In the moment – Derek Scally on artist Imogen Stuart, ‘the last living Prussian’

An Irishman’s Diary

Imogen Stuart is many things to many people but I like to call her “the last living Prussian”. Imogen, who turns 95 tomorrow, was born in Weimar-era Berlin, went to school in Nazi Berlin, left the postwar ruins of her homeland and, in 1949, moved to Laragh, beside Glendalough, Co Wicklow.

Transplanted into ground zero of early Irish Christianity, Imogen merged Ireland’s Catholic tradition of saints with Germany’s interwar expressionist school and gave new life to both.

Her unmistakable sculptures can be found in Ireland’s four corners, from churches to shopping centres, making her perhaps our best-known, most-loved and easily accessed artist.

We’ve been friends for many years now: the Berliner in Dublin and the Dubliner in Berlin. Our common home is the German language and our travels have taken our conversations to her home and mine, from the heathery Wicklow hills to the craggy Dolomite peaks.

I call Imogen the last living Prussian because of her steely, disciplined, dutiful approach to work and life which, for Imogen, are the same thing. Retirement is not a word in her vocabulary.

Even at 95, the last living Prussian remains as active and mobile as ever. By comparison Queen Elizabeth, just one year Imogen's senior and with growing mobility issues, seems like a dissolute Saxe-Coburgian layabout.

We talk about everything on our travels but a recurring theme is betrayal.

Imogen grew up in very comfortable surroundings in Berlin’s Dahlem district in the 1930s, amid the last great blossoming of German arts and culture, until a harsh new reality began to encroach.

One schoolfriend's brother was shot as part of the July 1944 plot against Hitler; another's father was head of the Nazi general government in occupied Poland.

Imogen’s own father, a leading cultural journalist and writer who found himself at the sharp end of the Nuremberg Laws, only survived the war by disappearing into the underground.

Evacuated from the air-raids of Berlin to near Vienna, Imogen studied after the war in Bavaria with the expressionist sculptor Otto Hitzberger. Denounced by the Nazis for his "degenerate" art, the elderly sculptor warned Imogen in 1948 not to fall for his "rogue" new student from Ireland, Ian Stuart. It was too late: she had already fallen in love at first sight.

They married and moved to Ireland where she met Ian's family: grandmother Maud Gonne, the silver spoon revolutionary who by the 1950s had "taken to the bed"; Ian's writer father Francis was a self-styled outcast who made wartime broadcasts to Ireland from Berlin.

“You can’t say Francis was a big Nazi,” Imogen told me once, “because that would have required too much of a commitment.”

On one trip to Wicklow she brought me to Laragh Castle, their first home in Ireland.

Now beautifully renovated, in the 1950s it was a damp “primitive place” with weeping walls.

Sitting in the modern kitchen with the new owner, Imogen pointed out the spot where her mother-in-law, Iseult, died; the sight of a big upstairs window reminded her of the lonely nights, waiting for her husband to come home.

In their first happy decade together, Ian Stuart gave Imogen three children and was, to quote Cole Porter, always true to her in his fashion.

Walking one day around Roebuck House, “Madam” Maud Gonne-MacBride’s last home, I heard Imogen humming “Miss Otis Regrets”, Cole Porter’s devastating anthem for a woman wronged.

“I never met anyone who had more charm than Ian,” said Imogen.

And the affairs? “Other women went into the city and bought hats. I didn’t do any of that, I pretended as if nothing had happened.”

Eventually, though, too much happened and, a decade after moving to Sandycove in 1960, they divorced. Independent for the first time, Imogen focused on her work and has never looked back.

As well as new work in the Royal Hibernian Academy's annual show, Imogen's self-portrait in wood has just gone on display in the National Gallery. Earlier this month President Michael D Higgins unveiled a three metre high "Stele", carved out of Wicklow granite. On it King Laoghaire and St Patrick greet visitors to a small park near the Forty Foot.

Imogen holds all of Ireland’s highest artistic honours yet never calls herself an artist, nor what she creates art. That is up to others, she says. Even at 95, she is more interested in what is coming next.

Of the special places on my travels with Imogen, nothing beats South Tyrol, a place she first visited as a small girl. Nearly a century later, the world she knew is long gone, yet the evening summer sun still bathes the Dolomites above Bolzano in rose-coloured glory.

Sipping white wine on a terrace, reflecting on the secret of a life well-lived, Imogen recalled a long-forgotten Goethe line: “In German, we say ‘Der Augenblick ist Ewigkeit’ – eternity is in the moment.”