exhibition programme | paintings | tapestries | prints | chronology of a life | market | biography & bibliography | agents | news
Louis le Brocquy Allegory and Legend
Introduction. Yvonne Scott
Louis le Brocquy Allegory and Legend, The Hunt Museum, Limerick, 16 June - 24 September 2006
Dr Yvonne Scott is the Director of Triarc, the Irish Art Research Center in the Department of the History of Art, Trinity College Dublin.
The exhibition, Louis le Brocquy Allegory and Legend, brings together a range of works drawn from a selection of the ‘Tinkers’ or Travellers series, the Eden tapestries, the Processions paintings, the Táin lithographs and the Cúchulainn tapestries. This gathering of images is remarkable at various levels, but principally in the exceptional range of examples from the Travellers series (1945-50) numbering more than twenty in all. Never before has such an extensive selection from this series been shown together at any one time, and included are major, iconic works such as Tinker Women with Newspaper, Man Creating Bird, In Fear of Cain, and the tapestries Irish Tinkers and Garlanded Goat. Aspects of the various series’ have been discussed before, but they have generally been considered chronologically, or as separate periods or phases in the artist’s career. There is what could be described as a cosmological philosophy filtering across the artist’s oeuvre and this exhibition provides an opportunity to witness this factor at first hand.
It may seem somewhat surprising that the sub-title of the show, Allegory and Legend, should apply to works from the Travellers series given the harsh reality of the way of life which prompted the artist’s response. However, le Brocquy was attracted to the theme also for its allegorical elements with which he identified personally as an artist, and he was particularly fascinated by the esoteric nature of the rituals and practices. Most especially, in his experience, the very earthiness of the lifestyle, the seeming closeness to nature and lack of inhibition, placed the Travellers at the furthest remove from the mundane trappings of settled life and closest to the fundamentals of existence which have spawned the originary myths of creation, procreation and death as exemplified in the themes represented in this show. By bringing such a range together, with the Travellers series as the centrepiece, an opportunity is afforded of exploring the way these works are conceptually interlinked, demonstrating the coherence as well as the creative range, across Louis le Brocquy’s long and fruitful career.
First contact with the Travellers
The story of how the artist first became interested in the Travellers theme is well known, and has been recounted in a number of texts.1 In a recent conversation le Brocquy explained:
Well it was back in the 'forties … my first contact really was seeing a group of ‘tinkers’ as we then called them, travelling people, on the banks of the Dargle River and I was simply struck by this other way of life.2
He relates that he was attracted also by the legend of how they began their seemingly rootless life:
Faced with Cromwell’s edict, ‘To Hell or Connacht’, the Travelling People took a third way: they took to the road. In time they became the road: that which lay outside the settled community that regarded them with suspicion and some hostility.3
This poetic version of their history was significant in le Brocquy’s treatment of the theme for the suggestion that the Travellers refused to conform but took control of their own destiny.
It was some time later, le Brocquy relates, that he went to Tullamore to fulfil a commission to paint a mural for Desmond Williams in the Palace Bar in Tullamore. At that time le Brocquy, in common with many artists, found it difficult to make a living from his own work. As he points out, these types of jobs were very hard work but relatively well paid and he was glad of them. This particular project came through a mutual friend, the architect Michael Scott. Louis stayed with Williams at his house in Tullamore and while there he used to cycle around the countryside in search of ideas for painting. It was while he was out on such a mission that he encountered the Travellers:
I came across a group of ‘tinkers’ – as they were called then. They were still tinsmiths - that was their trade, mending kettles and saucepans … in those days, they had their picturesque caravans and went forth into the countryside looking for suitable stops.4
This encounter prompted a theme that was to dominate his work for the next few years. While it has been suggested that le Brocquy lived with the Travellers for a period of time in order to familiarise himself with their way of life, he is adamant that this was not the case.
