Home Is Where The Art Is

 

Leaving his secure job with a bank to become an artist in St Ives was an extraordinary risk for a man in the 1950s, but it was the decision that allowed the late Tony O’Malley to blossom as an artist, and to meet the love of his life

JANE O’MALLEY HAS a talent for making the things around her beautiful. We’re having lunch in her flower-filled conservatory, and looking out across the lawn to the gardens beyond. Sunlight floods in, and everywhere you look, there are creative touches. It is a total reinvention of the old labourer’s cottage, set on the edge of a wild field, that Jane and her late husband Tony O’Malley bought in 1977. The living arrangements are also a far cry from when the couple first arrived – there was no running water and the couple “used to sleep on a piece of sponge with newspapers under it, on the floor of what is now Tony’s den”.

The couple had never actually seen the house, except in a rather murky auctioneer’s photograph, but, having lived for 30 years in the artists’ colony of St Ives in Cornwall, Tony “longed to come home to Ireland”. Knowing the area and its history, he also knew how well-built and welcoming old labourer’s cottages could become. Place and environment are very important to artists; far from the cliche of an artist taking inspiration from a grotty garret, having the right space in which to work can totally transform an artist’s life.

Tony O’Malley, who died in 2003, was one of Ireland’s leading artists. Initially a bank official, his own life was transformed when, convalescing from illness, he began to paint. He moved to St Ives in 1959 to become a full time artist. “It was all I ever wanted,” he later said. “When Tony first went to St Ives,” Jane says, “he’d seen an ad in the New Statesman– I think he got it from Padraic Fallon, the poet – and he went across on a cattle boat and made his way down. He was just accepted there, accepted by people like Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter, Johnny Wells . . . He just was born there. It must have been amazing for him.”

Living there was made easier when the Arts Council of England awarded him Seal Cottage as a living space, as well as one of the prestigious Porthmeor Studios. “Place certainly influenced Tony,” says Jane. “It would influence anyone. It was the light that took everyone there. It’s known for its light, it’s amazing. I’d love to paint the way I painted then. Pale, grey, cool, silver. Quite different.”

The couple met by chance on the street. “I was walking across to the school one day, with a cup of coffee in my hand, and I saw this very attractive man. I didn’t know he was Tony O’Malley. He was pale, he’d had the flu. He was absolutely white, and he had this black goatee. And he was standing, real Irish-style, watching the world go by. He always teased me afterwards that I gave him this great big smile, though I don’t remember it.”

It’s not surprising that Tony claimed a big smile from Jane, because she was, and still is, absolutely beautiful. A delicately featured Canadian, yet with a hint of strength to her, she had come to Cornwall to satisfy her own desire to be an artist. She ran into Tony again a couple of weeks later, while the pair were coincidentally visiting the same friend. “Who was sitting there but Tony O’Malley? And I’m telling you, the twinkle in his eye was something else. Beautiful blue eyes, they just smiled.”

Soon inseparable, the couple went on the first of many trips to St Martin’s on the Scilly Isles.

“The first time we went, we rented a house and in the kitchen was a small little table. We were only there for a couple of weeks, so we just had crayons and some gouache, and we just started working, and we clicked. It was a very natural thing. We always worked in silence, it was a nice feeling.”

From then on, the couple shared a studio. “We always made our little nest wherever we went. And we worked really, really well together. In the chalet that we rented in St Martin’s, we’d work and eat at the same table in amongst all the paints.”

O’Malley was born in Callan, Co Kilkenny in 1913, growing up above a little shop. The shop had been left to Tony when his parents died, but he gave it to one of his sisters. When his sister died, and it was coming back on to the market, he realised how much he didn’t want to lose that connection with his past. Dogged by ill health throughout his life, Tony was in hospital when Jane brought him the news that they had succeeded in buying back the family home. “I said ‘We got it,’ and he whispered ‘Well, what are you going to do with it?’ And I said ‘What about a residency,’ and he lit up. That was that,” says Jane.

Since then, Jane has worked on restoring and renovating the Callan house and shop front, so that it now includes the former shop counter, a sunny kitchen and living room (complete with hand-woven carpets designed by both Tony and Jane), two cottage-style bedrooms, and a wonderful double height studio. There is also a garden, where, carved on to a stone in the wall, is a saying of Tony’s: “Never be swayed by anything but by your own work and vision.”

Here, there is plenty of space to sit and think, and do what Tony described as “distilling” the work and ideas of the day.

Administered by Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy, a residency will be offered for a painter to come and live and work in the Callan house for a year at a time.

Place was so important to Tony O’Malley, and continues to influence Jane today: an annual trip to the Bahamas (where Jane’s sister lived) led to Tony’s once dark and earthy tones becoming bright with sunshine and colour; while Jane’s most recent body of work, shown at Dublin’s Taylor Galleries last year, take their colours and forms from the island of Lanzarote. Jane hopes the Callan residency will inspire a new generation of artists in its turn.

“Because of the residency Tony was awarded in St Ives, we thought that was the best thing to do,” she says. “It changed Tony’s life to have that studio and cottage – having come from Callan where he had nothing, and people thought he was mad to leave the bank.”

When Tony died, Jane was devastated. “I think the Irish handle death very well,” she says. “I had a great wake for Tony. I just let it all out, and thought it was quite normal to chat to him at the wake, and to have everyone there chatting to him, too. About four or five days afterwards I had the horrific realisation, I woke up one morning, and bang, it hit me, Tony wasn’t there.”

Now, the studio in Callan and the residency are secured for the future, and there are also plans for a Tony O’Malley Gallery as part of the Butler Gallery Kilkenny’s development project. “That’s the plan,” Jane smiles. “I want it to go on, a gift to the nation. It’s a big relief really – that it’s happening.”

The deadline for applications to the Tony O’Malley Studio Residency is July 30th. Further information from Ciara Timlin, ciara@rhagallery.ie, 01-6612558.

An exhibition, The Assemblages of Tony O’Malley, curated by Anna O’Sullivan, is at the Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, from August 7th to October 3rd, butlergallery.com