Between the Words

Colin Davidson's series of artist portraits go on display in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's

It is alarming, even distressing, to be confronted on arrival at the Naughton Gallery at Queen's University by Colin Davidson's larger-than-life portrait of Seamus Heaney, and this only a few days after his untimely death.

Here Heaney's formidable persona still reigns, though with a strangely guarded look in a painting enigmatically subtitled ‘From Everywhere and Nowhere'. It is as though Heaney is wondering what the artist, or fate, has in mind for him.

The Heaney portrait, and the others in this impressive exhibition covering 12 subjects, were painted in the last year. In turn they are a continuation of a rich series of portraits now numbering some 40, which sprang to life as recently as 2010 when Davidson’s portrait of Peter Wilson (aka the musician Duke Special) won the Irish Arts Review Portraiture Award.

The corpus now amounts to an increasingly complete gallery of Ulster and Irish creative talents, as befits Davidson’s Northern Ireland roots, and the similarity of format indeed suggests something that is now consciously a series.

These head and shoulders paintings are literally larger-than-life at roughly 4’ by 4’, which certainly contributes to their impact, but Davidson has another intention in mind – to portray something that is ‘somehow bigger than life’.

His interaction and conversation with the sitters contributes, but ‘it is the moments between the words that I find most compelling. I can catch a glimpse of the spirit of the person’. Hence the title of the exhibition.

Because his subjects are stars in the cultural firmament, even household names – and one thinks here of people like Simon Callow (above), Jimmy Ellis, Terri Hooley and James Nesbitt – we already think that we know what they look like. Their portraits certainly pass the recognition test, but the question is do they pass the artist’s own self-inflicted added dimension test?

In a number of cases we have two versions to try: drawings in graphite, crayon and pastel on paper, and oil paintings on linen. I actually prefer the subtler tones of the drawings, and, arguably, best of all is the drawing of the Shakespearean actor Simon Callow, in which a large hand covers his mouth and is pushed up against his distinctive nose in a moment of fierce contemplation. In the oil painting, the prominent nose is still there but the intensity of the drawing is not quite carried over.

When looking at and responding to the Callow painting and drawing, I had not yet read Callow's foreword to the exhibition catalogue. There he describes how Davidson caught him ‘in that terrible heavily pregnant period of rehearsal where one is barely in the world at all, as the new life one is trying to make flesh and blood germinates within one'. How well indeed Davidson captures the essence of that.

The oils offer additional dimensions and most obviously of colour, whether it is middle-aged pallor or flush, but the clotting and scraping of paint creates heads as almost three dimensional landscapes. Davidson in his early career was substantially a landscape painter, and evidently skills developed in that arena have readily transferred and now add an extra quality to his portraiture.

As time goes on all our faces are potentially rough fields. Davidson’s realism in this respect reminds us that the famous are no more immune to physical decay than the down and out, but it does not, of itself, reveal exceptional aspects of the subjects here, though it contributes to the whole.

Teri Hooley


The portrait of Gavin Friday, the Irish singer and actor, perhaps best encapsulates the real penetration. As Callow is aware, Davidson is not in the business of portraying confident celebrities as they might wish to be seen or in any ideal pose.

In the Friday portrait the eyes and the mouth suggest doubt and inner questioning, and the same could be said of the portrait of Neil Hannon, singer and songwriter of Divine Comedy fame – Davidson is particularly good at eyes and mouths.

Portraits of James Ellis and Terri Hooley (subtitled ‘I Have Seen the Light’, and pictured above) offer greater serenity, perhaps in the case of the former as a true elder statesman, and in the latter that of an eternal optimist.

It is not all a male preserve. Bronagh Gallagher, the Derry-born actress (image below), Lisa Hannigan, the Irish singer and musician, and Markéta Irglová, the Czech singer and actress, feature as powerful women in their own right, and earn impressive portraits.

Yet I am less sure that Davidson finds that added dimension within them that seems more characteristic of his male portraits. Is it that they are marginally less famous and visually well-known, or younger and lack that accumulated facial landscape of decay? Perhaps it is a false point, and as a male beholder I failed to see.

As befits Davidson’s significant and growing reputation – he is now President of the Royal Ulster Academy – the six drawings are all that are offered for sale, priced at £7,000 each. The catalogue, which includes an interview with Shan McAnena of the Naughton Gallery and images of the paintings on exhibition, and of others, is available for £10.

Between the Words runs in the Naughton Gallery at Queen's, Belfast until October 6.

Bronagh Gallagher