Erudite SB Kennedy leaves a rich literary legacy

Late art historian and curator of Ulster Museum is best remembered for his work on Paul Henry

Erudition, expertise and intuition are just some of the words that have been used to describe the late art historian Dr SB Kennedy who died on February 3rd, aged 79. Samuel Brian, known as Brian, used the initials SB in literature to avoid confusion with Brian Kennedy, the Irish-born museum director.

Kennedy acquired many important contemporary works for the Ulster Museum during his tenure as head of fine and applied art and later keeper of art at the Ulster Museum. "The museum had limited funds, so dad used to love trying to spot up-and-coming talents and build collections beyond the obvious," says daughter Alison, adding, "he was a museum man as well as an art historian and loved looking at paintings not just in an academic context".

His PhD at Trinity College Dublin under the late pioneering art historian Anne Crookshank, who he admired greatly, formed the basis of his groundbreaking book, Irish Art and Modernism 1880-1950, which won him the Sunday Independent/Irish Life Visual Arts Award in 1991, and is widely regarded as the definitive text for this period.

Best known for his incredible work on artist Paul Henry, he also produced Henry's catalogue raisonné.


"I remember trekking off with dad and mum to Achill where he would try and find all the sites where Henry would have painted from," recalls Alison. "But though he was based in Belfast, he loved the social side of the art world too and would regularly go to visit his pals in Dublin such as James Gorry [of the Gorry Gallery] and James O'Halloran [of Adam's]".

“We were good pals and he was one of those academics who was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge, I learnt a great deal from him over the last 40 years that I knew him,” recalls managing director of Adam’s of St Stephen’s Green, James O’Halloran.

His curatorial legacy will be remembered by the Paul Henry exhibition in 2003, which was the first major show devoted to an Irish artist in the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery in Dublin. The 100 works, from public and private collections in Ireland, Europe and the United States, remains the largest exhibition of the Belfast born artist.

His literary legacy is well documented. Rarely is a fine art catalogue printed on this island without a reference to Dr SB Kennedy's words. But his literary capabilities went far beyond Henry, and include books on TP Flanagan, Frank McKelvey, The White Stag Group and Basil Blackshaw.

His contribution to Irish art continues posthumously as he had two books in the pipeline, both of which are completed but yet unpublished. Both are biographies: the first is on Kenneth Hall of the White Stag Group; while the second is on former RHA president Dermod O'Brien, the Irish landscape and portrait painter who was part of the painting event at the 1928 Summer Olympics.

Dr Kennedy was predeceased by his wife Doreen, who died in 2007, and is survived by daughter Alison and second wife Jennifer.