Paul Henry

Images of an Irish Arcadia

The landscape and figure painter Paul Henry (1876-1958) was born on Belfast’s University Road one of four sons of Protestant preacher, Rev Robert Mitchell Henry.

There was a strong religious tradition and association to the Henry family and it is particularly interesting to note that one of Henry’s ancestors, his maternal grandfather, Thomas Berry had in fact been a preacher on Achill Island, situated off County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, in the 1830s, some 70 years before the artist was to settle there to record the landscape and people.

Despite the long line of Protestant preachers in the family and the turmoil and political upheaval in Ireland at this time Henry himself, aside from a youthful dalliance with nationalism, was notably apolitical.

He was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and was later apprenticed to the Broadway Damask Company as a textiles designer. Henry found the work unfulfilling and so he left and began to attend the Belfast Government School of Art where he was to receive his earliest artistic training.

In 1898, he travelled to Paris, initially training at the Académie Julian, before later enrolling at the Académie Carmen, a studio run by the American-born painter James McNeill Whistler.

It is not surprising that Henry was drawn to Paris. By the turn of the twentieth century the city was the undoubted centre of the artistic avant-garde and the home to artists such as Degas and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and to a number of Ireland’s most celebrated literary figures, including W B Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and J M Synge.

Indeed there are obvious parallels between Synge’s journey to the Aran Islands in the 1890s and Henry’s extended sojourn on Achill in the years 1910 to 1919. Henry made little secret of the fact that Synge’s short play Riders To The Sea was for him an important and inspiring work.

It was whilst in Paris that Henry met his first wife Grace, also a painter. The couple moved to London in 1900 and were married there in 1903. Henry was at this time making an unsatisfactory living as an illustrator and in his spare time was producing charcoal sketches of landscapes which he exhibited at the Groupil Gallery.

He also became an honorary member of a group of English painters who called themselves The Fitzroy Street Group. This collective included the likes of Albert and William Rothstein, Walter Sickert and Spencer Gore and counted Jack B Yeats and eminent art dealer Hugh Lane amongst its other honorary members.

By 1909, Paul and Grace were still working in England, however, in April that year Paul Henry’s friend the writer Robert Lynd married the novelist and poet Sylvia Dryhurst. The newlyweds honeymooned on Achill and upon their return Lynd most passionately recommended that the Henrys visit the island. Responding to Lynd’s recommendation, the Henrys set off for what was to be a two week holiday. However, the couple were so captivated by the landscape, people and way of life that they were to stay on Achill for nearly a decade, from 1910 to 1919.

Henry’s empathy with the island’s inhabitants is rendered explicit in the early work he produced on Achill, painting scenes showing the routine activities of the Irish peasantry; from potato digging to turf cutting, seaweed harvesting to fishing. We are also reminded of how during his time in Paris he had been impressed by the work of Millet, and in particular how the French artist had in paintings such as The Gleaners and The Angelus chosen to focus on the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Much of the Henrys’ early work on Achill went on display in a joint exhibition in Belfast in 1911. Reviewing the exhibition, the newspaper The Northern Whig praised the couple for boldly disregarding established artistic formulas in much the same way that J M Synge had done with drama. The links between Henry and Synge would become increasingly explicit.

When he was elected to the Ulster Arts Club in 1911 Henry chose to exhibit his painting The Watcher. The painting which depicted a peasant girl standing upon rocks and staring anxiously out at a storm tossed sea, instantly brought to mind Synge’s Riders To The Sea. The fact that Henry chose to append a short extract from the play to the painting’s title merely rendered literal what had hitherto been alluded to.

The paintings Henry produced whilst on Achill, with their evocations of a rural Arcadia were to become synonymous with the vision of Ireland that was to prevail during the early years of the new Irish Free State. However, some commentators would criticise Henry for his failure to address or make reference to the political and civil disruptions which were raging in Ireland at this time. But perhaps it was the very fact that his work shied away from examining the brute reality of the human conflict and upheaval that explains why his work was to be so popular throughout Ireland.

With their marriage faltering the Henrys left Achill in 1919 and settled in Dublin. Paul Henry used his experience with The Fitzroy Street Group in helping to establish the Society of Dublin Painters. The society, whose members included Jack B Yeats, helped invigorate a Dublin art scene which had previously been dominated by rather more staid and conservative art societies such as The Royal Hibernian Academy. It was around this time that he and Grace separated after some 26 years together, though Henry would later remarry. During the 1920s Henry began to move away from his earlier style in which figures had dominated and chose instead to concentrate on landscape painting.

Employing a post-impressionist style, still something of a novelty in Ireland, to capture the wildness and beauty of the country’s rugged terrain Henry’s popularity reached a peak in the 1930s. Creatively, however, his work was showing signs of repetition.

Henry lived in Dublin for the remainder of his life until his death in 1958. His paintings remain extremely popular and are constantly exhibited. The Ulster Museum, most of Ireland’s major art galleries and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are amongst those who own his work.

By Francis Jones