Farmleigh to host exhibition of noted Belfast painter Daniel O’Neill

Exhibition, which had been due to open last year, is first retrospective of his work in 70 years

A new exhibition of the work of Belfast painter Daniel O'Neill – the first retrospective exhibition of the artist in 70 years – opens on March 13th at the Farmleigh Gallery. It is presented by the Office of Public Works and curated by art historian Karen Rehill, who published a monograph of the artist to mark the centenary of his birth in 2020. The show was originally due to open last year, but like many exhibitions, plans and dreams, was deferred to due to the pandemic.

The majority of artworks have been borrowed from private collections, so have not been seen in public in more than 50 years, with the remainder sourced from collections at IMMA, the Ulster Museum and the University of Limerick. The last time O'Neill's work was exhibited was in 1952, at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery (Ulster Museum) which had a record attendance at the time. Entitled Daniel O'Neill: Romanticism & Friendships, this exhibition will also feature paintings by his friends and fellow artists Colin Middleton, George Campbell and Gerard Dillon.

Born in Belfast in 1920, the largely self-taught painter briefly attended life drawing classes at the Belfast College of Art. The son of an electrician, and an electrician by trade, his striking paintings have been described as full of pathos. In 1945 he was discovered by art dealer Victor Waddington, and this allowed him to paint full-time.

However, despite a regular income to support his family who then lived in Clonlig, Co Down, the artist battled alcoholism and poor mental health throughout his short life – he died at the age of 54. His work enjoyed critical and collector acclaim in Ireland and overseas, before his untimely death in 1974. He was at that time the most consistently successful – in commercial terms – of his peers Dillon and Campbell, a collective known as the Ulster Painters. In the auction world, he enjoyed a period of commercial success in the years between 2005 and 2008. The highest price achieved was €228,000 (excluding fees) for his Reclining Figure through Sotheby’s; Whyte’s attained €170,000 for Girl with a Cat, and Adam’s of St Stephen’s Green secured €185,000 for The Red Bow. It has been suggested by some art critics that the market is currently undervaluing works by O’Neill, a few of which appear each year at auction.

Like many brilliant artists and writers, his demons fuelled his art and his short life marked with tragedy means the painter, who lived in dire poverty in the final years of his life, ended up interred in an unmarked grave in his native Belfast.

“It is hoped that the exhibition will be an opportunity for the public to re-examine the life and work of this artist, who was highly regarded by the critics in post-war years, and whose works were in popular demand until his death,” according to curator Rehill.

Admission is free and the exhibition runs until June 6th.

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