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The Táin lithographs, 1969


In 1967 the artist is commissioned by the publisher Liam Miller to illustrate Thomas Kinsella's inspired version of The Táin Bó Cuailnge, the dramatic record of Ireland's proto-historic past. Ailbhe Ní Bhriain notes: 'The Táin Bó Cuailnge - táin, meaning the gathering of people for a cattle raid - is a prose epic with verse passages and forms the centrepiece of the cycle of Ulster heroic stories. It tells of the exploits of King Conchobar and his chief warrior Cúchulainn ("The Hound of Ulster") and of the invasion of Ulster by Queen Medb of Connacht in an attempt to capture the Brown Bull of Cuailgne. Dating as far back as the twelfth century in manuscript form, this legend has been treated both academically by scholars and linguists and romantically by such Revival writers as Yeats and Lady Gregory. The Dolmen Edition of the saga was to give, in Kinsella's words, the first "living version of the story", a version true to its blunt and brutal Gaelic character.' Paints several hundred calligraphic brush drawings over a period of six months. The artist notes: 'Any graphic accompaniment to a story which owes its existence to the memory and concern of a people over some twelve hundred years, should decently be as impersonal as possible. The illustrations of early Celtic manuscripts express not personality but temperament. They provide not graphic comment on the text but an extension of it. Their means are not available to us today - either temperamentally or technically - but certain lessons may be learned from them relevant to the present work. In particular they suggest that graphic images, if any, should grow spontaneously and even physically from the matter of the printed text. If these images - these marks in printer's ink - form an extension to Kinsella's Táin, they are a humble one. It is as shadows thrown by the text that they derive their substance.' The illustrations will establish le Brocquy's reputation as an intrepretive draftman of considerable originality. Thomas Kinsella will give this assessment of his collaborator: 'There are certain staying qualities that help an artist to major achievement. The gift of concentration is one (in the sense of economy as well as of intensity), and so is steady energy. Le Brocquy has these qualities to a degree unique among Irish painters or designers since the death of Jack B. Yeats. He also has that individual force, stemming from tireless curiosity, which gives coherence to a career - the kind of force that insists on artistic growth, or change, and ensures that any stimulus, however seemingly random, finds a central response.'

Publication of The Tain, The Dolmen Press, Dublin (September 1969). Widely acknowledged as the great Irish Livre d'Artiste of the twentieth century, Seamus Heaney writes in The Listener: 'The book is illustrated lavishly and magnificently by Louis le Brocquy: "marks in printer's ink", he calls his contribution, "shadows thrown bt the text". Sometimes they are runs, sometimes a rush of brush strokes, sometimes a tall totem in the margin. The remote significance of the story, the bold vigour among the ranks of heroes and the wily, sexual presence of the woman are continuously insinuated by the graphic commentary. Altogether the poetry, painting and printing make this an important book, the fulfilment of a publishing dream.'179 le Brocquy's illustrations receive critical acclaim for their level of interplay with Kinsella's writing. According to Aidan Dunne: 'The brush drawings merged seamlessly with the text; stark, fluent images, they expressed with great economy of means an epic breadth, evoking the mouvement of vast masses of people. Individual participants in the drama were also pulled into close focus. To achieve this, le Brocquy developed his brilliant idiom of calligraphic illustration ... Le Brocquy's achievement lies in having absorbed the general technical possibilities and harnessed them to his own specific ends, and, in the process, having managed to break new ground. The Táin drawings managed a well-nigh perfect marriage of text and image, and their impact was considerable.'

