Patrick Hennessy

Technique and Style



A Painter’s Painter

Taken from an essay by James Hanley RHA, from Patrick Hennessy: De Profundis. IMMA, Dublin, 2016.


Men bathing, Etretat, c. 1954 private collection

Men bathing, Etretat, c. 1954
private collection


In 1940, reviewing Hennessy’s solo exhibition in Dublin, Stephen Rynne set the tone for how many critics would write about him for the next forty years – a mixture of confusion, identification and snippy admiration for his skill. It is worth quoting at length:

‘Mr Patrick Hennessy’s exhibition reminded me irresistibly of the boy who returned home from his first year in college and solemnly told his parents that now he knew everything! … At present he is suffering from a mania of imitation, hunting with the Ancient hounds and running with the Surrealist hares. Sometimes he is crazy about Rembrandt; then he falls head over heels in love with Crivelli … then he has an infatuation with … Dalí… The amorous adventures of Patrick Hennessy made me feel middle-aged…
Frankly I find it difficult to condemn wholesale the experiments of this painter. One is confronted with … skilful foreshortening, originality in pose, sober flesh painting. Skill and ideas go into all Hennessy’s work. His very distortions have a certain wisdom… Painters must serve, particularly in Ireland where they were too long wont to imitate the foreign schools; it is expected of them now that they should paint their county’s scenes, its episodes and faces’.

Horseman, pass by, 1964 private collection

Horseman, pass by, 1964
private collection

‘Surrealist’, ‘Symbolist’, ‘Magic Realist’, ‘Imaginative Realist’, ‘Dynamic Realist’ were just some of the many terms bandied about to describe Hennessy’s style over four decades. Perhaps he was all of those things – and none. Throughout his career, he simultaneously exhibited pictures that were clearly meant for sale – flower paintings for example; alongside work that was challenging, either for its style or subject matter. His religious figures, set on a beach or landscape, are eccentric and possibly closest to a Surrealist imagination. Dalí and Rene Magritte form the best points of comparison with Hennessy for their highly finished surfaces, presence of the human figure or use of tromp l’oeil; but stylistically it is still a stretch; and possibly one too far.

Even at his most ‘Surrealist’, Hennessy’s works do not fit well within that movement. He does not cultivate a dramatic persona. He does not create fantastical creatures. He does not explode scale or depict nightmare scenarios. He does not incorporate text or make use of assemblage. He does not use automatism or use mind-altering substances to reach a creative plane. And while sometimes unusual, his juxtaposition of images is not necessarily irrational. Hennessy was certainly not a Surrealist with a capital ‘S’. Alyce Mahon makes a different argument to position his work alongside that movement. She says that ‘the question needs to be framed within a sense of the inter-war European avant-garde from which he emerged, his trompe l’oeil realism which nodded to Dali, and an exploration of sexuality as a subject-matter in its own right in art. The Surrealists must be credited for doing this and for bringing same-sex desire into the arena in the process.’

The question of whether he was a Surrealist is left unanswered, but re-contextualised by a discussion of his subject-matter which was of an avant-garde nature. His connection to international circles of artists and writers gave him access to conversation and debate; it also gave him a potential audience for some of his more coded images. In a country where young gay men grew up without any visible role-models, Hennessy attempted to visualise their lives and emotions. This text offers a starting point for a reassessment of this complex artist’s practice, and hopes to introduce him and his work to a new generation in a very different Ireland.

Whether Surrealist or Realist, Hennessy was always keenly aware of the need to sell his work to make a living. He lacked the independent means of artists like Mainie Jellett or Mary Swanzy who would afford to make work in an unpopular abstract style. Swanzy famously commented on both her style and gender: ‘Ladies have to paint pussy-wussies and doggy-woggies’; ‘If I had been born Henry instead of Mary my life would have been very different’. Roisin Kennedy noted that Swanzy chose to use the advantages of her background to fund her work and to quietly continue her practice without need of acknowledgement. Hennessy did not have Swanzy’s financial security and he painted many works that were commercially popular – literally the cats and dogs referred to by her, alongside horses, still-lifes and landscapes that found ready buyers. Some of these were clearly ‘pot-boilers’ they are very finely painted and often display tremendous virtuosity, but they lack passion and energy. Hennessy was one of the most commercially successful Irish artists of the 1960s and 70s. He out-priced most of the other artists exhibiting with the Hendriks Gallery at the time, and the gallery came to rely on the revenue generated from his exhibitions. He played a carefully judged game of balancing the needs and wants of his more conservative clients, with his own desire to create work that challenged the orthodoxy and pushed at the boundaries of what constituted acceptable subject matter or ‘good taste’.

