The title of this Jeremy Henderson retrospective currently on display in the Waterways Ireland building in Enniskillen, A Country Road. A Tree. Evening, was borrowed from Samuel Beckett’s stage directions for the opening scene of Waiting for Godot. Given the fact that the exhibition is a central feature of the inaugural Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, it's an apt moniker.
It's also a fortuitous connection. Both Beckett and Jeremy John Christmas Henderson were born on holy days, the former on Good Friday and the latter on Christmas day. Both came from middle class Protestant families, and both attended Portora Royal School as boarders. Beckett’s attachment to Foxrock and Killiney in County Dublin compares with Henderson’s love of Lisbellaw, the leafy lanes of Boho and the lakelands of his native Fermanagh.
Henderson’s studio loft at the Cooperage, a former brewery in Brick Lane, London where he lived and worked in the 1980s was so cold he slept in a tent for shelter. Beckett had done likewise in his high ceilinged apartment in Paris. Critic John Hutchinson commented that Henderson’s paintings 'demonstrate the fruitfulness of the no man’s land between abstraction and representation'. Beckett was inevitably drawn to the no man’s land in T S Elliott’s Wasteland, or the paintings of Jack B Yeats.
Angus Bryson, Henderson’s art teacher at Portora, spotted his early talent. He pursued his formal training at the University of Ulster, and at Kingston University, where he obtained a first-class degree and became the first recipient of a Stanley Picker Fellowship.
While studying for a Masters degree at the Chelsea College of Art, he continued to perfect his own technique, inspired by the drawings of Annibale or the classical landscapes of Claude Lorraine, with their sense of space and vista. As he ventured to make his way on the London art scene, Henderson set himself the ambitious goal of starting from scratch to paint as though painting had never existed before.
A son of Scottish Planter stock, Henderson, who died as a result of a brain tumour in 2009, knew who he was and where he came from. As surely as the tweed cloth his father made at the Lisbellaw factory was inspired by the hues of Scottish heathers and hills, so Henderson used his palette of vivid mauves and piercing purples, shaded greens, cobalt blues, and burnished reds to create bold tableaux.
Henderson himself described the latent drama in his paintings when he said, 'The time of day is indeterminable, the weather changeable, something has happened or is about to happen.'
The 22 works in the lakeside gallery – mostly oil paintings and watercolours, and a final trio of black and white mono prints – are arranged in pleasing combinations. The presentation piece, entitled 'Marking the Place', has the warmth of a generous handshake. But the journey begins with 'The Best Sculpture is a Road', a meander around country lanes and shorelines.
'A tree throws out its meaning without the use of an Alphabet' literally stops me in my tracks with its loud spread of burnt orange sky and dank green undergrowth. In the blue haze of a midsummer dreamland, meanwhile, is another tree, the fetching 'Venus of the Forest'. The spell is broken by an epic five foot canvas, a coruscating vision of flatlands and sky suffused with sunset/sunrise pinks and reds.
Then come several Monet-esque watery collages, including the arresting 'Rain Lough Sea'. The twin ‘Cuilcagh’ water colours with their signature yellow quern circles were painted in 2007 from Henderson’s studio beneath the said mountain range at Boho.
The three farewell mono prints, finally, are prefaced by a short, hand written poem, ‘I Ego Eye’. It is an intimate glimpse into the inner world of an artist who drew or painted every day of his life, who loved paint and applied it with conviction, paying meticulous attention to every detail. And there, in the middle mono print, is a stark, spindly, solitary tree, waiting as it were, for Godot.
Just as Beckett upheld exacting standards regarding the publication of his prose and the production of his plays, Henderson refused to ingratiate himself with gallery owners. Even though his art was shown in prestigious showrooms such as the Fenderesky Gallery in London, and was bought by public and private collectors, as many as 500 of his canvases remained unsold when he died aged just 56.
This show is timely and perfectly placed. Above all, it proves that Jeremy Henderson is no longer without honour in his own country.
A Country Road. A Tree. Evening runs until August 31, 2012. Check out the full Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival programme at What's On.