Stark Sincerity

Acclaimed landscape artist Paul Henry was influenced by the changing face of Ireland

Known primarily for his depictions of Achill Island and the wilds of Connemara, Belfast-born artist Paul Henry (1876-1958) is commonly regarded as the finest Irish landscape painter.

His work was hugely popular during the first half of the 20th century when it was seen as the embodiment of rural or even 'real' Ireland. Accordingly his reputation declined with the advent of a progressive urban Ireland but is now undergoing a resurgence of interest.

His best work is closer in spirit to the pastoral post-Impressionist works of Van Gogh and Gaugin than to his Irish predecessors. For centuries Ireland was depicted as a land of leprechauns, red haired colleens and dancing jigs. Paul Henry was the first to paint Ireland as it really was.

Born into a long line of Protestant preachers, Henry shunned the family tradition by embarking on an artistic path. Following study in Belfast he set sail for Paris, at that time the wild city of Toulouse-Lautrec, absinthe and the Moulin Rouge. There he studied under the painter Whistler, and it was in Paris that he recovered from his infamous court case with the critic Ruskin that had led to bankruptcy for the artist and mental breakdown for the critic.

Whilst in Paris, Henry became enraptured with the works of Millet, who specialised in rustic depictions of peasants toiling in fields. Later he developed a love of Van Gogh not just for his vibrant flowing style but also for the heightened almost child-like sense of wonder. These artists would inspire Henry for the rest of his life: Millet in his subject matter, Van Gogh in his style of painting.

During his stay in Paris he met his future wife Grace, an artist in her own right. Marrying in 1903, they soon settled in London where Paul found work as a newspaper illustrator. These early expressionist sketches are a brilliant and largely forgotten part of his legacy. For the next decade he forged a living in the capital, becoming in the process an honorary member of the Fitzroy Street Group of English painters.
When a friend recommended Achill Island off the coast of County Mayo, Henry set off on a two-week holiday that would last seven years. The self-proclaimed “plain-dweller” was immediately captivated by the place and resolved to make it his home throwing his return train ticket into the ocean.

Taking lodgings with hospitable locals he explored the island, sketching from the cliff-faces, the mountaintops and the famine ruins, finding inspiration in the dignity of the old people. They stirred in him a romantic fascination with the 'slow fading out of an era' as people were forced to turn away from the land to seek work in the cities. He had searched for a community close to the earth, away from the excesses of civilisation, and found it already ebbing away.

In Achill his paintings took life. Far from the idealised fairies and general paddywhackery of his predecessors, Henry painted twisted trees facing the Atlantic storms, the looming mountain ranges, the weather beaten faces of those laying seaweed on the barren soil or dragging fishing boats ashore. There are no illusions in his work. He authentically depicted the life and the surroundings as he witnessed it. Most of his work deals with humans struggling with the elements, from the crumbling ruins of former homes to the women watching for fishing boats that will never return.

There is also a modern, sometimes abstract approach in his work. Great billowing plumes of clouds swirl in the sky. The land rolls and falls and rises. This is nature seen through the prism of post-Impressionism, inspired by Van Gogh who taught Henry to see the world through new eyes, to see the awe in the everyday, the extraordinary in the familiar. While fishing at dawn he produced charcoal sketches that take the misty morning and change it into something ethereal and ghostlike. This balancing of real and unreal, beauty and hardship, epic and simple is the secret of his success.

Amassing an impressive body of work he exhibited in Belfast, Dublin and London. Initially the conservative art establishment in Ireland attacked the work as being influenced by foreign art movements but slowly the tide began to turn. The Northern Whig was among the first to praise, 'You will look through this exhibition in vain for the 'sweetly pretty' Ireland of the popular illustrators, for the chocolate-box colleen …In place of the glamour of false romance you get the veracity of the thing seen; sentimentalism gives way to stark sincerity'.

And yet a curious turn of events was to change the course of his painting. Many of the women he painted began to insist on being painted not in their normal attire but with make-up and high heels. Henry disagreed and covertly continued to sketch them in their natural surroundings whilst giving the impression he was reading. In time they avoided him altogether and he was forced to paint only landscapes, which sadly was to be his creative undoing.

This change of direction coincided with the formation of the Irish Free State. Following the Civil War De Valera and his followers were looking for art to give legitimacy to their claims of representing “real” Ireland. They projected their views of a parochial narrow-minded, insular Ireland onto Henry’s work, ignoring his compassion for working people and his European style of painting while celebrating his settings as some conservative rural utopia that had never existed to begin with.

Admittedly Henry did himself little favours. For financial security he allowed his work to be sold as posters in the UK and the US giving the Irish tourist board a massive boost but diluting his reputation and handing it to those who sought a fictional Ireland. A victim of his own success, he had hit upon a formula at the expense of the humanity of his earlier work and repeated it endlessly. 

The future was not kind to Henry. He moved to Dublin, lost his sight in 1945 but soldiered on to write an autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951) before his death in 1958. An Ulster History Circle blue plaque has been placed at the house where he lived in 67 University Road, Belfast.

He remains a somewhat divisive figure whose legacy is disputed by conservatives and progressives both of whom tend to class him as a postcard painter associated with the Ireland of old in contrast to the dynamic 'Celtic Tiger' of today. Both sides fail to see the almost imperceptible but deep-rooted change he brought to Irish art, the sense of wonder with which he saw the world and the sense of tragic dignity captured in his best work like 'The Watcher,' 'Launching The Currach' and the early landscapes.

We are finally seeing him as we should: with enough distance as to recognise him as simply a great artist, beyond those conservatives who tried to appropriate him and those faux cosmopolitans who look at him, and indeed rural Ireland, with snobbish disdain, for Paul Henry shows us a world that we have forgotten how to see. 

Darren Anderson