Edges and angst under the surface in Howth

Una Sealy couldn’t wait to escape Howth. What went wrong?

The painter Una Sealy is best known for vivid domestic interiors incorporating strongly characterised portraits of family and friends. Rather than making isolated pictures, though, she has generally produced thematic groups of works, to the extent that she has described her paintings as being almost autobiographical.

Her current show exemplifies and, in a way, summarises that practice. She is consistently focused on family, friends and her immediate environment, and the work in her new Ashford Gallery exhibition The Edge does that – with an added edge.

Sealy grew up in Howth. As a child, she loved it, but then “I couldn’t wait to get away. You know, when you grow up in a small town, everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows everything about you. It felt claustrophobic.”

She moved out when she went to study at IADT, then Dún Laoghaire School of Art. It was a propitious moment. The regime there was liberal and encouraging. She was schooled in the academic mould of art historical progressions and hierarchies and happened upon the late 1950s and early 1960s social-realist painters dubbed the Kitchen Sink School by critic David Sylvester, and she realised she could ignore the orthodoxy and paint what was immediate to her.


She also studied and became involved in the administrative side of art, initiating a group studio scheme with Phelim Connolly and later working as manager of the City Arts Centre for six years before going on to teach at Dún Laoghaire. She continues to teach, at the RHA School, and regularly oversees drawing courses at the National Gallery of Ireland.

The American years

Having established a pattern of travelling to work each summer in the US, she decided on a more extended stay and lived and worked in San Francisco for two years, from 1996 to 1998. She had a studio in Haight-Ashbury. It was, she says, a wonderful experience. Then, thinking of family and school ages, she and her partner Chris decided to move back to Ireland. Her thinking was, anywhere but Howth, but then her mother found somewhere in Howth at a reasonable price.

“I hadn’t lived in Howth for 20 years at that point. I was thinking, We’ll stay in Howth briefly and find somewhere more central. But Chris, originally from Clondalkin, had never been to Howth, and he immediately loved it.”

They moved from one temporary flat to another, but Chris was determined to find somewhere more permanent, and eventually they found a house. Sealy’s comfortable L-shaped studio is in the back garden. “Now I love Howth again,” she says.

A different problem arose when she resettled there, however. "I think that's why I concentrated on interiors for so long." Outside the door, Howth just seemed too pretty. The obvious landmarks were simply too obvious, "too picture postcard", but gradually she was tempted. "I worked towards it organically. I mean, just because a place is nice, does that rule it out as a subject?" So Howth and Baldoyle are there in The Edge, which alternates between the inner worlds of young people and the environment around them.

The title has several implications for her. “We’re on the edge of the sea. Then there’s the fact of being in a small town at the edge of a big city. And, at a certain point, you realise time is really passing. I began to look through the eyes of my son and daughter.” They were approaching different kinds of edge: growing up, the Leaving Cert, adulthood. There are portraits of them, and their friends, in the show.

“There’s this extraordinary thing about teenagers. They change so rapidly, almost day to day. They are open to the world, absorbing so much – and perhaps a bit apprehensive.” In several closely observed studies, she focuses on head and shoulders, dispensing with background.

It occurred to her that she had never painted Ireland's Eye, although she saw it every day. "Why not?" It is solidly, inescapably there at the top of a big vertical composition, Another Year on Main St, in which the street snakes sinuously down towards the sea, a line of beauty. "For me, it's really about time. When I look down that street, and really it's just an ordinary street, I get a sense of the generations. You know, we are just passing through. People don't so much own houses as mind them for the next generation."

Looking to the south, another painting, The Edge, captures the vertiginous sea cliffs in shadow with the expanse of Dublin Bay beyond.

The largest work is a panoramic triptych, looking east across the estuary from the vantage point of Baldoyle Library. Having been struck by the view, Sealy managed to negotiate an intermittent residency from December last through to March. “It was great to paint on that scale from life.” It is an epic panorama. She relishes the complex patterning created by the interweaving of light, water, sand and mud at low tide.

Smaller paintings itemise some quintessential Howth motifs: the lifeguard hut, the lighthouse, buoys, the Dart line and the station. “Trains have always been a big part of life in Howth.” She also looks at the disused industrial site at the heart of a controversial development scheme. “This leaves Howth on another edge. In proportion to the village, it’s a huge, 10-acre site and, if it goes ahead, it will change the character of the place forever.”

That slight sense of apprehension probably applies to the work overall. In fact, in retrospect, the individuals in Sealy’s portraits are rarely completely relaxed. There’s always a slight edginess. The energy that animates this new body of work, in terms of both people and places, intimates both promise and trepidation. And perhaps you can’t have one without the other.

  • The Edge by Una Sealy is at RHA Ashford Gallery, Dublin, until August 21st. rhagallery.ie