THE CHANGING FACE OF PORTRAITURE IN IRELAND.

(as published in  the University College Cork magazine. May 2007)

Portraitist and historical painter Trevor Goring moved to Ireland, from North America, and reveals how he found surprising connections and rapid success in Cork …….the city he now calls home.

In Heathrow airport, waiting for the connection to Cork, I searched Google for painting portraits in Ireland on my laptop to see where I might fit in. What came up? 800,000 entries! I plunged in and first up (for reasons only a species called web-crawlers could explain) is the Northern Ireland Assembly with “The House Will Divide”, a monumental portrait by Noel Murphy of all 108 current members. This was followed by the National Gallery of Ireland and their celebrated collection of portraits including the contemporary commissions sponsored by the Irish Life and Permanent featuring prominent national figures such as Maeve Binchy, Bono and Mary Robinson. I resolved to visit the Gallery as soon as possible.

Gilbert Charles Stuart

Halfway down the first page, nestling between electroniccottage.com and Wikipedia, I found a fascinating article on the young American portraitist Gilbert Charles Stuart who arrived in Dublin in 1787 and rapidly became the most celebrated and sought after portrait painter of Irish Society. Stuart went on to paint four US Presidents, Supreme Court Judges and American politicians, completing over 1000 portraits in his lifetime. Well given that I have painted a few US presidents, albeit posthumously, and certainly a good number of the members of the Supreme Court… I wondered - is there a connection here?

I continued my search and realized that Stuart arrived in Ireland in the same year that the Cork born, great historical painter and portraitist, James Barry started on his most famous work “The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture” for the great room of the Royal Society of Arts in London’s Adelphi. I speculated as to whether it was possible that the two met in London prior to Stuart’s arrival in Ireland? I imagined their encounter as I wandered through the duty free shop. My Cork flight announcement jolted me forward almost 220 years consciously aware that another painter was arriving in Ireland from North America, with modest similarities to both Stuart and Barry.

As it happened, I arrived on time to attend the opening of the extraordinary James Barry retrospective at the Crawford Municipal Gallery. I attended the Barry lecture series and met Tom Dunne, Professor of History and editor of the magnificent Barry catalogue. I immersed myself in the complete works, assembled for the first time under one roof, and including a full reproduction of the Adelphi murals. I felt an immediate and profound sympathy with Barry who, like me, turned away from the fashionable mainstream art of the time to concentrate on historical painting driven by a deep commitment to human values and social justice.

Was it coincidence that I had come to Cork with an ambitious project, developed in association with University College Cork, to mount a major traveling exhibition of meticulously researched historical portraits depicting great Irish and Irish American figures who fought and sacrificed for the ideals of social justice? I was spurred on to read everything I could on Barry and am inspired by his dogged genius and chastened by the obstacles encountered on his chosen path. It gave me, the newly arrived artist, a strong sense of being in the right place, with the right skills, at the right time.

 

Barry exhibition catalogue

 

Setting up my studio on the Western Road, I walked daily in the magnificent University grounds and started to paint furiously. The parallels with Stuart came swiftly, yet totally unsought, when I was unexpectedly approached by Fiona Kearny, Director of the Glucksman Gallery, UCC to paint a major commissioned portrait of Tom and Marie Cavanagh of Fermoy. A substantial work, intended to be prominently hung in the entrance hallway of the new Cavanagh Pharmacy Building on College Road, to honour their extraordinary long-term contribution to the development of the University.

     

Tom and Marie Cavanagh

The Cavanaghs were wary of the whole portrait process and my first task was to put them at ease, drawing on my long standing experience in working with prominent members of society. I suggested that the format of the painting be more landscape than portrait, switching the focus from the Cavanaghs to the campus, respecting the natural modesty and quiet strength of my subjects whilst placing them within the superbly maintained environment to which they have contributed so much. The work and process were successful, and word spread.

Even before the Cavanagh painting was complete, another call came from UCC to ask if I would  paint the official portrait of retiring UCC President, Professor Gerard T. Wrixon, to hang in the Aula Maxima along with portraits by such notable artists as Basil Blackshaw and John Butler Yeats.  Honoured to receive such a commission I was reminded of the following John Adams quote:

"Speaking generally, no penance is like having one's picture done. You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit for Gilbert Stuart… for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation."

I did my research and when sessions with the President begin I felt I understood my subject and we easily engaged, which facilitated a relaxed atmosphere. This President, who led the University into the 21st century, chose to stand without traditional academic gown, backed by a view of the President’s Garden. This allowed the portrait to include a subtle glimpse of the Glucksman Gallery in the distance, one of his major accomplishments during his term of office. Professor Wrixon and his wife are very pleased with the finished portrait and displayed it at several of his leaving functions before it was officially unveiled on Jan 31st 2007 in the University’s Aula Maxima. I am proud to have my work added to the history of the University and thankful for the public exposure associated with these prestigious commissions.

Professor G. T. Wrixon

Whilst Stuart stayed in Dublin for only six years and Barry left Cork as a young man, this artist is settled permanently in a city that he has already grown to love. I shall continue to work to build a portrait career in this rapidly changing Ireland where the current generation has undoubtedly reached the level of social and financial maturity to entertain the pleasure of commissioning portraits themselves. The names and faces may have changed but I am sure that both Stuart and Barry would agree…the lure of immortality never dies.

Trevor Goring’s works can be viewed at www.imagesofjustice.com. Visits to his Cork City studio can be arranged on request. He continues to travel extensively in the United States and Canada maintaining an established network of exhibitions and collectors whilst preparing the ground for a nation wide traveling exhibition of his paintings, Irish Genius in America.

 

     CONTACT THE ARTIST                                                                                                                                HOME