Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Strange Quest of Neil Shawcross

Last Monday evening Neil Shawcross’s latest show opened at the Peppercanister Gallery, in Herbert Street. As with many events in his life as a painter, it was a celebration. The atmosphere was filled with love and excitement, the walls glowed with vibrant colours, mainly red and black. The subjects of the paintings are chairs, or should I say, the subject of almost all the paintings is a chair. A bit like a piece of shaker furniture, it has a tall ladder-back and is simple and austere.

In the paintings the chair flames and pulsates. The red background is like a fire consuming the object and yet not burning it at all. It is like the bush seen in the wilderness. Neil himself wore a red tweed jacket, the colour almost but not quite matching the red but enough to seem like an extension, either into himself or out from himself. I knew roughly what to expect before going to the show and as a tease I put on a scarlet shirt and a dazzling bright bowtie. He saw the joke immediately, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘I’ll have to do another portrait!’

I had opened a previous exhibition in the same gallery by Neil Shawcross in 2005. It was of still life paintings, many of them in what he called ‘Grid’ format, multiple images, using collage and abstract or semi-abstract; though mugs, dishes, bottles cups and saucers were also part of the array of colour. Again, as with the chair, the images were flooded with an intense and focused use of a small range of colours, with red predominating, but with, additionally, an amazing use of yellow and green.

Yellow and green are not easy to use, either separately or together. They were as much, if not more, the subject of what he was doing, back then, in the late August of 2005. And I came away from the show, as I did again this week with the new paintings, puzzling over what he was doing. What was his real objective in this battle with colour?

Later that year, 2005, he had a show in the Ulster Museum of his portraits, thirty four of them, dating from his 1968 full-length, seated portrait of Solly Lipsitz to the dramatic Graham Gingles of 2004 and the painting of myself in a yellow coat and a red hat that was later shown at the RHA. The pictures in the Ulster show constituted together a dramatis personae of Irish people as well as being a truly outstanding display of the art of portraiture. They should have been shown down here; after all, Neil Shawcross’s first Irish one-man show was held in Dublin more than thirty years ago. But, despite efforts to interest the Academy and galleries elsewhere, nothing came of this. No matter, there is always a time for the reassembly of them and it is easier with Neil Shawcross than others because his portraits are not commissioned and he has kept many in his collection, finding it difficult to part with these jewels of human understanding.

During a couple of encounters after that I discussed with the artist where he might go next and he admitted it was a dilemma. There is such power and force in the portraits, coupled with a remarkable aptitude in addressing himself to the character of the subject, and understanding the inner soul. I think particularly of his not very common portraits of women, of Helen Lewis, for example, a dancer and choreographer, or of Renata Mooney, a painter.

I learned, among other things, on Monday night, that Bertie Ahern, when asked about an artist who might paint him, named Neil Shawcross. I was astonished by the perception this implied and wondered how much Shawcross might have penetrated the enigma and how he might have brought colour to the essentially grey aspect of the politician. It never happened. It should, of course, still be attempted. Shawcross is such an outstanding student of character that bringing together the two of them would be a remarkable memorial event.

I wrote at the beginning of this article about the atmosphere at Monday’s opening being full of love and excitement and I have tried to convey the excitement of his colour and his understanding. When I come to the matter of love it is with a special sense of interest and pleasure, since this included that Neil had brought over from his home town in England his twin brother and family. They come from Bolton, not far from Manchester, and once part of that huge black area of industrial enterprise that spreads out around that great city.

Neil’s brother, Tony, with Evie his wife were there. So were the two nephews, Gary and Richard, and the two nieces, Karen and Leslie. It was a first visit and I tried, not without a measure of success, to understand how they felt to be drawn into this evolutionary web for a painter, who came to Ireland to teach in Belfast, has always had an association with the south, still speaks with a Bolton accent, and looked with such affection upon the amazed and admiring faces of them all. The event was a wonder altogether.

I went off to dinner with all of them afterwards and came away with a further set of thoughts about the painter. Neil Shawcross is like one of the Fauves, that tiny group of artists who came together, with magical results, in the summers of 1904 and 1905, in the south of France. Henri Matisse led them, together with Signac, and then Derain. Others followed: Braque, Marquet, Vlaminck. There was even an Irishman in the group, Phelan Gibb, who had shared a studio with Matisse.

They got their name ‘Fauves’ – which means wild beasts – from a remark made by the art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, at the 1905 Salon d’Autumne, when he pointed to a Renaissance sculpture by Donatello in the centre of the display of dazzling works and said: ‘Donatello au milieu des Fauves!’

The unifying force in their brief but rich collaboration was the extreme intensity of the colour they used. Pure primary colours, masterly and daring conjunctions of these, the use of colour to express emotion, the massing of it to define and mould space. Anyone who loves Neil Shawcross’s work does so because of this powerful courage and its effective resolution.

Nothing else held the Fauves together. They had their glorious moment, the high point being the summer of 1905, and then, like such movements always, they went on their separate ways.

Shawcross has done it on his own. But if one wants to understand him, this command of colour and its force as well as its difficulties, is central to his impact. Put it together with his understanding of the human heart – evident in portraiture – and you have him, a friend for life.