The House in the Woods, c. 1942 NUI Galway Collection

The House in the Woods, c. 1942
NUI Galway Collection

The House in the Woods (c. 1942) shares the brooding, dark mood of York Street. The broken sash-window indicates that this was once a well-built and prosperous home. Nature is now reclaiming the man-made and a vine is making its way through the window into the room. The floorboards are rotting and the paper is peeling off the walls. The large cracked jug is of the kind from a jug-and-bowl set, common in Victorian or Edwardian houses. Hot water would be brought to a bedroom in the morning for the family member or guest to wash. It is a reminder of the simplest of daily rituals that the people who left this place used to perform. And this is the question that the viewer is left with – why has this house been abandoned? Has the family died off or emigrated? Perhaps like York Street, this house was owned by the now-departed Anglo-Irish. The viewer is left to ponder the possibilities.

Vilhelm Hammershoi Interior with Ida in a white chair , 1900 courtesy Sotheby's

Vilhelm Hammershoi
Interior with Ida in a white chair , 1900
courtesy Sotheby’s

The House in the Woods and York Street are very reminiscent of works by the Danish Symbolist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) like Interior with Ida in a white chair (1888). Hennessy was very inspired by the work of Johannes Vermeer. He owned a number of books about him and compared him to Mozart for his genius. Hammershøi was similarly inspired by Vermeer to create works that communicated enigmatic atmospheres rather than real scenes. If Hennessy’s works are to be labelled with an ‘ism’ then it is Hammershøi’s Symbolism that creates a bridge to the art of earlier periods rather than the Surrealism so often used to categorised Hennessy’s work by later critics. In the early forties Hennessy made other enigmatic works like St. Joan (1945), an image of Joan of Arc discussed later in this text. He was anxious to return to Europe as soon as the war ended. In 1951 he created an image of the Rebuilding of Monte Cassino that had been badly damaged by shelling. It is a record of the wanton destruction of significant and historic landmarks, but also a hopeful image of recovery.

James Hanley RHA on Patrick Hennessy

Essay from Patrick Hennessy: De Profundis, IMMA, 2016.

I love the work of Patrick Hennessy. I always have. I own two portraits of his, both female – one in oil and one a pencil drawing – and they are my most treasured possessions. When auction catalogues come through the letterbox I go to ‘H’ in the index instantly and invariably there are one or two works by the Corkman, at still relatively modest reserves, to admire and savour for their sheer quality. And it is this quality that would make the images jump from the pages with any cursory flick, without ever needing to consult those back pages. Their eerie naturalism and precocious skill mark them from much of the routine auction lots today.

Hennessy was a master craftsman. His underlying drawing is crisp and accurate, the tactile qualities of the materials of his subjects are brilliantly realised in paint, and his compositions are strikingly constructed. His consistency and market appeal seem to be the twin characteristics that made him successful while simultaneously drawing criticism from some quarters. When mid-century Abstraction made his work seem marginalised, his crowd-pleasing canvasses and familiar subjects led one critic cruelly to compare his style to that of the flamboyant pianist Liberace. Happily paintings are for posterity and can eventually be judged for what they are removed from the vagaries of fashion.

The Oracle, 1967 NGI

The Oracle, 1967
National Gallery of Ireland Collection

In Hennessy’s case the work is timeless, one of the benefits of working in a classical figurative tradition, but his paintings were not simply transcriptions of reality. An indefinable quality was imbued in the work that transformed reality into something magical, dreamlike and occasionally disarming.

Early work shows his rigorous academic training in both drawing and painting from life at art school in Dundee. A residential summer school post-graduation at Hospitalfield near Arbroath brought him into contact with Scottish realist James Cowie, who led the course. The latter’s meticulous draughtsmanship and penchant for figures and objects significantly foregrounded and set against a receding landscape would be comparable to many of Hennessy’s compositions. A strong emphasis on line, almost early Netherlandish in style, coupled with close tonal harmonies would characterise other counterparts in European 1930s and 1940s realism. Close to home, English painters Meredith Frampton, Gerald Festus Kelly and Gerald Brockhurst and Scottish portrait painter James Gunn share the aforementioned characteristics.

Purple and Gold Still Life, c. 1970 private collection

Purple and Gold Still Life, c. 1970
private collection

Hennessy painted in the traditional genres of portraiture, landscape and still life predominantly. He often included animals in the compositions – horses, especially in the landscapes; and cats and taxidermy birds in the still lifes. There were other variations, some deliberately surreal juxtapositions of wooden and stone statues in landscapes, and a slew of homoerotic nude and semi-nude youths swimming and/or Arab men set against an African backdrop. Many motifs recur – conch shells and luxurious fabrics, Roman ruins and gnarled trees, books and pottery, statues and figurines, postcards and photographs, ribbons and roses, fruit and fowl, cards and coins. The use of wood (with its attendant knots and grain) and rustic stone, notably mantels and buildings were all exquisitely rendered to offset the main compositional elements of his pictures. And he was adept at playing these neutral tones against glorious luminous hues of, say, petals, plumage or patterned cloth.

