Her contribution to the New Ross tapestries has highlighted Ann Griffin Bernstorff's paintings, which are inspired by Irish myths and legends, writes Deirdre McQuillan.
A conversation with Ann Griffin Bernstorff can take as many twists and turns as the intricate stitchwork of the Ross Tapestry, the huge project she initiated in New Ross, Co Wexford, seven years ago. An Irish artist, widow of a Danish count and authority on Irish medieval life, she can tell you everything about how the Irish and the Normans lived and worked, right down to the details of what they ate and wore. She can be equally expansive on topics as diverse as Italian primitive painters, Border Leicester sheep, forestry, church architecture and Victorian dress. Her breadth of reference is formidable. Eight of the massive panels that depict the history of New Ross will be finished by next September, the 800th anniversary of the founding of the town by William Marshall, earl of Pembroke, in 1207. Griffin Bernstorff has been responsible for the research and execution of the cartoons - the paintings from which the tapestries are made. There have been some surprises. Her discovery of an ancestral link between Strongbow and George Bush, for example, had the world press on her doorstep for weeks. A photographer from Stern, the German magazine, stayed three days. "It shows the power of ancient history," she tells me at her handsome Georgian home outside New Ross.
Currently completing the last cartoon, Fair Day in New Ross, which depicts the Irish and the Normans squaring off their debts with counters on check cloth, she is trying with customary rigour to find out exactly what colour that cloth would have been. Textiles have been a huge interest in her life (she has a costume and toy museum in the house), and historical accuracy a defining feature of the whole endeavour.
"My style is very sympathetic to the embroidery scenario. Simple statements work on a nonworked background. The style of laying out the image is crucial for embroidery purposes." The tapestry project has highlighted a somewhat overlooked Irish artist and designer who in November had her first solo show in Dublin for 30 years. Better known abroad than at home, her work has featured regularly in exhibitions in London, Chicago, New York and Miami since she first started exhibiting at the Portal Gallery in London in the late 1980s.
At home she has worked mostly on portrait commissions, including one of Laura Carson, Liz O'Donnell's teenage daughter. O'Donnell opened Griffin Bernstorff's recent show at the Peppercanister Gallery, in Dublin. "I think she's fantastic," says O'Donnell. "I love the huge intelligence and scholarship in her work."
Griffin Bernstorff's style is conventionally described as idiosyncratic, in that it doesn't fit the usual categories. According to Antoinette Murphy of the Peppercanister: "It is hard to pin down. It can be called naive, but it's anything but naive. It's very sophisticated. She's very knowledgeable and she has her own niche. Other artists respect her work." In the US her work connects with a tradition established by 19th-century painters such as Edward Hicks. "Americans understand my work. Others have made images in this fashion, so it is easy for them," she says. Many of her paintings, mostly oils, are inspired by Irish myths and legends. "It's about coming across some storyline and letting it into one's consciousness, so that it emerges in a different context. Sometimes stories are lying around, and you say, Good Lord, that is very exciting. The old stories of Ireland are breathtakingly beautiful."
One painting, The Paidrín Mare, centres on a famous l8th-century Irish horse that kept winning races at the Curragh and always had rosary beads around its neck. "When she died, it is said that they found wings attached to her heart," says Griffin Bernstorff. In the painting the white horse is shown with wings, galloping ahead of the others, while its owners, arms outstretched, stand with their backs to us. Another allegorical painting depicts the Austrian empress Sissi, a formidable equestrian, astride a piebald horse in Ireland. "Piebalds were carriage horses," says Griffin Bernstorff, "and when her father took her to Vienna he bought her piebalds." Historical accuracy at work again.
When the young Griffin, as she was then, left school, her father, a prominent Limerick horticulturalist, wanted her to have nothing to do with what at the time were the twin passions in her life, art and horses. "Art was a pansy land where it was a known fact that you never earned a penny," she says, recalling his views. Instead, she was packed off to Vilmorin, outside Paris, to train with family friends who owned one of the world's foremost nurseries.
Thanks to the efforts of her mother, Jean Quaid, an artist and pupil of Sean Keating, Griffin managed to change course and became a student at the National College of Art in Dublin and, later, at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, "where I finally started to feel human", she says. For two years running, in 1962 and 1963, she won the Taylor Art Scholarship at the RDS. Nevertheless, a deep knowledge of horticulture has remained undiminished. Her garden is well known.
Back home in Ireland she worked for a number of years with James Gorry, the Dublin picture restorer, and remembers working on "glorious" Dutch paintings. "People like Gorry knew what they were looking at. He was hugely able. He had Jewish, English auction dealers and some Irish businessmen about to take the plunge," she says.
Since her 1958 marriage to Count Gunnar Bernstorff, who was from a family of prominent Danish politicians and adventurers, she has lived and worked in Berkeley Forest, the lovely Georgian house they bought in New Ross. It remains a working tillage and sheep farm and is where their three children grew up.
The ochre house, its garden and its costume and toy museum have often featured in books on Irish houses. Griffin Bernstorff's sense of colour and love of textiles are in evidence everywhere, from the cornflower-blue walls of the spacious stairwell to the Scandinavian-style painted floors and zany orange dining room. With her deep, urgent voice and girlish figure, she is a very stylish individual who has passed on a love of history and textiles to her children. Her son Alex is a fashion and travel photographer whose work regularly features in the Financial Times. Her daughter Alexis is a textile expert and art historian involved in the tapestry project and responsible for the restoration of carpets and textiles at Farmleigh House. Her eldest son, Andreas, is a banker in London.
Sitting beside the fire, a "sentimental hound" called Bertram on her lap, she admits to being a slow worker. "I spend a long time thinking about a painting before I start. All the mental stuff beforehand is a slow business. Painters are subversive and can have an angle on society they feel the need to send out. If people don't pick up on it, well, it's too bad."
The success of her recent exhibition has, however, given her great encouragement after years of sending paintings to the US. In Dublin "the sociability was thrilling, and the fact that you were talking to people was delicious. It was such a joy that the gallery was prepared to go with it. It was like a homecoming".
© 2007 The Irish Times