Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1960 – Sheela-na-Gig paintings, by Barrie Cooke

The uninhibited women in the painter’s work spoke of the same sexual freedom heralded by the arrival of The Beatles and the end of the ban on ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

The poet Philip Larkin described 1963 as a sexual annus mirabilis, when the British ban on DH Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was lifted and The Beatles released their first LP. The sexual freedom Larkin saw emerging from that confluence of events could be said to have begun in Ireland a little earlier with Barrie Cooke's Sheela-na-Gig paintings, which he started around 1960, and the publication of Edna O'Brien's controversial novel The Country Girls that year.

Cooke’s paintings are notoriously hard to date precisely, as he tended to be a little vague about such details, but we know that he first discovered old Irish Sheela-na-gig carvings when he came to live near one of them, on the doorway of Kilnaboy church, in north Co Clare, in 1954, and that he began to experiment with his own versions in the late 1950s.

A number of these, technically very challenging, involved a female nude in clay standing proud from the canvas. Cooke's fellow artist Patrick Collins, who admired his work, introduced him to the Ritchie Hendriks Gallery, where the Sheela-na-Gig paintings were shown in 1962.

Cooke, who was born in England in 1931, gave up the study of biology at Harvard in order to paint, but his interest in nature and the environment remained a driving force in his life and in his art.


The Sheela-na-Gig paintings are a direct statement about the deep connection between human sexuality and other natural phenomena, and should be seen as part of Cooke's bigger world view: he viewed earth, air, fire and water as mutually and sometimes precariously interdependent.

The paintings shocked demure Irish audiences with their explicit sexuality; they also shocked art audiences with their incorporation of sculptural forms that projected from the muddy ground of the painted landscape.

As Barrie Cooke conceived them these uninhibited Sheelas were as much a part of nature as the fish, forests and algae that he went on to paint for the remainder of his life in areas as far apart as Co Kilkenny, New Zealand and Borneo.

Although he later also painted other objects found in bogs, such as animal and human bones and the great Irish elk, Megaceros Hibernicus, he had no interest in them as "Irish", only as manifestations of the life cycles of the earth. Seamus Heaney, who visited him in the 1970s, records Cooke's political interests as environmental rather than territorial. Describing himself as "not Irish, but more Irish than anything else", Cooke showed his commitment to his adoptive country through his tireless promotion of Irish artists and as an activist in preventing the destruction of the Burren and other places of environmental importance.

The Sheela-na-Gig paintings developed a conversation about nature and culture in Irish art, with the male artist creating objects from the natural world that included women not as fellow artists but as material to be worked on.

Cooke gleefully anticipated that his later nudes, always female, would bring him into collision with the growing feminist movement, but in 1960 that was more than a decade away, despite O'Brien's bold opening up of women's voices in The Country Girls.

Instead Cooke's Sheela-na-gigs were bought by discerning private collectors like Basil Goulding and Patrick Murphy. By the time they found their way into public collections, such as those of Dublin City Gallery and the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny, in the 1970s, Patrick Collins and others had also begun to experiment with the female nude, and sexuality and contraception were being discussed on The Late Late Show.

You can read more about this week's artwork in the Royal Hibernian Academy's Art and Architecture of Ireland;