Hennessy’s technique, from close examination of the paintings, is deceptively simple. He worked on a toned ground of either raw umber or raw sienna. Both are typically used for killing the white of the ground and for laying in a fast-drying neutral base that is a pleasing mid tone upon which to judge subsequent layers. The paint can then be applied in local colour, and details and darks and lights can be added. His paint is still relatively thinly applied, especially in the darks, which can subsequently be glazed over to unify them with the mid tones. More opaque paint that builds the mid tones and lights is usually scumbled (dragged) over the initial dry layer giving a quick and remarkably efficient sensation of texture, especially in his depictions of wood and stone. It is remarkable how little paint he can use to give an astonishing depth and appearance of reality.

As the various forms are modelled the paint becomes more opaque. Flake white is used, its lean and dry texture lending itself to subtle blending and fusing of tone and colour to convincingly depict volumetric changes and the overall illusion of pictorial space. The flake white and an apparent minimal addition of oil to the pigment give an overall velvety appearance to the finished work and a unified surface to each picture. Hennessy’s Self Portrait in the National Self Portrait Collection in Limerick perfectly illustrates his methodology.

And this methodology was a classical academic approach to building a layered painting and Hennessy deploys it equally to treat a range of subject matter, from table surfaces to muscle and mass in horses. It does seem to the eye an effortless craft, with no hint of struggle, overworking, or dramatic change of tack halfway evident in any of his canvasses. It was also a technique that allowed a huge output as for many decades he had annual shows in Ireland while simultaneously keeping galleries in London and Chicago supplied with work. Even allowing for the recycling of work from a domestic show to a foreign one and vice versa his output was prodigious. As a painter I know the demands of completing work with such a degree of finish and so am dutifully in awe of his sheer output.

Adieu, M'hamed and Lindo at K'sar es Sacir, 1975 private collection

Adieu, M’hamed and Lindo at K’sar es Sacir, 1975
private collection

He also knew how to make commercially appealing work. In still life his colours were rich – reds and crimsons, sap greens and Prussian blues and golden yellows all contrasting lushly in rich arrangements. His depictions of Ireland were invariably Connemara or the south on summer days, evoking a timeless and organic beauty. And foreign scenes looked equally evocative with sand and surf, cliffs and citadels basking in crisp sunlight. Even his portraits, despite their occasionally almost chilling quality and cool engagement with the viewer, are never anything but successful depictions of the subjects.

The camera aided him greatly. Anecdotally he carried it everywhere and was constantly recording information for later use. He kept also a large archive of other visual information from which he was able to draw to complete a composition. David Hone PPRHA once told me of being in the artist’s studio as a young man and Hennessy asking him to leaf through an architectural magazine to find a suitable reference of a mantelpiece to incorporate or to act as an aide-mémoire for a work in progress.

Photographic references of horses – still, trotting or galloping – complex cloud formations and crashing surf enabled him to complete scenes in the studio, and also perhaps to paint scenes of Ireland while in Morocco, where he spent more and more time for health reasons. Also truncated foreground detail as seen through the lens rather than cropped by the eye shows the influence of the camera. The work did get more photographic from the sixties onwards compared to the more wistful, slightly naïve and, at times, romantically atmospheric work from the forties and fifties.

Photographic-based work can also show sharper and higher contrast as the light is frozen in an instant. This suited the stilled atmosphere of his paintings where very real elements are often combined to give what has variously been suggested is akin to surrealism or magic realism. The very heightened realism of his paintings worked finally on both levels – pleasing connoisseurs and keeping collectors happy during his lifetime, and keeping many of us, including myself, intrigued and impressed in the many years after the artist’s passing.

Patrick Hennessy and Henry Robertson Craig bequeathed a generous fund to the RHA to be used as a travel scholarship for a painter under thirty-five. Inaugurated in 2002 to coincide with the reestablishment of the RHA Schools, a scholarship of €10,000 is awarded annually to an artist chosen from a painting they have submitted to that year’s RHA annual exhibition. There have been twenty recipients to date and these exciting young artists – among their number Colin Martin, Vera Klute, Comhghall Casey and Sinead Ní Mhaonaigh – have all acknowledged the inspiration and the encouragement that this, the biggest painting prize in the country, has given them.

A final anecdote. I had reason to visit Charles Haughey, the former Taoiseach, shortly before his death at his home Abbeville in Kinsealy, north Dublin. In the hall of this James Gandon-designed house, hanging opposite each other, were large paintings by Craig and Hennessy, the former a wonderful family portrait, the latter a stunning landscape with a horse and Croagh Patrick in the background. A daytime scene, Hennessy had ghosted the moon as a nod to the Apollo landings the same year as the painting was completed. He had, though, omitted to sign the work.
On one of Hennessy’s flying visits to Dublin, Haughey had picked him up from the airport to ferry him to nearby Abbeville to inscribe the absent moniker. However dinner, drinks and conversation meant the artist left for home after a long evening forgetting to do so. The painting was eventually signed at a later date. That is an evening at which I would very much have liked to have been a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the patron and the enigmatic artist and the conversation that so distracted from the task in hand.