Obituary: TP Flanagan

Liam Kelly gives a personal tribute to the Enniskillen-born landscape artist

Up until his death last month, Terry Flanagan still painted regularly and had an exhibiting career of some fifty years as an artist. The day before he died, I visited him and his wife Sheila. The conversation ranged over visits to the USA, exhibitions in Dublin and when I informed him that the former College of Technology (now Belfast Metropolitan College) was moving from its current site to The Titanic Quarter, the conversation turned to reminiscences of Belfast College of Art, which occupied its top floor where he studied from 1949-53 with John Luke as a teacher.

Although I knew his work previously, I got to know Terry personally in the early 1970’s when I was a student of his at St Mary’s College of Education, Belfast. His approach to teaching emphasised as much an inculcation of an artistic attitude, caught rather than taught, as the acquisition of media or technical skills. That is an approach still operating today in student-centred Fine Art education. I would later replace him as a lecturer at the college when he went to New York on a sabbatical year.

He was fond of talking about the Irish art scene and the work of fellow artists like Basil Blackshaw, Gerard Dillon and others providing insights into the nature of their painting. I have lasting memories of Terry taking us as a group of students to The Rosc ‘71 exhibition in Dublin and introducing us to various artists, collectors and critics, including James Johnson Sweeney, the former Director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I also learnt something from him as an art critic as he was an insightful and revealing writer on art with a lyrical turn of phrase. Among his publications are essays on fellow artists FE McWilliam, William Scott, Dan O’Neill and Tom Carr.

While Terry Flanagan could celebrate the formal features and elements at work in a landscape with light often as the conspiratorial protagonist, he could also embrace and interrogate the landscape from a social or political standpoint.

In ‘A Fermanagh Elegy’ (1971) he dealt indirectly with the legacy of frozen attitudes in Northern Ireland and the dignity of silence in ‘A Rose Wrapped Up’ (1973-75) series. He also chose to draw upon the emotive power of Nicholas Pousin’s ‘Echo and Narcissus’ to pay tribute to the murdered Judge McBurney in ‘Victim’ (1975, Arts Council collection), the neo-classical disposition of the figure recognising all victims, regardless of time and place.

It was with this body of work in mind and other sub-themes that I wanted to explore that I curated for the OBG the exhibition ‘Correspondences’ in 2010. Indeed 2010 became something of a significant tribute year to the artist with the bestowing of an honorary degree from the University of Ulster and another exhibition at the FE McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge.

In preparing the selection of works for the OBG exhibition and the related catalogue essay I had a number of probing and revealing conversations with the artist at his home in Marlborough Park, Belfast. We discussed the condition of silence that interested him and is invested in many of his paintings and drawings. ‘A Summer Diary’, a series of some seven drawings, is a reflection on this notion of stillness, stance and solitude in relation to landscape/place. The artist wanted to note down by the end of the day what had been preoccupying him during the day, like a literary diary, but – ‘I wanted to make a drawing rather than a literary account‘.

Terry recalled, while making such works on the theme of silence in his Belfast studio during the 1970’s, a particularly tense and violent period of the Troubles, the background noise of events – what Michael Longley has called 'The stereophonic nightmare of the Shankill and the Falls’ - nightly hovered in the background.

He also emphasised to me that he disliked art that verges on the propagandistic, but acknowledged the power of TV reportage of political or violent events with which he did not want to compete. He said he never felt the need to be a commentator for the moment – ‘everything has to be retrospective’.

Such was the case with ‘Victim’. As reported on TV Judge McBurney’s body was removed on a stretcher covered by a light sheet and, as witnessed by the artist, with a foot protruding, making the scene more poignant. Flanagan’s response in painting ‘Victim’ was to avoid, with a suitable time lag, the actual reportage and adopt a timeless archetypal neo-classical figure for the painting.

His lasting achievement will reside in his ability to reframe the experience of place in order to create something self sufficient – something independent of nature and something poetic while also registering an emotional and literary investment in his still lives and other works.

Liam Kelly