An Irishman’s Diary on the revolutionary art of May Guinness

Detail from May Guinness’s painting L’Enfant

Detail from May Guinness’s painting L’Enfant

 

Hailed as “the first practising artist to introduce a modernist sensibility into Irish art”, May Guinness was something of a revolutionary. While examples of her avant-garde artwork can be found in galleries in Dublin, Drogheda, Cork, and Limerick, she has probably not received the recognition that she deserves.

Born Mary Catherine Guinness to a well-to-do family in 1863, she received tuition at home in Tibradden House in Rathfarnham, Dublin, from French and German governesses. She also attended Mrs Power’s school. She was a direct descendant of Arthur Guinness of the brewery fame, and her father was the landowner and solicitor, Thomas Hosea Guinness.

Initially, painting was just a pastime for her, but Guinness soon took it more seriously.

Like many other Irish artists of the time, she travelled abroad to gain practical experience and training. Around the mid 1890s, she trained at the artists’ colony at Newlyn in Cornwall, with the Limerick-born artist, Norman Garstin.

Garstin had studied in Paris and Antwerp. He had also spent some time in Brittany, which was an important training ground for many artists from America and Europe (including many from Ireland) at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. It was through Garstin, a keen proponent of plein-air naturalist painting, that Guinness got a taste of capturing sunlight and shadows on canvas.

The early years of the 20th century saw her travel further around Europe to progress her technique and learn from other artists, such as Kees van Dongen, the influential French artist of the Fauvist tradition who launched on to the art scene with a bang at the 1905 Paris Salon d’Automne. She subsequently travelled to Florence and later went to Paris. She was greatly influenced by Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, and Picasso.

Summer of 1917

Almost 100 years ago, in the summer of 1917, May Guinness volunteered to work as a nurse in a Red Cross military hospital in north-east France. Hospital No 12 was situated in the village of Vadelainecourt, very close to the front lines at Verdun. Vadelainecourt was located on the supply route, known as La Voie Sacrée, that brought supplies to the men at the front. Guinness later wrote a moving personal account of daily life in the 800-bed hospital. In it, she described the near impossible living conditions and the regular bombardment of the hospital by enemy planes, which she described as the “hum of death” overhead.

Her selfless act was acknowledged when she was awarded the Croix de Guerre during the war. She also received the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française after the war. An ardent Francophile, her feelings towards France never wavered and she paid many visits to the country in the years after the war. Scenes from French towns and the faces of French locals featured in some of her drawings and paintings. She had two solo exhibitions in Paris; the first in 1925 and the second in 1930.

Studied cubism

After the war, Guinness trained at the André Lhote academy in Paris, where she studied Cubism. She was one of the first female Irish artists to travel to France to hone her craft. She would soon be followed by other artists such as Evie Hone, Mainie Jellett and Norah McGuinness.

Guinness continued to paint and she drew inspiration for her paintings from her travels around Ireland and abroad. In her artwork, scenes from Fanad Head, Glendalough and Dún Laoghaire sit alongside depictions of everyday life in rural Belgium and Brittany. More exotic and far-off lands such as Palestine, Sicily, Toledo and Greece, also feature in some of her later paintings.

An avid art collector as well as an artist, when she died in July 1955, she left works by Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault and Raoul Dufy to be auctioned in aid of the roof of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

In April the following year, a Memorial Exhibition of her work was held in Dawson Hall on Dublin’s Dawson Street. In a sign of how Guinness’s artistic skills and sensibilities developed over the years, the exhibition was made up of a variety of pastels, crayon drawings, gouaches, oils, as well as water-colours, in various styles.

Guinness was described in the forward to the exhibition as “the first of her race to paint her way into the heart and spirit of the new movement in the 20th century”.

That’s quite a compliment for someone who did not take up painting seriously until later in life. Perhaps it was her relative late entry into the world of art that prompted her to take an alternative view. More open to new ideas and techniques, Guinness was unlike others who were not yet ready to try new things and look beyond a more classical approach to painting.