Making a space all her own


Camille Souter is an extraordinary artist who has stayed out of the limelight - until now, writes Aidan Dunne, Art Critic.

Camille Souter is one of the best known, and most highly regarded Irish artists of the past 60 years, yet there is, and always was, something elusive and fugitive about her. She may not quite be a recluse on the level of JD Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, but she is notoriously wary of anything to do with the public side of being an artist. Rather than courting the limelight and chasing fame, her instinct has been to run the other way. Artists sensibly aspire to exhibit their work, but there are numerous accounts of how reluctant Souter is to release paintings for exhibition.

Equally, she has jealously guarded her working space, both physical and psychological. As is the case for many artists, a place has to feel right before she is able to work in it. She devoted a great deal of effort to devising a studio in which she felt comfortable on Achill Island, and was understandably appalled when a subsequent development directly overlooked her. All of which is as much about preserving what might be described as her mental space.

It would be wrong to characterise Souter as being obsessively private. Though shy, she is quite a sociable person. She turns up at cultural and social events and is clearly happy enough to be there. Her trademark style, including a beret and brightly coloured scarves, makes her instantly recognisable. Garrett Cormican was only vaguely aware of her when he embarked on his final year of an art history degree at Trinity College in 1997. He needed a subject for a dissertation. His supervisor, Dr Peter Cherry, suggested Souter.

Cormican took one look at a catalogue of her mid-term retrospective at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in 1980 and was so impressed that he instantly decided to make her the subject of his dissertation.

"This proved considerably more difficult than anticipated," he immediately adds.

But he was fascinated and persistent to a heroic degree. After an initial, highly promising meeting, he and Souter struck up a warm friendship. The eventual result of which is Camille Souter: The Mirror in the Sea, a formidable, profusely illustrated volume.

It is the best and most informative publication on Souter to date, and not only because, as he notes himself, the literature on her is relatively scarce. He is an exhaustive researcher, and, apart from a detailed chronological biography (with several omissions relating to the artist's personal life) he has compiled not a comprehensive catalogue raisonnébut by far the fullest, most consistent catalogue of her work from 1955 up to the present. The book is an indispensable source of reference on her work and also one of the most impressive monographs yet produced on an Irish artist.

Betty Pamela Holmes - she later adopted the name Camille Souter - was born not in Ireland but in Northampton, though the family moved to Ireland within a few years of her birth. She was brought up in Glenageary and attended school in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. A dreamy pupil, she didn't shine academically, although would have been fine except that she failed Irish, a compulsory subject in the Leaving Cert, and went on to study nursing at Guys Hospital in London. London broadened her emotional and intellectual horizons immeasurably but, while nursing at Guys she, along with several other nurses, contracted tuberculosis.

IN MANY RESPECTSshe enjoyed her long period of recuperation, on the Isle of Wight - where she read a great deal - and in Ireland, where she attended sculpture classes. Back in London, she enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle, mixing with artists and theatrical people, including Gordon Souter, who she married.

She had started to paint and, establishing a pattern that would become familiar throughout her life, she set off with her first baby and precious little money, to paint in Italy.

Cormican's documentation of her work begins in the mid-1950s, when she was back in Dublin. Though she obviously did produce paintings prior to that she seems unhappy with them.

In any case, commentators noted that she seemed to arrive as a fully-formed artist on the Irish art scene. Her early style drew on European Tachisme and American Abstract Expressionism. Her playful, brightly coloured, spiky, linear compositions also strongly recalled aspects of Klee and Miro.

Another spell in Italy presaged a stay on Achill, a place which has been extremely important in her life and where she now lives.

WHEN SHE MARRIEDthe sculptor Frank Morris in 1960, however, they settled not on Achill but in a remote cottage on Calary Bog. Her early style modulated to something more subtle and considered. Layers of colour build towards radiant, watery evocations of place. Her work is habitually intimate in scale. Collectors love her lyrical, delicately observed landscapes, and she is reasonably bracketed with a strain of Celtic romanticism. Yet that is only one part of her artistic personality.

She is drawn to much thornier subjects: like Chaïm Soutine to meat hanging in slaughterhouses, to evocations of flight in another remarkable series of paintings, for which she took flying lessons, to horribly wounded airmen, recalled from her days as a nurse, and to the war in the Kuwaiti dessert.

The latter is a classic case of the biographer becoming part of the story of his subject. Souter went to Kuwait with Cormican, who was visiting his sister there in 1999.

Though it is true to say that she very much wanted to go, having been interested in the region since the first Gulf War.

Her autonomy and her determination to live her life on her own terms are extraordinary in the context.

For long periods she has had to survive on minimal means, and it is almost as if she has accepted straitened circumstances as the price of freedom.

All the same, as Cormican notes, she has raised five children on her income as an artist: no mean feat. There is a modestly to his approach in that he does not attempt to locate Souter's work in the context of contemporary art theory, something we have cause to be grateful about. He does, though, feel the need to assert her worth in a fairly vague way, which merely underlines the fact that there is still much to be discovered about one of the best, most distinctive bodies of work ever produced by an Irish artist.

• Camille Souter: The Mirror in the Sea by Garrett Cormican (Whyte's) €60.