I learned almost immediately that I should not try to become intimate with them – not to try to become one of them, as it were. I found that I got on best with them with what you might describe as a mutual curiosity.5
The process of transforming his curiosity into paintings involved first making rapid sketches noting forms and groupings, facial expressions and body language and observing habits and rituals. He was sensitive to intruding on them, though as he says, he did sometimes sketch the Travellers with their consent. These drawings served as aides-mémoire rather than as detailed illustrations:
Sometimes I did sketch them but I had to do it rather, shall I say, obliquely because anything like a confrontation risked refusal, and I felt I could be resented. So I did it obliquely, but some of them did let me sketch them and I made a number of rough drawings … half noting what I had just seen, then reconstructing them in the studio.6
Some of the drawings are single studies, while others are of groups of Travellers. These sketches are invaluable observations. Some are relatively literal, like the coloured sketch of an event where a horse had fallen between the shafts of a cart. Another, which seems to have been one of the first sketches, Tinkers outside Tullamore (1945), includes one of the picturesque caravans that the artist refers to. Over the next few years, this theme continued to fire le Brocquy’s imagination and he drew on recollections and imaginative reconstructions of what he had seen. As he explains:
They were mostly imaginative; especially the paintings I did of the older ‘tinker’ people, and weren’t in any sense literal … they were inspired by the life, by their campfires and by the very tough circumstances in which they lived.7
Otherness and Exclusion
While le Brocquy was not the first to take an interest in the theme of Travellers, it has not been a common theme among visual artists in Ireland. The most notable predecessors were Jack Yeats8 and occasionally Nano Reid; somewhat later, Patrick Collins also addressed the theme. Yeats took a largely anthropological interest in the Travellers; most of the works came relatively early in his career and are consequently more descriptive of typical events and characters, bordering at times on caricature though, at others, revealing poetic leanings that would translate into his more expressionist mature work of indeterminate figures wandering in the landscape. Many of Yeats’ figures are shown singly, to demonstrate perhaps their social isolation from the privileges of settled life and the prejudice of the sedentary community towards them.
Le Brocquy’s perspective of the Travellers is very different. He was not interested in them primarily as genre subjects or as characters from literature or drama. Nor did he romanticise the lifestyle in anticipation of Patrick Collins. Rather he sought to encapsulate the indomitable and anarchical spirit that he witnessed. While, like Yeats, he was interested in their social isolation, he did not interpret them as individually isolated, but collectively, from society at large. As discussed later, he was in fact particularly struck by their sense of cohesion and community, with strong emphasis on family. But he was interested also in their ‘otherness’. As he says:
They were interested to see me taking an interest in them, and I was interested in them for my own reasons. And their way of life intrigued me because it was not only wild and hard, filled with hardship, but they were also outcasts in society.9
Recent research has been at pains to distinguish Travellers from other groups, such as the rural poor, and mendicant beggars with whom they have often, apparently, mistakenly been identified. Le Brocquy goes further to point out that within the broader Traveller community, there were different clans.
And it became obvious there were very distinct groups of them because I got to know them better later on, and others in the West of Ireland, and so forth. And they were quite distinct. There were those that were very wild, very untidy and very primitive. And there were also, I remember very well … some of the clans or families who took great care of themselves, dressed carefully in their own way, and did the little girls’ pigtails up … and took great pride in that.10
The artist suggests therefore that tendencies to impose stereotypical values or behaviour on all Travellers are misguided, a point borne out by Sinéad ní Shuinéar who comments that “the so-called ‘Travelling community’ in Ireland comprises a number of quite distinct groups … But – and this is the overriding flaw in Traveller research … this internal diversity is never recognised.”11 Le Brocquy is unusual, therefore, in his recognition of this factor.
As a struggling artist, le Brocquy identified personally with the Travellers’ ‘outsider’ status. Notwithstanding the support of his mother, Sybil, he had chosen a difficult route in rejecting his family’s plans for him to join a lucrative family business in oil.12 In attempting to be a painter, with no formal training, he was placing himself ‘outside the Pale’ of the profession which was still largely controlled by the Royal Hibernian Academy. In choosing to work in a Modernist style on what were then considered questionable themes, in a conservative milieu which extended beyond the art establishment to society in general, he was learning about rejection13 and he identified sympathetically with those who chose their own road in life, however difficult and excluding. This included the Travellers and also artists that he admires, like Jack Yeats:
… I was apt to regard [the Travellers] in a sense also as being analogous to the artist, to the artist’s position in society – in those days especially. The artist … he or she, was not taken seriously. Jack Yeats - jokes were made about him then. You stand back far enough, move through the back wall, and you may be able to see something – that kind of thing. Anyway I was very excited and a bit indignant about the ‘tinkers’ …14
The racist attitude to Travellers and, to some extent, toleration of them was associated in the past with fear of their supernatural powers. E. Estyn Evans notes the superstition of country people when encountering Travellers. For example, he quotes the advice that:
If a tinker takes a fancy to your horse you will be wise to sell, for ‘he will take the good out of it or no’.15
Le Brocquy associates the suspicion of locals towards Travellers with factors including their esoteric and occult practices, such as the rituals of making signs:
People were always suspicious of them and they had to contend with that and they had various ways of contending with it. Amongst others they made signs for each other when they left the sites. They left ‘twig’ signs behind them and some of these were of a prosaic kind, such as: there are some good chickens up there in the bohereen – that kind of thing. But other signs were made to cast spells, so that local farmers hesitated to disturb them.16
Some of these were not simply informative, then, and were seen to involve magic and curses. This practice informs various paintings, most notably, Tinkers Making Twig Signs (1946). The intensity of the woman’s expression connotes both the significance of the event and her central role in the creation of the spell, indicated by the light that envelopes her.
