Talented sculptor known for quality of religious and secular work

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

Ian Stuart: Born: October 5th, 1926, Died: February 8th, 2013:Ian Stuart, who has died aged 86, was once regarded as the finest Irish sculptor of his generation. His work was lauded for its precision and professional competence, while he was commended for his impeccable taste. The art historian Anne Crookshank hailed him as “the first Dublin sculptor to emerge as a ‘modern’ figure”.

Originally known as a creator of religious art, he subsequently changed direction and drew inspiration from icons and symbols of death, fertility and myth, using basic materials such as bone, stone and mangrove tree.

Examples of his early work include The Annunciation on the outside wall of the Church of the Holy Rosary, Limerick, and the copper and silver Madonna at Presentation Brothers College, Glasthule, Co Dublin.

Secular commissions include a fountain for the Irish Life building on Mespil Road, Dublin, in 1963, and The Tree of Life at Stephen’s Court which housed the former Anglo Irish Bank head office, in 1971.

He featured in the major Dublin group exhibitions, and also exhibited in New York, San Francisco and London. He twice represented Ireland at the Paris biennale, and his work is in public and private collections at home and abroad.

Born in Dublin in 1926, he was one of three children of writer Francis Stuart and his wife Iseult, daughter of Maud Gonne MacBride. He grew up in his grandmother’s home, Laragh Castle, in Glendalough, Co Wicklow.

During the Emergency, Nazi spy Hermann Görtz found shelter in the family home while Stuart senior made radio broadcasts from Berlin.

Ian Stuart became interested in woodcarving at Glenstal Priory, and later studied under Laurence Campbell at the National College of Art.

In 1948 he went to Germany to continue his studies under Otto Hitzberger in Munich and Berlin. Striking up a friendship with fellow student Imogen Werner, he and she discussed art, he sang her Irish rebel songs and soon they were inseparable.

Married in 1951, they initially lived at Laragh, with Stuart’s mother and grandmother, and later moved to Sandycove, Co Dublin. They had three children together.

Working in wood, metal and stone, they mainly lived off church commissions and their joint exhibition of religious sculpture was held at the Dawson gallery, Dublin, in 1959. Their work also was shown at the Salzburg biennale in 1962.

The marriage ended in divorce in 1971. The couple’s daughter Siobhán was killed in a car crash in 1988.

In 1960 Stuart shared the Macaulay fellowship in sculpture with James McKenna. His solo show in 1961 was deemed by The Irish Times critic “J.W.” to have placed him “not only at the top of the cultural tree in Ireland, but probably right in the middle of the international forest”.

Also in 1961 the Museum of Modern Art in New York purchased one of his works.

His next solo show, in 1963, marked a departure. Opening the exhibition, Seán Ó Faoláin said: “Why should we think that the texture of a Madonna’s cheek is inherently more beautiful than the texture of a tangle of old rusted rabbit traps? We are surrounded today not by silver armour and scarlet cloaks, but by such things as cylinder heads and old IBM machinery.”

Brian Fallon, however, writing in this newspaper in 1966, was not impressed by the “present fashion of assembling bits of rusty irons, etc, into an often pointless creation”. He acknowledged Stuart’s visual wit, sense of texture and elegance but wrote that he found the artist’s works “strangely passive and inert, even dull”.

Nevertheless, Stuart in 1967 won the prize for sculpture at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. In 1970 an international jury awarded him a Ford Foundation grant to live and work in Berlin.

In 1985 he was listed among the 100 key names in Irish art, although it was noted that he had “dropped out of sight in recent years”.

By now deeply immersed in the 1960s counterculture, he had wholeheartedly embraced the lifestyle and travelled to Marrakesh.

At Wicklow District Court in 1988 he was ordered to pay £20 to charity arising from a drug-related offence. Six years later a Rotterdam court imposed an 18-month sentence for possession of 2.75 tonnes of cannabis,with a street value of £22 million. He did not appear in court because, his lawyer said, he suffered from a heart complaint. He had been released from prison in Rotterdam apparently because of overcrowding. The Dutch prosecutors office said he would be made to serve his sentence if he ever set foot in the Netherlands. Stuart remained at large.

In 2005 he had a solo show at the Cross gallery, Dublin. He is survived by his wife Anna, and daughters Aoibheann, Aisling, Laragh, Suki and Sophia.

* This article was amended on February 28th, 2013