Crossing the Water

Jeffrey Morgan exhibits 40 years' worth of canvases capturing his wife, author Patricia Craig, in thought

Welsh artist Jeffrey Morgan’s new exhibition at An Culturlann on the Falls Road in Belfast has one flame-haired, enigmatic beauty at its centre, her green cat’s eyes direct and melancholy, her form and poise not unlike Jane Asher or Marianne Faithfull in their heyday.

The muse, of course, is the artist’s wife, the eminent Belfast-born writer, critic and editor Patricia Craig, who was responsible for The Ulster Anthology and an iconic biography of the Belfast-born novelist Brian Moore, among numerous other stellar works of cultural history and literary criticism.

Trenchant and incisive, Craig is one of Northern Ireland finest editors and writers, with a passion for local history and literature. She and Morgan met and lived in London before returning to Craig’s native County Antrim in 1999.

 

Moving as they did in literary circles, many of Morgan’s paintings feature esteemed poets and authors – Michael and Edna Longley, for example, Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian have all previously been immortalised by his brush.

But in Crossing the Water: Aisling Gheal again and again – and over a period of 40 years – Morgan returns to Craig’s striking features and elegant, slender form, her hair as red as the Pre-Raphaelite master Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse, Elizabeth Siddal.

Here Craig stands on a chequered path, arms folded, face rapt in concentration; there at ease with cats near her; then smiling kindly with flower in hand, the wisdom of the passing years suggested in the crinkle of crow’s feet near her sparkling, intelligent eyes.

Here she is again, arms folded once more, wearing a feather hat like something from the finest Parisian atelier, her eyes gazing off in profound thought, rapt on the middle distance.

Sometimes her back is to us, sometimes her direct gaze is diverted to the side, making the female figure seem remote, untouchable, like an ideal from a poem or myth, someone of the kind of high, lonely beauty that WB Yeats’ found and worshipped in his eternal muse, Maud Gonne.

Morgan’s muse finds an ideal apotheosis in these paintings in oil on linen or board, the artist favouring a rustic palette full of ochre, chartreuse, burnt orange and vermillion. The chiaroscuro is always succinctly, crisply and neatly delineated.

Stylistically, Morgan’s work is carefully representational, close to the realism pioneered by American regionalist artist Andrew Wyeth, but different – less dark and more playful, whimsical, inventive and incorporating symbolism.

 

Sometimes strange objects populate the background – bowls, cats, a baby doll, flowers – the subjects hands in one painting holding a string of wool, though she seems in mien and manner to be utterly remote from domestic concerns, far-off, perhaps in the hinterland of imagination that is so seductive for the writer and thinker – and Craig is skilfully both.

Deep thought seems to keep the female figure in a pose of intense preoccupation, though there is light relief too when she looks at us smiling, flowers in hand in 'The Striped Blouse' (2012).

For Morgan, the female figure is here not merely a decorative presence; although his subject is very beautiful, what comes across are the artist’s attempts to capture the nature and personality of his subject, the concentration of her thought, the gravity of her understanding, the dignity with which she carries her person.

There is a loneliness to his muse, and yet a lightness of being. Too often male artists become completely wrapped up in the need to capture physical beauty above all, looking no further than pulchritude and caring little about projecting any idea of the female subject’s interiority.

Of course there are exceptions; Johannes Vermeer’s 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' seems full of sadness and mystery; similarly Leonardo Da Vinci’s 'Mona Lisa' is more striking for the enigmatic smile she wears than anything else, and it’s the thought of what she might be thinking that keeps us mesmerised.

In the same vein, Morgan is deftly attuned to capturing the subjectivity of his muse, the shifting sands of mood and the passing oceans of time, the turbulent, incessant tides of thought and emotion.

This exhibition seems both a love letter to his wife and also a paean to the contemplative woman, lonely in the isolation of her thoughts, but enduring and ever absorbed, beautiful, yes, but better still, someone of depth and soul, with an enquiring mind and eyes that see truth to the point of near-tears.

Crossing The Water: Aisling Gheal runs at the Gerard Dillon Gallery, An Culturlann, Belfast until October 31.