Celebration of the artist le Brocquy as spiritual, noble man


NEARLY 10 years ago, Louis le Brocquy, an agnostic since the age of 13, wrote to a Benedictine monk inviting him to speak at “some ceremony following my death”. In the letter to Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey, le Brocquy said he and his wife, “on the whole, favour the background of St Patrick’s Cathedral”.

So on Saturday afternoon, more than 600 people, including the President, the Chief Justice and Bono, flowed into the vaulting, 13th-century cathedral for a celebration of the 95-year-old artist, who died last Wednesday.

It was a secular yet deeply spiritual farewell for a man who subscribed to no religion but who, in the words of his wife Anne Madden, in the beautifully designed order of service, was absorbed all his life by “the mystery of being”.

For a coffin, he selected unembellished pale oak, adorned with perfect cream roses, and for the music he chose Mozart’s soaring, unsettling Requiem in D Minor, performed in a blaze of candlelight under the banners and hatchments of King George III’s Knights of St Patrick.

He had also invited Seamus Heaney, Anthony Cronin and Barbara Dawson, the director of the Hugh Lane gallery, to speak.

In his welcome, the precentor, the Rev Robert Reed, remarked on the cathedral’s “many meaningful associations” with the le Brocquy family, beginning with the scholarly works of Sybil – le Brocquy’s mother – on Dean Swift. The agnostic le Brocquy’s request of a contribution from a Benedictine monk, was, he smiled, “perhaps just in case”.

Abbot Hederman said le Brocquy had chosen St Patrick’s because “he ‘was vaguely ecumenical’, he said, ‘embracing the larger Christian message which I accept with all my heart’,” and there were hints at some lively, open-minded exchanges around the existence of the human spirit between them.

The artist saw “inner being where others see a smiling face”, said Abbot Hederman. His series of head portraits, which included “Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Bacon, Picasso, Shakespeare, Heaney, Lorca, Wilde, Mandela and Bono”, were not “just people he admired . . . They were persons who had furthered the evolution of human consciousness.

“‘Like the Celts,’ Louis said, ‘I tend to regard the head as this magic box containing the spirit. Enter that box, enter behind the billowing curtain of the face and you have the whole landscape of the spirit.’”

Le Brocquy believed that “the spirit of consciousness is indestructible” and that “matter can never be destroyed”, said the abbot. “I believe that today we are also celebrating a new life for Louis which is a life with the holy spirit. Louis in the sky, with diamonds,” he said to laughter.

“Nothing less.”

Anthony Cronin read his own delicate, short poem, Completion, and was followed by Seamus Heaney, who said that like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, le Brocquy’s “images of the human found a way to represent the stresses and anxieties that haunted the 20th-century consciousness”.

But no encyclopaedia entry in the mid-21st century “would conjure up the reality of the man that many of us knew as a friend, indeed as a hero.

“A le Brocquy is one thing; a Louis is another . . . There was a nobility in his carriage as well as in his cultivated self, a nobility too in his readiness to stand up for justice, for human rights, in his long association with the anti- apartheid movement and his ongoing commitment to Amnesty.”

Le Brocquy and his friend Samuel Beckett were “like Bedouins in the imagination . . . tall apparitions . . . reminiscent of those fabulous presences in the illustrations of Thomas Kinsella’s An Táin”.

Barbara Dawson focused on the work, remarking that le Brocquy was the only living artist to be represented in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland.

She touched on the controversial history of A Family, his 1950s painting, which, she said to knowing laughs, “should be in the Hugh Lane” (the gallery rejected it in the 1950s). But it deserved its “pride of place” in the National Gallery, she said, and it was now among the nominations for Ireland’s favourite painting.

“And if he does win, ruling from the grave will take on a whole other meaning.”

Dawson, in common with other speakers, referred to the centrality of Anne Madden in le Brocquy’s work and life, the woman whom “Louis referred to as his third eye . . . who was herself renowned as a totally committed artist, [but] who wove herself around Louis and her family, despite how much it must have cost her”.

Ireland, said Dawson, “has lost a great artist and I have lost a dear friend”.

Leading the chief mourners Anne Madden, her sons, Pierre and Alexis, Melanie le Brocquy and Aileen le Brocquy, was President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina. The Taoiseach was represented by Comdt Michael Treacy and the Lord Mayor by Vincent Jackson.

The congregation also included the Chief Justice Ms Susan Denham; Rene, Charles and Bridget Gimpel from Gimpel Fils; Bono and The Edge; Patrick Taylor; Oliver Dowling; Pat Moylan and Orlaith McBride from the Arts Council; Olive Braiden of the National Gallery; Patrick Murphy of the RHA; Camille Souter; Sean Scully; Hughie O’Donoghue; Tom Murphy; Mick O’Dea; Micheal O’Siadhail; Garech de Brún; Jane Brennan; James Hanley; Anne Haverty; Robert Ballagh; Raymond Keaveney; Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty; Joe Mulholland; John Bowman; Neil Jordan; and John Boorman.