Another paradise

The Path to the Sea (A4 collage and acrylic on mounting board 2017)

There are a number of places which, when you’re there, you never want to leave. The cool marble and tinkling fountains of the Alhambra; Rome, where Henry James’ greatest heroine ‘dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective’; New York City in winter, looking out at the snow-filled garden of the Frick mansion from a room hung with Rembrandts.

On a different scale, I’d now add Great Blasket Island off the western coast of Eire. Uninhabited since the early 1950s and dotted with tiny stone cottages in various states of disrepair, the island is a place of enormous beauty and a gentle melancholy. Surrounded by the Atlantic with its ever-changing blues and greens, Great Blasket is virtually cut off from the Dingle peninsula during the winter months when the ocean becomes a fierce adversary. It was the winter isolation with a tragic consequence that finally drove its tiny population from this unlikely paradise.

Some descendents of the Blasket Islanders are renovating and restoring the houses now. Walls are being rebuilt and roofs replaced and a hilltop cafe serves possibly the worst tea you’ll drink in Ireland. In the early years of the last century a number of inhabitants wrote books about their experiences living here which I’m sure are well worth reading, but you don’t really need to.

Just walk down to the beach with its pungent, lolling seals and look out across the ocean which, even on a peaceful summer’s day, peaks and troughs around the coastline. Between you and America there’s nothing but these temperamental waters, stretching away for over 6,000 kilometers. Put yourself in the shoes of those Islanders living on lobster and rabbit and burning peat for warmth; imagine writing your stories or tuning your fiddle by candlelight, a winter storm thrashing at your windows and around your thatched roof. Consider all of that and tell me this isn’t a paradise of sorts where things detach themselves and grow objective.

I’ve been involved in making collages lately, using cut-up pieces of unwanted paintings, as a sort of palate cleanser (apologies, there was no way to avoid the pun) before beginning the task of rethinking the way I paint. There’s something satisfying about finding those corners where a brush stroke takes on true character or a line of charcoal intersects a block of pigment in an exciting way. Building those pieces up into something new is such a thrill. This particular one tries to evoke that feeling of walking to the sea along a lonely cliff path.

More over on Instagram.

My heartfelt thanks to SO’R, PM, SB and IB for making it possible for me to visit Great Blasket last weekend.



In Heaven there’ll be no algebra

Henry James blog

Henry James (A3 charcoal and graphite 2016)


I’ll always be grateful to Peter Kemp – one of my teachers when I was a literature student (he later became Fiction Editor of the Sunday Times) – for introducing me to the work of Henry James, who died a hundred years ago on February 28th.

Apart from Peter and Colm Toibín, I don’t know anyone who reads Henry James for pleasure. This, to me, is baffling. There is a wonderful arc of discovery and development from his early novellas, such as Daisy Miller and The Europeans, to his beautiful, nuanced masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady.

There is so much to admire in Portrait, such as this: “She dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day…she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness.” Mindfulness, 1881.

This rather Expressionist portrait of James is based on three sources: John Singer Sargent’s masterly portrait of the writer at 70, a photograph of James with his brother, William; and a rather cruel drawing by Edward Gorey in a book called Instant Lives. Despite – or perhaps because of – his towering genius, James was a conflicted figure: not least about his sexuality (whatever it might have been).

So celebrate the passing of genius a century ago and treat yourself to a nicely-bound edition of The Portrait of a Lady. You won’t regret the investment. I’ll leave you with an anonymous poem from a postcard I bought from Henry James’ house in Rye, which I’ve carried with me through numerous moves over the past thirty years:

In Heaven there’ll be no algebra,

No learning dates and names;

But only playing golden harps

And reading Henry James.