Exhibitions: Why Irish Painters Prefer to Work in the Wet

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When Time Began to Rant and Rage

Liverpool Walker Art Gallery

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the first characteristics of Irish painting in the 20th century turns out to be dignity, or so one gathers from the large exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. The show is called "When Time Began to Rant and Rage", a slightly histrionic title for a collection of paintings whose artists generally have their emotions well under control. The more vehement canvases are from artists working today. The sort of painting that impressed me at the Walker was mostly done half a century ago. I think I know the reason for its relaxed and measured tone. Painting in those days was an activity confined to the Irish middle classes. As Patrick Kavanagh used to say, "The army of Irish poets is never less than 10,000 strong", and certainly there have been fewer people joining the battalions of artists. Poetry has an honoured and genuinely popular role in Irish life. Irish painters - and the so-few Irish sculptors - have never had a similar closeness to the people of their country, even though a number of them attempt a kind of demotic visual poetry that imitates, in a different medium, the shared emotions of lore and balladry. Surely this was Jack Yeats's ambition, and a reason why he has such a hallowed place in the modern mythologies of his native land. Jack Yeats says a lot about Ireland, but this is not necessarily his strength. His characteristic "poetic" style all too often led him into mannerism, a repetition of effects with which he was content and which satisfied his audience. Yeats has other limitations that are not concealed by his Irishness. Judged purely as a painter, he has fewer credentials than Sir John Lavery, who represents a quite different type of Irish art. Lavery was born in Belfast in 1865 and grew up there before training in Glasgow and Paris. He became a portraitist of high society all over the world. Some of his pictures rival or exceed the fashionable art of his contemporary, John Singer Sargent. However, Lavery was not merely the servant of the rich. Irishmen never are. In his character and his art there was independence, even though his paintings follow the official modes. What was that independence? Hard to say. Lavery's painting, in terms of style, belongs to no single country. And perhaps we find here a clue to both the art and the literature of Ireland. There is a feeling of personality, but also of isolation, and especially of distance. A wise old Irishman once explained this to me. I had entered a Dublin bar, to escape a sudden thunderstorm, and he talked of the way that the Irish are always overseas, even when they are at home, and that they are never more at home than when they live by the sea. Not great sailors, they prefer fish from rivers rather than the ocean. The Mourne and Wicklow mountains yearn to be nearer strand or lough. A lough is not a lake. It is a sea in its Irish form. Most Irish creation comes from the hinterlands of the mighty ports of Dublin, Cork, Bantry and Galway; plus of course Belfast, wherever that might be. My tutor on that morning was actually the ancient peasant-poet Paddy Kavanagh (who never visited Northern Ireland in his life), general of the aforementioned army, in one of his more reflective moods. His opinion had the more weight because he was from Monaghan, therefore a midlander by Irish standards. …