brocquy off in a new direction. He was struck at how the dazzling midday sun seemed to dissolve human form against the whitewashed walls and, back in London, began his paintings of isolated human presences.

He had also met the painter Anne Madden. The spinal motif in many of these works relates to Madden’s surgery for a back injury and her slow recuperation. In the paintings, spectral human presences seem to emerge from the pale depths of the canvas.

Essentially, with some variations, it was a theme and a format that was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life.

He and Madden married in 1958. They have two sons, Alexis, born in 1961, and Pierre, born in 1963. Following their marriage, thinking the climate would aid Madden’s recovery, they decided to move to France. From that point until 1999, when they made Dublin their base, they split their time between France and Ireland. They settled in Carros in the Alpes-Maritimes in 1963. There they shared a large studio and worked harmoniously together for many years.

But le Brocquy faced another impasse in his work and, he says, destroyed an entire year’s output in 1963. In 1964, visiting the Musée de l’Homme, he came across a display of decorated Polynesian skulls. Back in his studio, he made a connection between the painted skulls and Celtic head cults, which prompted him to start painting a series of ancestral heads. In these paintings, as he later put it: “The head was a magic box that held the spirit prisoner.”

The image of a ghostly head suspended against and indeed merging with a white void is an emblem of isolation and transience, yet le Brocquy also imbues it with intimations of continuity and community. The ancestral heads led directly to the works with which he is most identified.

In the late 1960s, he began to make paintings of the head of James Joyce. He was cautious in his approach, always indicating the partial, fragmentary nature of his endeavour, aiming not just for a likeness but also for “an archaeology of the spirit”.

His subjects also included Yeats and Samuel Beckett (a personal friend and especially important to him), as well as other friends and contemporaries including Seamus Heaney, John Montague and, more recently, Bono.

Le Brocquy scored a notable success with a series of brilliant illustrations for the 1969 Dolmen Press edition of Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin, commissioned by Liam Miller.

The brush-drawing technique he used for The Táin was applied to designs for a series of tapestries. His involvement with tapestry was triggered by a 1948 commission from Edinburgh Tapestry weavers and he pursued his interest in the medium through many collaborations with the Tabard workshop in Aubusson in France, producing several landmark works.

During le Brocquy and Madden’s stays in Dublin, and after they settled back in Ireland, their home was the scene of lively social gatherings where more or less anyone involved in cultural pursuits, Irish-based or visiting, was likely to turn up. A charming and thoughtful man of modest demeanour, le Brocquy was a fine conversationalist with a wry, mischievous sense of humour.

He received numerous rewards and honours, such as honorary doctorates from many institutions including UCD, DCU and DIT. In 1975 he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. He was elected a saoí of Aosdána in 1994 and was awarded the inaugural Glen Dimplex prize for a sustained contribution to the visual arts in Ireland in 1998.

Le Brocquy had a long association with Gimpel Fils in London and the Taylor Galleries in Dublin – as well as its predecessor, the Dawson Gallery. There were major solo exhibitions of his work at the Fondation Maeght in 1973, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1976, the New York State Museum in 1981, the Palais des Beaux Arts, Charleroi, in 1982, in several Australian cities in 1988 and Japanese cities in 1991, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) in 1997 and at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca in Mexico in 2000.

His 90th birthday in 2006 was marked by 10 exhibitions of his work in Ireland, London and Paris, including major shows at the National Gallery of Ireland, the Hunt Museum and Imma.

There is extensive literature on his work and a biography by Madden, A Painter Seeing His Way, was published by Gill Macmillan in 1994.

After a year’s illness, le Brocquy died at his home in Dublin. He is survived by his wife, Anne, his sister, Melanie, his daughter, Seyre and his sons, Alexis and Pierre.

Louis le Brocquy: born November 10th, 1916; died April 25th, 2012. Editorial comment: page 15