Jack Pakenham

Artist who responded ferociously to communal violence

John ‘Jack’ Pakenham was born in Dublin in 1938. His mother died when he was three weeks old, and Pakenham’s northern Protestant father moved his children to Northern Ireland, changing their names in an effort to ‘protect’ them from the influence of their Catholic maternal relations.

After living with various relatives, four year old Pakenham joined his brother and sisters in a children’s home at Childhaven, Co Down.

In 1947, the family set up home in Cliftonpark Avenue, north Belfast. Pakenham graduated from the Queen’s University in French, Spanish and Philosophy in 1959. He lived in Ibiza and Dorset, before returning to Belfast where he taught English at Ashfield Boys’ High School. In 1990, he retired to devote himself to full-time painting.

Pakenham’s early expressionist works evolved, with the outbreak of the ‘Troubles’, into an engaged, ferocious response to communal violence.

In his own words: ‘Over these years, I have tried to convey through a poetic language of metaphor, symbol, allegory and ambiguous narrative some of my concerns and anxieties, to use visual language to expose and comment.’

Recurrent motifs in paintings like the Belfast Series (1989-1995) include gagged or blindfolded figures, masked figures who suggest gunmen or hangmen, and limbless or decapitated shop mannequins.

The appearance of a sinister, grinning, red-haired ventriloquist’s dummy, inspired by a toy belonging to Pakenham’s son, represents both innocent victim and demonic presence.

He has exhibited widely including solo shows at the Orchard Gallery, Derry, Project Arts Centre, Dublin and Wyvern Gallery, Dublin. In 1987, he was elected an academician by the Royal Ulster Academy.

Poet as well as painter, Pakenham is a member of the artists’ organisation at Queen Street Studios.

Further Reading:
Stepping Stones: The Arts in Ulster 1971-2001 (2001) by Mark Carruthers and Stephen Douds
A Broken Sky: Poems and Paintings (1995) by J Pakenham.