Blue sea, the cresting waves and their glittering spindrift, winding paths through sand and dunes inhabited by unruly marram grass, skies over Murlough Beach presaging rain, and views of the distant Mournes as they reach ever upwards.
These are the subjects favoured by Newcastle artist Fiona Henry in her whimsical oil paintings and first eponymous exhibtion, currently on show in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.
The places where land, sea and sky converge and melt into each other are here brought into soft focus with light, airy brushstrokes. Henry’s rosy vision would perhaps have been appreciated by old Percy French himself, and maybe too by CS Lewis, who found inspiration for Narnia in the splendour of the mountains and the resounding silence on their lonely heights.
'It was the beauty of my surroundings that inspired me to pick up a paintbrush,' confides Henry, who works as a cartographer for the National Trust. 'I’m biased because I live here, but to me this is the most beautiful part of Northern Ireland. I have German friends who are always telling me that these mountains remind them of the Alps – you have the sea on one side and then these gorgeous peaks and rolling hills.'
Who but the most hard-hearted curmudgeon could stand at the foot of the Mournes and not be swept away by their beauty? The profusion of heather, wood sorrel and wild thyme; the strange outlines of the goosefleshed granite and their gradations of colour; the way the peaks bestride the skyline, looming over the surrounding valleys, towns and harbours with a certain majesty.
Henry only began painting in earnest three years ago – she was a keen draftswoman in earlier life, but work and family inevitably got in the way – yet already her craft has required such polish. After the mountains it is the sea that most captures her attention: always a difficult subject to paint.
'What is it about the sea?' she askes, rhetorically. 'I could watch it for hours and hours. What I love is that everyday it’s a different colour against the sky and its motion is different – calm or stormy. It’s always inspiring.'
Aside from her careful seascapes, landscapes and delicate paintings of flowers – favourites are roadside poppies, bluebells and delphiniums – Henry has produced thoughtful portraits of people, some of whom she encountered on the promenade in Newcastle, such one Gladys MacCabe (above), who sits in the frame prim and proper in a luxurious coat and cloche hat.
When Henry approached her to ask if she would pose for a photograph, she had no idea that this kindly old lady was one Gladys MacCabe MBE, a respected artist born in 1918 and an acquaintance of Gerard Dillon, Colin Middleton and William Conor. MacCabe’s work was exhibited in London in the 1940s, and she also made her name as an incisive art critic for the Belfast Newsletter and other publications.
'I walk the promenade in Newcastle all the time,' Henry explains. 'One summer’s day I saw this lady sitting by herself and she looked so dignified and composed. I asked if I could photograph her for a painting. She agreed, but didn’t say anything more.
'I was really happy with the finished portrait, but when I found out that this woman was herself an artist who founded the Women’s Ulster Arts Society many years ago, and was a respected art critic, I was just astonished. I’ve since sent her a copy of the portrait and she told me she was delighted because no one had painted her before.'
But, despite her deft rendering of Gladys MacCabe and tentative foray into portraiture, it’s the land and the sea by the Mournes that continue to dominate Henry’s art, the shifting hues of the roiling then calm water and the magnificent silhouettes of mountain against sky.
For those who love the Mournes, Henry's introspective exhibition – housed in the Linen Hall Library until January 31 – will help them momentarily escape to that place where the mountains sweep down to the sea.
See the Fiona Henry exhibition at the Linen Hall Library until January 31. All works are for sale. For more information visit the Fiona Henry website.