Francis Bacon – School of London
Geraldine Cruess Callaghan and her husband were supporters of Hennessy’s work. In the late 1950s after David Hendriks had opened his gallery they bought Still-Life in the Attic (c.1952).
According to their daughter, they had narrowed their choice down to a work by Jack B. Yeats or Hennessy, but Geraldine decided on the work by the artist she had spent time with. Still-Life in the Attic was not shown in one of Hennessy’s solo exhibitions at the Hendriks Gallery, but it formed part of the studio inventory held in the gallery. As such it is difficult to date but the style and weave of canvas suggest it was done in the late 1940s. The lack of a date is frustrating because on the reverse of the picture is an unfinished portrait of Francis Bacon (1909-1992).
At some point in the late 40s during one of his visits to London, Hennessy attempted this portrait. Bacon is shown with his elbow resting on a chimney piece, his chin raised as he looks imperiously down at the viewer. He must not have had much patience to sit as Hennessy only had the chance to jot down a loose sketch and he did not attempt to finish it when he returned to the studio. This unfinished picture demonstrates that Hennessy and Bacon were acquainted with one another.
The most likely connection would have been through the Two Roberts (Colquhoun & MacBryde) who Hennessy knew since their college days in Scotland and who now frequented the same drinking clubs as Bacon in Soho. The importance of this canvas is that it establishes a direct link to a network of cultured people that included Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Craxton, Peter Watson, Edward James, Salvador Dalí, Cyril Connolly and so on. Many of these men were homosexual and so offered a social outlet for Hennessy and Robertson Craig.
Hennessy would have seen the styles and subjects of their work and so was certainly aware of the ‘School of London’ who were working in a figurative style at a time when abstraction dominated discourse. They in turn would have known his work. This natural symbiosis between artists offered Hennessy a potential audience for his work outside of Ireland. The queer codes that were found in his paintings from the early 40s onwards, would have been easily read by all of the men listed above.
Hennessy and Robertson Craig enjoyed their visits to London and they were important outlets for them both socially and culturally. From 1946 through to 1949, Robertson Craig records a number of visits to London and his reaction to them. At the end of the war, Ireland was much cheaper to live in and food shortages were less common. He notes the price of tobacco in both countries: Ireland at 1/11d and England 4/3d per ounce, a substantial difference. After spending a week there at the end of 1948 he says he would consider living in London but that ‘Ireland is so much better to live in’. In early 1949 life in Ireland is getting on top of him, he says:
‘We are cut off from London at the edge of civilisation… despite what I say I would live in London … it is no reflection on Pat’s kindness at all.’ Later that year he has changed his mind again, ‘We got back here yesterday. Ireland is so pleasant after England. None of the frantic nervous exhaustion that is the first thing that one notices. The squalor, the meagre food, although we ate well in restaurants – to live on the rations is another matter. Perhaps we could do worse than stay here. It depends so much on the market for pictures. Scotland is just horrible. Cold, fog, darkness; and such poverty of spirit that can scarcely have existed before in the history of the ages. How people stand it I know not. It is not a country to live in, but to escape from.’
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Elizabeth Bowen – Literary Connections
While the unfinished portrait of Francis Bacon establishes a link to the ‘School of London’ painters there was another significant figure closer to home in County Cork. The Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) became an important figure in Hennessy’s life. They met at some point in the early 1940s when they were both living between Cork and Dublin. Bowen lived at Bowen’s Court, a Georgian mansion near Kildorrery in Cork, as well as homes in Dublin and in London. Hennessy painted Bowen at least twice. The well-known Portrait of Elizabeth Bowen now held in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork is dated 1957.
However it had already been exhibited in 1955 in Dublin and in 1956 in London. Bowen must not have liked the work and asked for it to be changed. In a letter to her lover Charles Ritchie she wrote, ‘On Tuesday Patrick Hennessy spent the day here and did some further alterations to that portrait of me …’ (Saturday 4 May 1957)
The painting of Bowen is unusual in a number of ways. The pale blue colour of her dress, its pleated detail, and the ornate jewels were not at all her normal style but appear like a deliberate anachronism. She was very attentive to her dress with a more tailored line and bold colours being her preferred mode, suiting her height and strong jaw-line. She is shown standing on the landing of the staircase of Bowen’s Court, the sunlight shining through a Palladian window.
The portrait of Bowen is not one of Hennessy’s most successful paintings. Both sitter and artist seem to be constrained by some unseen force. The sitter is stiff and Hennessy does not display any of his usual virtuosity. Neither does he resort to the tromp l’oeil effects seen in some of his portraits from the 40s. Hennessy shows her large, masculine hands and emphasised her physical frame. Perhaps he wished to convey the strength needed to hold onto a declining family estate of this size. It is possible that it was an awareness of Bowen’s legacy that overshadowed the making of this work. They were both aware that fashions quickly change and soon look ridiculous, so they aimed to create an image that would be timeless, but in doing so lost the freshness that characterises Hennessy’s more successful portraits. Bowen intended the picture to grace the walls of her house for decades if not centuries as those portraits of her ancestors had done before her. Sadly it was not to be. Bowen was forced to sell the house and land to a local farmer. She hoped that the house would be preserved but it was demolished in 1961.
