To Inishlackan in the footsteps of Gerard Dillon

 

A trip to Connemara consolidated the vision of Belfast artist Gerard Dillon, who died 31 years ago. Now, fellow artists are finding inspiration there, writes Eileen Battersby.

Death lay in wait for Belfast artist Gerard Dillon, and it showed little patience. Having taken three of his brothers, one by one, when each was barely into his 50s, all felled by a heart condition, it then set its greedy sights on Gerard, the youngest of a family of eight. During the final decades of his life, he was preoccupied by mortality and it became the inspiration of his clown paintings from the 1950s onwards. Although he could joke "I'd rather be in some old untidy graveyard in Belfast" than a London cemetery with a team of gardeners, from 1950 onwards he saw fatality in symbols and signs. This Friday sees the 31st anniversary of his death at 55, following his second stroke, some three months after the first had hospitalised him.

His career was short and without compromise. Early on, he decided he would serve neither master nor commercial trend and if that meant he would be poor, it was fine by him. The result is exciting, original paintings such as Yellow Bungalow. A natural colourist, he could tilt perspective with an often surreal imaginative force, filtered through a humorous, somewhat pseudo-naïve, style. There are several wonderful Belfast street scenes as well as the later death-in-life clown series.

His work has echoes of Chagall, Matisse, even Picasso. Cubism made its mark on Dillon, as did Symbolism. Nor was the iconography, and particularly the narrative motifs, of Irish high crosses lost on him. He often referred to the way he had been influenced by the boxes within which the ancient masons contained the narrative scenes depicted on the crosses. His work is strongly narrative as well as autobiographical.

Here was an urban artist, a working-class product of industrial Belfast who went to the west of Ireland, via some years in London. Where others such as an earlier artist, Paul Henry (1876-1958), also a Belfast man, had seen landscape, Dillon saw the people and the rituals of work and life within that landscape. Dillon was more nostalgic than romantic. When he painted a landscape it was often depicted as seen through a window; windows are a feature of his work. He never physically painted outdoors. Instead he placed people in the landscape as one would see players on a stage. They are in the landscape because they are doing something.

Long before another Belfast artist, Rosie McGurran, moved to the village of Roundstone in Connemara two years ago, she had been aware of Dillon's work from the Ulster Museum's fine collection, including Yellow Bungalow and Self-contained Flat, and she knew he had spent a good deal of time in Roundstone. But it was not until 1999, when she read a book by yet another Belfast artist, James MacIntyre, Three Men on an Island, (published three years earlier by Blackstaff Press in Belfast) that she realised Dillon had actually lived on Inishlackan, the island of lakes near Gorteen Bay port and Roundstone, for a year in 1951.

As MacIntyre recounts, Dillon had a year's use of a cottage on the island in part-payment for a painting and, in the spring, invited a friend out. En route from Belfast, MacIntyre spent the night in Dublin with another Belfast artist, George Campbell, and his wife, Madge. Campbell, feeling pleased with the success of a recent exhibition, announced he was going to Roundstone as well.

Hence the three artists arrived on the island. Aside from having a good time, and braving the sea - and their rowing skills - to visit the Roundstone pubs, and enjoy the hospitality of writer Kate O'Brien, the three produced good work. It was this idea of artists working together on an island, sharing a landscape, that inspired McGurran to invite a group out to paint while celebrating the life and vision of Gerard Dillon.

Seven artists from Ireland and the UK visited the island and each responded to it by producing an exhibition based on their two-week stay. This residency culminated in the Three Days in May event, including workshops, music, poetry and a tour of the island with archaeologist Michael Gibbons. There was also a screening of Moore Sinnerton's excellent 1991 BBC documentary, Gerard Dillon - Painter and Decorator.

