Wartime Stories Paint Poetic Pictures; Hughie O'Donoghue's Huge Paintings Present a New Approach to the Defunct Art of History Painting. Terry Grimley Met Him on the Eve of His Exhibition Opening at the Gas Hall

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Byline: Terry Grimley

It turns out that Hughie O'Donoghue and I have something in common: his father and mine were both motorcycle despatch riders who were left behind in Normandy in 1940 after the evacuation at Dunkirk.

Both escaped, my father going on to serve in North Africa, O'Donoghue's in Italy. But whereas for me this is just family history, for O'Donoghue it has been an important source of inspiration for his paintings over the last decade.

His huge monochrome drawing Crossing the Rapido III, inspired by the battle of Monte Cassino, has been on display for some time in Birmingham's Water Hall as a centrepiece of the Drawing Parallels exhibition. Now, just across the street, a major retrospective of his prints and paintings has opened, including more brooding images which contemplate, in an abstracted way, his father's wartime experiences in France and Italy.

'It's a meditation on those particular events, an attempt to distil some sort of personal meaning,' he explains.

'It's quite epic, the Second World War. It contains tragic elements and comic elements. In a sense I'm story-telling, but trying to do it in a poetic way. These paintings aren't about anything heroic. I knew my father and I didn't want to work from generalisations.'

Even so, he adds: 'The personal dimension came about quite by chance. I never intended to start making works around this subject, but in Dublin eight years ago I decided to sort my father's letters out for family purposes. By reading 20 letters a night from 1943 the subject seeped into me.'

O'Donoghue was born in Manchester in 1953, and his accent is still recognisably Mancunian. However, both his parents were born in Ireland - 'My mother was a native speaker from the West'- and he now lives in Kilkenny.

'I moved to Ireland about seven years ago, after the death of my father. My mother had been dead for some time.

'There were quite practical reasons. I wanted to construct a large studio - as you can see, the size of the work required that. We tried to do that in London but it was prohibitively expensive. There's also a very good regime for artists in Ireland, a tax incentive, which is not to be overlooked.'

Starting out as an abstract painter, O'Donoghue lost faith in formalism around the time he took an MA at Goldsmiths at the beginning of the 1980s. It was a time when subject matter was making a big come-back in British art, along with figurative painting.

'From that point there's always been imagery in my work, though there are times when images are so worked that they appear abstract.

'Sometimes they are more explicit in the drawings. …