Ailbhe Ní Bhriain further observes: 'The strong linear quality of le Brocquy's illustrations coheres with the upright, unfussy Pilgrim font, which is also suited to the direct tone of Kinsella's translation. The lettering, or initial letter, plays an important function in the livre d'artiste, and it can be seen here as a strong integrating element, as it is applied to the initial word of each tale. The bold font of the lettering echoes the dense black of le Brocquy's images, creating a fine balance between the literary and the visual symbol. These formal elements make it clear that The Tain is a production of carefully choreographed visual information, one comparable with the unity of Verlaine's language, Bonnard's arabesques, and the floral font in Parallèlement ... In his Tain illustrations, the ability of le Brocquy's drawings to emerge and dissolve gives fitting expression to the peculiar marriage of mysticism and raw physicality contained in Kinsella's text. Like gestures of primeval fear, strength, or passion, the "explosive" energy of the brushwork captures the physical exuberance of the text, as can be seen in the images of "bodily matters" and of violence, as in the several drawings of Cúchulainn's "warp spasm". Exhibition at the Dawson Gallery, Dublin (October 1969): The Táin portfolios, thirty-six black & white lithographs, five individual sheets, and four chromolithographic 'Shields' (1969; ed. 70), including The boy Cúchulainn armed (1969), The bull of Cuailnge (1969), Leaping wolfhound (1969), Cúchulainn confronting Ferdia (1969), Medb relieving herself (1969), Army massing (1969). Brian Fallon writes in the Irish Times: 'The Kinsella-Le Brocquy Tain was a stunner in terms of book production, a triumph for Liam Miller and the Dolmen, and a high-water mark in Irish publishing ... The result is very impressive, I should say one of the very best things Le Brocquy has done. It will be impossible from now on to think of the Irish Iliad in terms of the pseudo-medieval clutter of the old-style illustrations - helmeted warriors laden with "props" and looking rather like understudies for a Wagner opera. Le Brocquy's conception is epic, stark and primitive, at times even sinister (as in the superb "Morrigan"). In an idiom that can take in its stride hints from oriental art, cave painting, Picasso and other sources he has created powerfully and economically an entire mythico-legendary world.'

The Táin. Portfolios, consisting of three different sets of twelve black and white lithographic brush drawings. Five 'Individual Subjects' and four chromo-lithographic 'Epic Shields' separate. Limited edition of 70 proofs (1 artist's proof), each sheet individually signed, dated and numbered by the artist - including portfolio numbers (I, II, & III). Printed by Frank O'Reilly, Dublin, on Swiftbrook paper, each sheet 54 x 38 (38 x 54) cm. Large folio, unbound. Boxed by Museum Bookbinders, Dublin, black boards stamped in white in a design by the artist.

Thomas Kinsella, trans., The Táin, Dolmen Edition IX (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1969). Limited edition of 1,750 copies (incl. 50 Deluxe copies). One hundred and thirty-three black and white lithographic brush drawings on paper specially made by Swiftbrook Paper Mills, Co. Dublin, reproduced by line block, The National Engraving Company. Printed by Liam Browne, Dolmen Press, Dublin, bound by Hely Thom, Dublin. Designed by Liam Miller, text composed in fourteen point Pilgrim and ten point Pilgrim with Perpetua and Felix titlings. Tall octavo, black cloth boards, stamped in white in a design by the artist, illustrated dust-jacket. Housed in publisher's slipcase with papered boards illustrated in a design by the artist. Deluxe Edition, Dolmen Edition IX (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1969). Limited to 50 numbered copies, signed by author, artist and designer on colophon. Extra suite of 'Warp Spasm' lithographic brush drawings on three consecutive opening pages. Bound by Desmond Smith, Irish University Press Bindery to a design by Liam Miller. Vermilion oasis niger goatskin, boards stamped in gold on front and back in a design by the artist. Housed in publisher's black cloth boxed-case. Hardback Trade Edition (Oxford/New York: O.U.P., in association with the Dolmen Press Limited, Dublin, 1970). Thirty three illustrations photographically reduced from the original edition. Black cloth boards, stamped in white in a design by the artist with illustrated dust-jacket. Paperback Editions, O.U.P., Oxford/New York, 1972 (31 reprints to 2005). Thirty illus. retained. Library Edition (Mountrath, Portlaoise: The Dolmen Press, in association with the University Press of Pennsylvania Press, 1985). One hundred and eight illustrations photographically reduced by 11% from the original limited edition. Printed and bound by Leinster Leader Ltd. Black cloth over boards, stamped in white in a design by the artist with illustrated dust-jacket. Foreign Editions: Der Rinderraub, Susanne Schaup, trans. (Heimeran Verlag, Munich/Rütten & Loening, Berlin in association with the Dolmen Press, 1976). One hundred and fourteen full-scale illustrations. Tall octavo, white cloth over boards, stamped in black in a design by the artist with illustrated dust-jacket. La Razzia, Jean-Philippe Imbert, trans. (Tours: Alfil Editions, 1996). Thirty illus. retained, paperback. El Táin, Pura López Colomé, trans. (Mexico: Smurfit Group, 2001). Fully illustrated hardback and paperback editions.