Last year, McGurran marked the 30th anniversary of Dillon's death with a one-day artists' visit to the island. Its success encouraged her this year to invite more artists and allow them a longer period to work. The island itself, home in the 19th century to almost 200 people, is now uninhabited aside from sheep, rabbits, a pair of friendly little donkeys (their untended hooves grown into elf boots badly in need of a farrier), and some holiday residents. The cottage in which Dillon and his friends stayed is still there, but it is privately owned and there is no access.

Standing in front of it on the approach from the beach is the schoolhouse. In ruins during Dillon's stay, the single- room school, dated 1908, has been unpretentiously restored in deference to tradition, and this year became a studio for the Inishlackan Project's visiting artists and also for some masterclasses. Stone walls, beaches, bog ponds, waves, five cormorants splashing skywards - the treeless island, with its views of the Twelve Bens, is beautiful, like looking at a series of Paul Henry paintings.

The landscape is another chapter in Irish social history, with collapsed stone houses surrounded by the rotting remains of former smallholdings. On James MacIntyre's return to the island in 1991, some 40 years after his first visit, he was struck by the change: "A sad, deserted air hung over the island, without even the bleat of a sheep to disturb the silence. The last of the islanders had left for the mainland in 1975."

It is a desolate picture, yet for us a couple of weeks ago, in evening sun after a day of heavy rain, the ewes and lambs were not only bleating, they were competing with the birds.

Gerard Dillon was born at Easter 1916, the same year as another self-taught Irish artist, Louis le Brocquy. As the baby of a Falls Road Catholic family, Dillon was minded more by his sister than his brothers. His parents were a contrasting pair: Mary, his staunchly churchgoing mother expressed sympathy for the Republican cause, largely in direct opposition to Joe, her husband, Gerard's father, who had served in the British army, worked for the Post Office and was loyal to the queen. The young Dillon left school at 14 and became apprenticed to a decorator.

AS A teenager, he was already interested in cinema as well as art and traditional music. As the footage from Sinnerton's film confirms, Dillon had a wry turn of phrase. He could certainly tell a story as well as sing a ballad, and he collected folk songs. Then there was his skill with a needle; he would later work in tapestry. With the years, more has been made of the impact of his homosexuality in shaping his artistic sensibility, but Dillon seemed more candid than hidden. He is remembered for being passionate and quick-tempered, but warm - a good friend and good company when he wasn't working.

Anxious to follow his brothers to London, he got his wish on his 18th birthday and left Belfast. By then, he was already experimenting with watercolour. However, as the Sinnerton documentary records, the chance discovery of "a set of oil paints in a basement of an empty house" helped him on his way.

In 1939 a cycling trip to Connemara changed his life and consolidated his art. The rugged beauty of the landscape thrilled the city boy who knew he had discovered something special. War broke out and,unable to return to London, Dillon settled in Dublin. The west became a muse, while Dublin and Belfast provided the settings for his exhibitions.

His first one-man show was opened in Dublin on February 23rd, 1942 by Mainie Jellett. Friendships were important to him, and his friends were artists, including Nano Reid and Arthur Armstrong as well as Campbell, MacIntyre and Jellett. Dillon would become prominent in the Living Art exhibitions. A supporter of the Civil Rights movement in the North, he was sufficiently politically committed to withdraw his work from an exhibition once it left Cork for Belfast - and to write to The Irish Times announcing his intention in protest against "a Planter Government".

Energy, colour, the unexpected, an almost topsy-turvy vision, his ability to balance the childlike with the sophisticated, the element of story as well as autobiography - Dillon often appears in his own work - there are many reasons for his appeal. As with many writers, he shared an interest in exploring the ordinary and in seeing the heroic within it.

Now, 31 years after his death, it is time to look again.

You are a room full of self-portraits,

A face that follows us everywhere;

An ear to the ground listening for

Dead brothers in layers; an eye

Taking in the beautiful

predators -

Cats on the windowsill, birds of prey

And, between the diminutive fields,

A dragonfly, wings full of light

Where the road narrows to the last farm.

From Michael Longley's 'In Memory of Gerard Dillon'

in An Exploded View