Artist Basil Blackshaw's appeal lies in the emotive quality of his work, writes Ciara Ferguson.
ON A sunny evening last June, a lone figure sat on the steps, smoking a pipe, under the shade of Dublin's Peppercannister church. It was the painter Basil Blackshaw. The occasion was the opening of his own art exhibition in the Peppercanister Gallery, and by the time Seamus Heaney began his speech every painting had been sold.
Northern Irish artist Basil Blackshaw is a true original. He is one of Ireland's greatest painters, and his modest personality belies the brilliance of his work. He is a dedicated painter whose quiet genius has never required a measure of success in a fickle or fashionable art world. The magic of Blackshaw lies not in his subject matter but in the intense emotive quality of the work and the acclaim he now attracts comes from his own uncompromising standards. If anyone deserves an award for a sustained contribution to the visual arts in Ireland, it is Blackshaw. Rightly, then, he was honoured last Friday at the Irish Museum of Modern Art with the Glen Dimplex Award for a Sustained Contribution to the Visual Arts in Ireland.
Seamus Heaney describes Blackshaw's work as "the earth and its creatures, its game cocks and blood horses, its green sward and its glary sheughs, its imaginative writers and its sexual beauties, its lurchers and its loved ones, all these things have been richly basilised, as it were, blackshawed into pigment, turned into an element that is as rich as the muddy banks of the Bann valley and as recognisable as Basil's own gleeful personality".
Blackshaw was born in Glengormley House, Co Antrim, in 1932. His talent declared itself early, attracting attention even during his student days. Since he graduated from Belfast College of Art in 1951, he has used constantly recurring themes to extract the essential elements. These images close to the land are interpreted in his evocative, often isolated images, originally inspired by his daily contact with the stable of hunters and beagles kept by his father and brother.
In the early Sixties, Blackshaw married Australian painter Anna Ritchie, with whom he had a daughter, Anya Waterworth, now making her mark as a painter in her own right. By the Seventies the marriage had collapsed and a period of self-doubt followed.
Meeting Helen Falloon provided a transition of confidence, and Helen has been his constant companion for the past 20 years. She has provided the care and common sense necessary to allow Blackshaw to advance his work and he has.
Horses and dogs feature prominently, along with the exploration of nude figures, fleeting angels, travellers, landscapes. Although his road is rigorously his own, Blackshaw is often compared to Cezanne. Likewise, the figure in the landscape is a recurring theme and references to Cezanne's bathers are evident.
Hanging on a wall among the portraits of Charlie Haughey in Abbeville, Kinsealy, is a Blackshaw fighting cockerel. Painted during the Eighties, it caught the eye of the former Taoiseach. Later, Haughey commissioned Blackshaw to paint a portrait of his own horse, Flashing Steel. Blackshaw caught the essence of the creature in all the glory of its moment.
Flashing Steel has since been put out to pasture. Art imitating life in the abstract, of course.