Graham Knuttel: 10 things you didn’t know about the artist

The Celtic Tiger-era painter was erudite, reclusive and had a childlike fascination with criminality

1. He died too young

Graham Knuttel died at the age of 69. Today, I think of him in his prime, holding court in a Georgian mansion across the road from Renards nightclub, from where revellers routinely decanted into his sittingroom. As a host, Graham could hardly be described as solicitous. He didn’t care for social niceties. But, at his best, he was erudite, boyish, conspiratorial, generous and funny. He was, in short, great company. I miss him already.

2. Art critics never understood his appeal

Graham Knuttel was one of the most successful painters of his generation. Regarded with suspicion by the art establishment, he was prolific, and his work fetched high prices at a time when the Irish economy was the envy of the world. In documenting the vanity and villainy of the Celtic Tiger, he became particularly popular among the fat cats who populate his pictures. Like Ross O’Carroll Kelly, no one loved the satire more than its targets.

3. He had a weakness for rogues

The artist had an instantly recognisable style and a small number of preferred subjects. In his paintings you will meet Punch and Judy; cats and birds; pinstripe bullies; shadowy figures who may or may not be spivs. He had a weakness for rogues, which is evident on the canvas, of course. That same weakness lent his late-night parties a sense of mischief or even danger. You would never meet the sort of people who collect Graham Knuttel paintings.

4. He was a workaholic

We are not talking about an artistic revolutionary. But Graham was smart enough to perfect his style and to find agents capable of selling it to the new rich. Until recently, he worked every day, always with one ear on RTÉ Radio 1. He loved Liveline, a cup of coffee and a smoke. He did not like public appearances. They were undertaken in the knowledge that he had to do them occasionally, and he could, at least, settle his nerves with a drink.


5. He would have liked this list

A voracious reader, Graham made no secret of his devotion to low culture in all its forms. He loved gossip, listicles, odd bits of colour. He liked trashy novels and old film noir movies. He hated cant. His favourite magazine was Private Eye. (His favourite column was Pseuds Corner.) On the night that Princess Diana was killed, we watched Sky News until 7am. He only went to bed because he wanted to finish a picture that afternoon.

6. He was loved by many people

Graham had a lot of opinions, and could sometimes be cantankerous, but he never had a shortage of admirers. I am thinking, in particular, of his wife, Ruth Mathers, whose love and devotion ensured that he lived in comfort through some very tough days. Every artist wants such a partner. Graham was lucky to find her.

7. He was a very generous friend

In 1990, I wrote a letter to 10 Irish artists, offering to write them a catalogue if they gave me a picture. Graham invited me out to his studio, where it emerged that we had both been to school in Dublin’s Sandford Park, and that we both had Jewish fathers. A friendship was born. Many years later, he advertised in every issue of The Dubliner magazine, and as its publisher I often wondered why. At the time, he was turning down most commissions. That was ‘Knuttelo’.

8. He was reclusive and eccentric

In 2008, I noted in my diary that Graham was becoming more unusual as the years passed. “Most of the time, he doesn’t answer his phone. His doorbell doesn’t work. The best way to contact him quickly is by fax. Borat is the only film that he has seen in a cinema in the last 10 years. He likes crime novels, conspiracy theories and Chinese restaurants. Last week he tried to convince me that John Lavery was the Seán Dunne of Irish art.”

9. He was not impressed by fame

Graham was often described as the ultimate Celtic Tiger artist, and his appearances on programmes such as the Late Late Show invariably billed him in such terms, while his agents made much of sales to Sylvester Stallone and Robert de Niro. But in private, Graham had a healthy contempt for celebrity, including his own. He preferred to talk about gangland crime, feuds, grisly murders ... in fact, any sort of criminality was regarded with child-like fascination.

10. He took loyalty to new heights

When I sold The Dubliner to another publisher, we celebrated in Graham’s house on South Frederick Street. He got plastered that night, and was genuinely thrilled for me. A few years later, he was one of the first artists to offer his work for the fledgling Little Museum of Dublin when it was starting. But Graham wasn’t happy to donate just one picture: as a result, arch-enemies Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald are now united on a wall of the museum. Knuttelo deserves his place in history.

Trevor White is the founder of the Little Museum of Dublin