Jeremy Henderson

Big canvases and a big life. Patricia Martinelli remembers the internationally acclaimed abstract artist with Jenny Cathcart

From geometric hard edged abstraction to landscape with a real twist and back to organic abstraction is how Jeremy Henderson described his artistic journey, a journey that was brutally interrupted when he died as a result of a brain tumour on April 28, 2009. To mark the anniversary of his death, Jeremy’s wife, the artist Patricia Martinelli, will give an illustrated talk about his life and work 'Remembering Jeremy'.

The leafy lanes of Boho, the secret gardens and subterranean caves that surround his country home, the Cuilcagh mountain range, the myriad colours in a Lisbellaw tweed, the deep deep red in dyeing vats, the lyrical mauves and secret purples of lilies, the shaded greens and blues of the Fermanagh Lakeland, the heather clad marshy uplands, the tree-lined avenues and reedy shorelines at Bellisle, the perfect circular quern stone miraculously transported on his grandfather’s back from the crannog to the shore of Lough Eyes provided the inspiration for Jeremy Henderson’s paintings.

The art master at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Angus Bryson, spotted Jeremy as an exceptional student. Following a Foundation course at the University of Ulster, he moved to London in 1972. At Kingston University, he gained confidence, learning how to draw, studying the work of old masters like the drawings of Annibale at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, or classical landscape paintings by Claude Lorraine with their sense of space and vista.

Graduating with a first class degree, Jeremy was chosen as the first recipient of the Stanley Picker Fellowship, an endowment which allowed him to paint for a year. Following a Master’s degree at the Chelsea College of Art, Jeremy ventured to make his way in the London art scene. In his notebook of the time he quoted Barnet Newman, 'I want to start from scratch to paint as though paintings had never existed before'. A contemporary at the Chelsea art college says of his work that 'it was the best modern art I’ve seen to this day'. Another colleague described him as 'so talented and frighteningly intellectual'.

Jeremy painted on a large scale, confidently, for he was not afraid of colour. He was a perfectionist. He refused to ingratiate himself with gallery owners and because of their size his canvases were not readily marketable. Nevertheless his work was shown at London’s most prestigious galleries including the Fenderesky, the Royal Academy, the Roundhouse, the Whitworth gallery in Manchester and the Hendricks Gallery in Dublin. Bono is just one of the private collectors who own a Jeremy Henderson painting.

When Patricia met Jeremy he was living in a flat in Kingly Street in Soho, opposite Liberty’s. 'I was working in a wine bar nearby and Jeremy would come in. My first memory of him was of an intense, blue eyed, soft spoken, beautiful man who attracted a lot of people. He seemed preoccupied. Indeed at that time he was engaged on a project painting night time cityscapes from the rooftop of his flat. The Soho Series was purchased by a private buyer, an old Portoran.'

Then Jeremy moved to a studio in Brick Lane in a premises that was once a brewery. It was a huge work space where he also lived in a tent. Brick Lane was a vibrant centre for artists including Gilbert and George who would appear in a local café spruced up in tweed suits, collar and tie, their very demeanour a kind of performance art.

When Jeremy’s mother died in 1993 he and Patricia moved back to Fermanagh to the Lisbellaw house where he was born. In fact they occupied two Georgian terrace houses. Everything was just as Jeremy’s mother had left it. There were stiletto heel marks on the floor, and the lingering smell of cigarette smoke. The large drawing room was elegantly furnished and that is where the couple were married in 1995.

A son of Scottish Planter stock, Jeremy knew who he was and where he came from. His sense of history and place was what anchored him. As surely as the tweeds his father made, Jeremy’s palette was inspired by Scottish heathers and Irish hills. The purple hues, the myriad blues and greens, echoes of heaven carried through the ages and painted naturally on the canvas.

The Lisbellaw Tweed mill which has been set up by Jeremy’s grandfather but was no longer operating surely had an influence on Jeremy’s art. It brought forth memories of bales of cloth neatly cellophaned for export, Erne blankets that travelled to Japan and tweeds of a thousand hues which once graced the catwalks of Paris. It was in that period that he painted a series of work entitled Hill of History for a show at the Atlantic Gallery in London.

Patricia describes Jeremy as a quiet gentle person but the energy he had for a large painting was immense.

'Every little corner of the painting was considered. He was a great craftsman and so confident with any medium he used - oil, watercolours, acrylics, charcoal, mixed media. He worked in all these media effortlessly. His understanding of colour was amazing. He knew how talented he was and would have loved to have more mainstream shows. The truth was, the thing he did best was paint. His main interest was to produce the work but he was not good at marketing it. He was selective about what he would do with each painting and was very adamant that he would not sell a piece for less that its value.'

That is why so many canvases remain unsold – up to 500 framed or unframed pieces excluding works on paper. Towards the end Jeremy took care to sign everything and began the task of cataloguing the work. His nephew helped set up the website www.jeremyhenderson.co.uk

Jeremy was just 56 when he died. He was buried in the Church of Ireland churchyard on a day when the bluebells bloomed. On the funeral ceremony programme was written a quote from Picasso: 'What is there left for Art to do?' Jeremy did plenty and his paintings are his everlasting legacy. 'Painting was his life,' says Patricia 'and I’m just happy that I was part of it'.

Patricia Martinelli's talk 'Remembering Jeremy' will take place at the Enniskillen Castle Museum on April 28, 2010.