An Artist Apart
Charles McAuley is renowned for his landscapes depicting rural Glens life
Born in 1910 to a rural family in Cushendall, Charles Joseph McAuley was heralded as a true Glensman and one of Ireland’s foremost artists.
Prolific in his lifetime, McAuley produced a tremendous amount of paintings throughout his artistic career, which spanned from the early days of emerging talent to latter days of international recognition.
McAuley produced work that was riveting in its depiction of nature. Rivers, glens, mountains, seascapes and rural village lives are painted in oils, watercolour and ink, with a fluidity and instinct that is hard to beat.
Light is filtered and stretched across landscapes, held tightly within water pools of rivers, seas and streams. Clouds are tinted with a myriad of colours, shadows cast across the greenest of fields.
People are illustrated with humour and tenderness, going about their daily rural lives, feeding hens, gathering hay and netting fish. This rural idyll can be interpreted as somewhat clichéd and naïve, but McAuley simply mirrored the environment in which he was submerged, a daily rural survival that the artist realised was sadly disappearing.
Portrait of the artist
McAuley was an extremely philosophical man who chose to conduct a private pastoral existence instead of chasing recognition. Only those within his close circle of lifelong friends and loved ones witnessed the many facets and depths to his character.
Interested in poetry, writing, and classical and opera music, these facts are little known, as the artist has become synonymous with his locality and rural upbringing. An artist who chooses to remain within his indigenous environment faces potential disregard and career neglect. Familiarity can breed contempt.
However, McAuley lived and breathed the Glens, and was true to himself enough to distinguish the importance of life contentment. In an interview for a BBC programme in the 1980s he commented that he could have forged a much greater career had he moved elsewhere, but he knew it would not have made him any happier than he was living and sketching in the Glens.
After brief spells at Belfast Art College and Glasgow College of Art, he returned to the landscape he loved. McAuley was largely self-taught, devouring cultural references. Yet he had no need to experiment with fashionable artistic genres. For him the challenge was within each painterly stroke. The shifting of light, the seasonal changes and patterns of natural geography were his calling.
McAuley conducted taught briefly in his younger days, but found the role uncomfortable. A gifted artist learning his craft and used to the isolation this role demanded, he was also independent of mind and reluctant to be a follower of rules – a trait common in his family.
The McAuley family is one of the oldest documented in the Glens area. His parents Bernard and Elizabeth, Catholic and Protestant respectively, eloped on horseback to marry. Indigenous Glens people, their family homesteads in Glendun bore the romantic names of ‘Drumfraskey’ (Sheltered Ridge) and ‘Sevagh’ (Home of the Hawk).
His maternal family, the McIlherans, were locally educated landowners and farmers. The McAuleys were renowned for their charitable principles, and were simple living, philosophical, hard working people. Yet they bore an unconventional inherent intelligence and creativity that filtered through the generations, making them stand apart.
McAuley’s eight siblings were either professionally educated or farmers. The youngest of all, Charles’ creativity was indulged while he undertook expected domestic routines. Visible from an early age, his artistic talent was nurtured and boosted when in 1929 he met the painter James Humbert Craig at the local Feis, who recognised the young artist’s gift and encouraged his development.
It must have been extremely difficult for McAuley, his creativity isolated in a rural setting bereft of galleries and support and this encouragement undoubtedly spurred him on.
Work in progress
It is easy to trace McAuley’s creative development. Earlier canvases have slightly askew perspective and proportion, the oil colours are more untapped. Later canvasses display the significant tonal richness and movement that became McAuley’s trademark.
The opulence of oil tones dispersed with the easy and loose stroke of the brush are instantly recognisable. Neither restricted nor fussy, McAuley painted with passion and vigour, creating a mass of affected colour that stirred leaves, refracted light and channelled warm autumn breezes downwards through glens.
Famed for landscapes, he also excelled at portraits. More elusive, these paintings are now within various private collections, and are usually of close family members or commissioned subjects. McAuley portrayed intense and vivid portraits, much more evocative than some of the familiar anonymous crooked figures working or lazing within scenic panoramas.
Unable to afford luxurious materials in his early career, he painted on card, board and even tea chests during the war. In his early married life, people remember the young artist working in his studio by the village road, often talking to him through the open window. They also remember his lyrical singing, whilst he painted the day away. One of these regular observers was the poet John Hewitt who became a great friend. They were later to collaborate on the publication The Day of the Corncrake.
Painting became an obsession and need. And although he was affiliated with collectives such as the Royal Ulster Academy, McAuley sought his own path and determinedly focused on his work, a brave decision for a man with a young family. He was not a businesslike artist. Anyone admiring a painting often left with it under their arm as a gift. Larges scale exhibitions were not sought, nor ego massaging reassurance.
It is indeed an indication of the ingredients of his work that his legacy is so great. He became known through word of mouth and genuine appreciation.
McAuley fulfilled his ambition of living his life in contentment in his Glens and continued to paint to his last breath. He died in 1999 aged 81 years. Of the public obituaries, The Irish Times commented:
‘Although that beautiful region has featured in paintings, notably by James Humbert Craig, Frank McKelvey and Maurice Wilks, Charles McAuley could have claimed to be the artist of the Glens; for his native knowledge of the local landscape and people brought to the best of his work a special quality of emotion. Yet it is not a claim he would have made for himself, for self-promotion was a trait absent from his personality.’
The BBC declared him ‘one of Ireland’s greatest colourists, but most significantly, a true and modest gentleman’.
What is most commented on about the artist, aside from his work, was his gentleness of spirit, generosity and humility of the man himself. For his work to emerge triumphant against the odds speaks volumes. In the living of his life and solitary single-minded dedication to his craft, Charles McAuley was indeed a man and artist apart.
By Desima Connolly