The portrait was then acquired by Hennessy’s great patron Lady Ursula Vernon and her husband Major Stephen Vernon. Bowen and Hennessy were both close to the Vernons, and they were often guests at Bowen’s Court or the Vernon’s home at Bruree. In August 1964 Bowen wrote to Ritchie that while Lady Ursula was away, ‘the two famous Dublin painters Patrick Hennessy and H. Robertson Craig came to Bruree to entertain Stephen… I wrote … they painted … we all played cards in the evening’. As with the portrait of Francis Bacon, Hennessy’s association with Bowen opened up a wealth of literary and cultural connections. Bowen was intimate with to some of the major figures in English literature in the early twentieth century many of whom came to Ireland and visited Bowen’s Court. Among these were Cyril Connolly of whom she was especially fond. Connolly wrote about a visit he paid to Bowen’s court in April 1934 when Virginia Woolf came to stay.
‘Ireland quite derelict, empty and down at heel. Elizabeth’s house lovely but forlorn. The country so cold, as usual. Owing to rural torpor increased by the relaxing climate all literary effort is here impossible so will only summarise briefly. Next day (Sat) go to have tea at Anne’s grave [Grove? Ed]. Woolfs arrive. He small spare intellectual Jew, she lovely, shy and virginial. They seem shocked by Jean’s dress* (Virginia asked Elizabeth what unnatural vice was) and talked only of plans and motoring… We agreed that we could not like people if we didn’t like their books. They left next morning.’
The artistic and literary circles in London were deeply intertwined. Connolly was editor of the influential literary review Horizon from 1940-49. Horizon was funded by Peter Watson who was the patron of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, John Craxton and the Two Roberts. Some of the early editions of Horizon included contributions from W.H Auden, Christopher Isherwood, T.S. Eliot, Brian Howard, Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas. There was an all-Irish edition in 1941. Mixing in these circles gave Hennessy access to some of the most avant-garde conversations of his day. They were also groups within which he could be open about his sexuality and his relationship with Robertson Craig, something which must been an outlet and relief in conservative Ireland.
Bowen had copies of banned books by authors who addressed homosexual themes in their work like Isherwood. Bowen had many gay friends in her circle aside from Hennessy and Robertson-Craig that included, Raymond Mortimer, Eddy Sackville-West and L.P. Hartley. Bowen’s last novel Eva Trout (1968) includes overtly homosexual characters, and earlier works ‘feature male and female characters who exhibit behaviours associated with homosexuality, but these behaviours are so coded that their definite identification as homosexual is difficult.’
‘The assumption could be made, in puritanical Irish nationalist circles, that homosexuality was a vice peculiar to imperial rulers, or to those corrupted by aesthetes in decadent London. Accepting that a nationalist hero could be as passionately committed to pursuing young men as to Cathleen Ní Houlihan was not going to come easily.’ Roy Foster
Roger Casement (1864-1916) was executed for treason in 1916, a year after Hennessy was born. 2016 is the centenary of his death and is the focus of a number of projects including a commission from IMMA to Simon Fujiwara, and from Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane to artist Alan Phelan. Phelan’s new film Our Kind imagines a future for Casement had he not been executed in 1916. The film is set 25 years later in 1941, where Casement is in exile from Catholic Ireland in Norway with his former manservant and now partner Adler Christensen. They are visited by Alice Stopford Green, a close friend and former supporter of Casement. The story unfolds as Adler and Alice both betray their relationships with him, paralleling Casement’s isolation from his homeland, beliefs and the ideals of the Rising. Casement was, like Oscar Wilde, put on trial and then the focus of the case shifted and they were publicly humiliated for his homosexuality. Their prosecution sent out a strong message to men and women about the consequences of ‘lewd acts’ and Casement’s, ‘tis death to give, my love’ is prescient.
Hennessy and Robertson Craig met less than twenty years after Casement had been executed and their formative years were spent in the shadow of that event. On one hand it explains the need for privacy and discretion in their lives, but on the other points to how extraordinary it was that they should create works with explicitly homosexual themes. Hennessy occupied the space of insider and outsider, something that gave him the capacity to see beyond the rigid social structures of his era. In Ireland, the birth of the new state and the puritanism of de Valera’s government left no room for difference. Nationalists claimed that Casement’s notorious diaries that detailed his sexual life were forgeries made to besmirch the hero’s reputation. Roy Foster says they ‘featured as a sulphurous instalment in the long tale of perfidious Albion and betrayed Hibernia: reasonably enough, since the use made of them by the British authorities was indeed perfidious in the extreme.’
Casement embodies many of the values left behind in the forging of the image of a new Irishman in the 1920s. He was an anti-imperialist consul, a baptized Catholic and confirmed Protestant. Born in Dublin of a County Antrim family he was a cultured nationalist, a closeted homosexual, a butterfly collector, a humanitarian and a poet. Casement has offered a means of thinking about much of Irish life, indeed much of human life in the twentieth century. In placing the image of Casement in juxtaposition to one of the heroic islanders created by Seán Keating, we can learn much about the sorts of absolutes espoused by the New Ireland.
No human hand to steal to mine
No loving eye to answering shine,
Earth’s cruel heart of dust alone
To give me breath and strength to groan.
I look beyond the stricken sky
Where sunset paints its hopeless lie
That way the flaming angel went
That sought by pride love’s battlement.
I sought by love alone to go
Where God had writ an awful no.
Pride gave a guilty God to hell
I have no pride – by love I fell.
Love took me by the heart at birth
And wrought out from its common earth –
With soul at his own skill aghast –
A furnace my own breath should blast.
Why this was done I cannot tell
The mystery is inscrutable.
I only know I pay the cost
With heart and soul and honour lost.
I only know ‘tis death to give
My love; yet loveless can I live?
I only know I cannot die
And leave this love God made, not I.
God made this love; there let it rest.
Perchance it needs a riven breast
To heavenly eyes the scheme to show
My broken heart must never know.
The Nameless One (c. 1898)
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