Primitivism and Nomadism
The fascination that the Travellers held for le Brocquy was due also to what he interpreted as their essential nature which had determined, in some respects, their way of life in the first place. The artist observed their uninhibited behaviour, without the superficial veneer of polite society, as being closer to the earthy realities of human nature and therefore to one’s origins. In order to develop a visual language that was appropriate to such a subject, le Brocquy looked to earlier prototypes for the representation of the human figure. He found this in the archaic and stylised forms, particularly the triangulation of the faces of figures on the Celtic high cross at Moone, Co. Kildare, exemplified in various works such as Travelling Man in Connemara (1947).17 This reference to the ancient past suggested connections to primitive origins.
Travellers were widely seen as primitive in their habits and nomadic life by commentators who often resorted to racial stereotyping, mostly negative. As Jim MacLaughlin has pointed out, throughout Europe, nomadic lifestyles were denigrated; “nomadism [was] … characteristic of ‘barbarous’, underdeveloped and ‘uncivilised’ societies … nomadic lifestyles had no place in the civilised world.”18 In addition, Travellers have long been associated with ‘primitive’ uncontrolled behaviour, drinking and fighting. William Bulfin, for example, writing in 1919, commented, “… at one season or another of the year they return to … fight out their battles with soldering irons and other weapons ...” 19
Le Brocquy was familiar with such behaviour, and had a degree of sympathy for those who found it difficult to tolerate:
... I could very well understand the resentment of the country people because they made awful messes around the place, they littered things and left them behind them and so one could understand they aggravated their position. And they were also apt to brawl and fight and sometimes that took place rather publicly, in public houses and that kind of thing.20
While a nomadic way of life had been seen by some ancient scholars as superior, as closer to the “… first State and more removed from all the evil habits that have infected the hearts of settlers”,21 this view was not commonplace at the time that le Brocquy undertook his series. Alistair Smith points out that “Le Brocquy’s interest in the travelling way of being, like Synge’s before him, is to be seen in the context of the century’s discovery of so-called ‘primitives’, or, rather, of societies where there still exist languages and customs which have not been eroded by modern society.”22
1 See Pierre le Brocquy, Chronology of a Life, www.lebrocquy.com
2 Interview between Louis le Brocquy and Yvonne Scott, 28th April, 2006.
3 Ibid. The history of the origins of Irish Travellers is unknown with certainty, though widely conjectured. See Sinéad ní Shuinéar, ‘Apocrypha to canon: Inventing Irish Traveller History’, History Ireland, Vol.12, No.4, Winter 2004, pp.15-19.
4 Interview, op. cit.
8 For further research on Travellers in Jack Yeats’ work, see Tricia Cusack, ‘Migrant Travellers and Touristic Idylls: The paintings of Jack B. Yeats and post-colonial identities’, Art History, Vol. 21, No.2, June 1998, pp.201-218; and Julie Brazil, The Representation of the Irish Travellers in the paintings and prints of Jack B. Yeats, 1900-1928, unpublished M.A. dissertation, University of Limerick, 2005.
9 Interview, op. cit.
11 Ní Shuinéar, op. cit., p.19.
12 See Pierre le Brocquy, op. cit.
13 His experience of rejection by the RHA, of his painting Spanish Shawl (1941), now in the National Gallery of Ireland, was instrumental in prompting the establishment in 1943 of an alternative venue for progressive artists, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art.
14 Interview, op. cit.
15 E. Estyn Evans, Irish Folk Ways, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., Guernsey, 1957, p.261.
16 Interview, op. cit.
17 Pierre le Brocquy, op. cit.
18 Jim MacLaughlin, ‘Nation-Building, Social Closure and Anti-Traveller Racism in Ireland’, Sociology, Vol.33, No.1, February, 1999, pp.129-151, p.129.
19 William Bulfin, Rambles in Éireann, M.H. Gill & Son Ltd., Dublin and Waterford, 1919, p.295.
20 Interview, op. cit.
21 The fourteenth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldoun, in his Muqaddimam, or Universal History, quoted in MacLaughlin, op. cit., p.130.
22 Alistair Smith, ‘Louis le Brocquy: On the Spiritual in Art’, Louis le Brocquy, Paintings 1939-1996, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 1996, p.25.