Painter Stephen McKenna dies at home in Co Carlow

Once asked if he considered himself English, Irish or European, he replied simply: ‘Yes’

Tributes have been paid to the painter Stephen McKenna who died at his home in Co Carlow on Thursday night. Highly regarded and immensely popular in the Irish art world, his life was centred on his art and throughout his long career he produced an exceptionally rich, varied and at times startlingly individual body of work.

Born in London in 1939 (his father was Irish, from Co Tyrone, his mother Scottish), he studied at the Slade School of Art and was a consummate European who spent time in several European countries, as resident or visitor, eventually settling in Ireland.

Asked by an interviewer in 1990 as to whether he considered himself English, Irish or European, he replied simply: “Yes.”

As a child he experienced the post-war devastation in Europe when the family moved to Austria for a while. At first it seemed that he would follow a traditional pattern when he took a job at Canterbury College of Art after the Slade.


At that stage he was making abstract paintings but, by the time he decided to move to Germany in 1971, he had reconnected with representational art and maintained that link for the rest of his life.

When representational painting became fashionable again at the end of the 1970s, McKenna was one of the artists who benefitted as his work became highly desirable among museums and collectors. It did not put him off his stride when fashion subsequently moved on.

Living in Italy from the late 1980s he produced some of the best work of his life. His Italian interiors perfectly express an idealised harmony of living, working and thinking. There is an idealised quality, as well, to his more recent, outstanding series of paintings of European port cities. They are wonderful works that foreground the architectural element that is always present to some degree in his work.

In the late 1990s he settled on the banks of the River Barrow in Co Carlow, having previously spent time in Co Donegal. He curated a major exhibition at IMMA in 1997, The Pursuit of Painting, and was himself the subject of numerous shows. He was represented by the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin.

Elected to Aosdána in 1999, he became a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 2002 and served as President of the RHA from 2005-2009.

Erudite, sociable, generous and insatiably curious, he had a wide circle of friends and admirers.

Expressing sadness at his death, Arts Council chairwoman Sheila Pratschke said he had been “a significant influence on younger artists and was highly respected for his artistic integrity”.

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times