Capital honour for modest master of the countryside

Fri, Jan 11, 2013, 00:00

Last year the painter Basil Blackshaw, by common consent one of the finest living Irish artists, turned 80 and to mark the occasion a retrospective exhibition of his work opened last night at the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery on Ely Place.

The exhibition is jointly organised by the RHA and the FE McWilliam Gallery and Studio in Banbridge, Co Down, who jointly invited the artist to select the paintings.

Among the works on show is an epic canvas depicting a crucial moment in the 1967 Grand National, when the race was reduced to a shambles at the 23rd fence, leaving the field clear for Irish horse Foinaven to win.

Blackshaw’s 1989 portrait of Douglas Gageby, a former Irish Times editor, is also on view. Other portrait subjects include playwright Brian Friel, poet Michael Longley, the art collector Vincent Ferguson, who was a champion of his work, and fellow artist Graham Gingles, pictured with his partner Jude Stephens, a longtime model for Blackshaw. Animal subjects abound, often depicted with a bold, inventive wit.

Precociously talented

Born in Glengormley, Co Antrim, Blackshaw was precociously talented from an early age and began studying at Belfast College of Art when he was 16. Rather than becoming a traditional realist, however, he developed his own informal, irreverent style of representation.

Renowned for his landscapes, portraits and figure paintings, what really sets him apart is his feeling for rural life and rural pursuits. His studies of horses and horseracing, of dogs and other animals, are unsurpassed.

While he is a brilliant draughtsman, he is an expressionist rather than a neat realist, and everything he does is infused with an unmistakable nervous vitality. A country-dweller who likes the pace and rhythm of country life, he is reclusive and media-shy. He is famously reluctant to say anything about his work or to pay attention to anything written by others about it, believing that it should speak for itself.

The exhibition was curated by Dr Riann Coulter, director of the FE McWilliam Gallery. Blackshaw, she observes, lived up to his reputation for reticence. When agreeing that a particular picture should be included, he didn’t exactly blow his own trumpet: “I don’t mind that one” is as far as he would go, she recalls.


Blackshaw at 80 is at the RHA Gallery, Ely Place until February 24th.