Fit to bust – Paula Murphy on the man behind Laurence Campbell’s sculpture

An Irishwoman’s Diary

In May 1955, sculptor Laurence Campbell showed a bust titled Frank Beatty, Esq, at the annual exhibition of the Royal Hibernian Academy. It was not for sale – presumably a commissioned work; it was the only sculpture he showed that year – unusual for Campbell; and was the last work he submitted to the RHA. The following year, in his early 40s, the sculptor left Ireland and nothing was heard of him thereafter.

Researching Campbell’s work over time, I became interested in this last work. Identifying who Frank Beatty was would presumably indicate why the bust was modelled in the first place and perhaps help to locate it – if, of course, it was still extant.

An internet search using the name and date brought up an American painter who was working in Chicago at that time. This seemed loosely promising, as – it would be learned much later on – that Chicago was where Campbell would end up in the 1960s. He might have met the painter in Europe earlier in his career.

But a newspaper search uncovered a more local possibility – Frank Beatty, a barrister, called to the bar in 1947 and working on the Meath and Westmeath circuits in the early 1950s.

If this was indeed the sitter, then why had a portrait been commissioned?

Everything seemed to fall into place with the discovery that the barrister had died in 1955 in tragic circumstances. Newspapers across the country reported the event. Frank Beatty had been learning to fly in a two-seater plane. The plane lost power off the coast at Killiney and plunged into the sea, killing Beatty and injuring the pilot, a friend of his. The crash was witnessed by large numbers of holidaymakers on the beach at the time. That the young man had died so tragically suggested that a bust had been commissioned to commemorate him.

This was promptly revealed to be an incorrect surmise on my part. The bust was mentioned favourably in reviews of the RHA exhibition two months before the fatal accident. The bust, therefore, was done from life, when Beatty was in his late 20s.

Lengthy newspaper obituaries afforded much information about the late barrister. In an appreciation in the Irish Times, Ulick O'Connor – called to the Bar a couple of years after Beatty – described him as "the happiest person I ever knew", someone who had a gift for "friendship" – and mentioned the "fine head of him by Laurence Campbell" that was shown at the RHA that year. Beatty was reported as having been a genial and popular figure in the Law Library and beyond, particularly keen on music, enjoyed outdoor activities (swimming and walking) and the driver of a sports car. This last perhaps mentioned with some envy!

The newspapers mentioned the weekly "salons" held in the family home, organised by Beatty senior, a district court judge – Saturday night gatherings, where members of the legal profession fraternised with the creative community. Poets, musicians and artists were noted as having attended these parties. The death notice identified that Frank Beatty lived in the family home, 26 Pembroke Road, a large house in the Ballsbridge area of Dublin.

If lawyers resided in large houses, artists, by contrast, tended to live in smaller dwellings in the lanes behind – in the old stables or garages transformed into mews houses. The mews at the back of 26 Pembroke Road had as its address 30 Baggot Lane. In 1955, and for the previous seven years, Laurence Campbell exhibited work at the RHA from 30 Baggot Lane. The sculptor was living and working at the end of the Beatty garden.

I think we can safely presume that the sculptor was a guest at the Beatty parties – and probably an even more regular visitor to the big house.

While the modelling of a bust of the young Beatty begins to make more and more sense, this doesn’t bring us any closer to locating it.

The small archive of Campbell material at the RHA includes photographs of the sculptor at work, some of which – taken in the studio in Baggot Lane – include unidentified sitters.

One captures Campbell, modelling a head in plaster, while in relaxed conversation with a sitter who might be Frank Beatty. The barrister returned from a day’s work, removes his jacket but still wearing his waistcoat, heads down the garden to the sculptor’s studio for a sitting. However, I needed a contemporary photograph of Beatty to confirm this reading of the image.

Newspaper photographs of his call to the bar, in the company of nine other barristers in 1947, were not particularly helpful, as Beatty was both younger at the time and bewigged. The Law Library and the Beatty family, who were most helpful in the search, did not have any photos of the man.

Two further images proved more revealing: a photograph of the sculptor standing with the same bust, now completed; and a lone head shot of Beatty published at the time of his death.

A strong similarity can be identified between the two. It may be that we now know the last portrait likeness of the young barrister and the last known work by Laurence Campbell.

As to the existence of the bust, which was originally modelled in plaster, a fragile material – if the likeness was not subsequently transferred to a lasting material , such as bronze or marble – it probably no longer exists.