"JACK Yeats talked of "the living ginger" - the magic that made art come alive. JP Donleavy has it, and in a sparkling show at the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin, mainly of watercolours, he traces his artistic ancestry back more than half a century."
- Bruce Arnold from a review of the J.P. Donleavy art exhibition "Beastly Beasts, Birds, People & Places," Molesworth Gallery, Dublin. Independent IE, February 10, 2006
author and playwright of The Ginger Man
and numerous other internationally-acclaimed works, began his public artistic
career in Dublin as a painter. While his first short story wasn’t
published until April 1950, J.P. by then had already had two one-man art
showings at 7, St. Stephen’s Green Gallery.
The first exhibition opened December 6, 1948.
Then a student at Trinity College Dublin, he painted his first oils and watercolors in his college rooms at No. 38, sometimes watched by Jean Marc Heidsieck, of the famed Heidsieck champagne family who took time to relax and hide there, besieged as he was by Dublin mothers in search of a fabled heir. And he never uttered a word of criticism regarding J.P.’s paintings, although others would in time.
Charging Into Battle
final hours of preparation for that momentous first exhibition, the artist
realized he did not have enough works to display. And so he returned to
his easel and began painting furiously to fill the gallery walls. Friend
Frank Tuffy, a World War II veteran and a POW captured in the Battle of
Alamein, and other Trinity pals ferried the still-wet paintings from Trinity
up busy Grafton Street to the gallery. J.P. remembers: “Frank, an
ex-Irish Guardsman, led them as if they were charging into battle.”
In a sense the artist was the one charging into battle.
The simple catalogue of that first show at 7, St. Stephen’s Green Gallery, December 6-13, 1948, is a single card folded to create four sides each measuring 5x8 inches. The cover reads:
on the inside pages in black ink are 21 watercolors and paintings. Prices
ranged from 3 guineas for “The Pottery Makers” to 35 guineas
for “Moon and Midlands”. The catalogue contains neither essay
nor artist biography. The back page is blank.
Two of his first paintings were purchased by a lady who gave them to Ernest Gébler, an author friend who used them to plug holes in his fence on his County Wicklow Lake Park estate to prevent his neighbor’s sheep from trespassing to eat his parkland grass. J.P.’s then mother-in-law, a proper Yorkshirewoman, also bought a few paintings, observing: “You do have nerve.”
It Doesn’t Stink, It’s Horace
out his first attempts at fiction on a manual typewriter in the same Trinity
rooms that served as his art studio. Fellow Trinity student Arthur
Kenneth Donoghue, the brilliant and blunt iconoclast from Harvard, would
wander into No. 38, scan J.P.’s efforts, and report: “It stinks.”
After this happened several times, J.P. got his revenge by typing up a translation
of Horace and leaving it in the typewriter. Next time A.K. dropped by, the
Latin and Greek scholar looked over the manuscript and concluded: “It
J.P. waited more than a year before staging his second exhibition, again at 7, St. Stephen’s Green Gallery, March 15-26, 1950. Select friends and collectors were sent postcard invitations to opening 3:30-6:30. On the reverse of the card is a line drawing by the artist of a contented fish, its scales painstakingly detailed, its mouth agape.
The catalogue of the second exhibit – red ink on a single sheet of white card folded once – shows more confidence and higher prices. The attractive cover reveals a sharp eye for design and style, mixing colors and fonts around a line drawing of a girl holding a flower.
inside in black ink are 38 works, including two sculptures not for sale,
as they were on loan from Harvard grad and Trinity friend Douglas Wilson.
The watercolors were all priced at 3 guineas. Oils ranged from 4 guineas
(“Fish And His Yellow Eye”) to 50 guineas (“Spring”).
By then, the painter had left Trinity College without degree after three
years and married Valerie Heron, which he would explain in the catalogue
of his next show. He had committed himself to his art – painting as
well as writing.
A note at the bottom of the second catalogue, announcing the next show, misspells his name:
Exhibition of more painting, Sculpture and
Watercolor by DUNLEAVY will
Be held June 7th-21st,
1950, in this
Earliest Published Writings
The month after the
second exhibition, J.P.’s first published story appeared in John
Ryan’s Dublin quarterly Envoy: A Review of Literature &
Art. A patron of the Dublin art scene, Ryan was himself a painter
who also encouraged J.P.’s efforts at the easel. The story, “Party
On Saturday Night”, was inspired by an incident in A. K. Donoghue’s
childhood when he was turned away from a birthday party of a black friend
because he was white. Unlike J.P.’s later writing, the story is
a traditional narrative, written according to the conventional rules of
grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
While the publisher enthusiastically accepted the piece and saw it published, jealous and insecure assistant editors showed their petty displeasure by not listing J.P. among the contributors listed on the cover. And his story was the only one in the issue that did not begin on a new page. Rather, his story started at the bottom of a page at the end of someone else’s piece.
Undeterred, exhibiting growing confidence, and wanting his audience to know something about himself and his influences, the artist penned his first essay, “From a letter”, in the catalogue of his third exhibition at 7, St. Stephen’s Green Gallery, June 8-22, 1950. The cover of the six-sided catalogue – white card, twice folded – presents a provocative, black-ink drawing of a grotesque, misshapen face with piercing eyes and mouth open, reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting.
On the reverse is the 400-word essay, which in effect is J.P.’s second published piece. The letter, hopeful in tone, offers the earliest example of the writer’s episodic and impressionistic style – with some differences to his later writings. Here the sentences are complete.
In the letter readers for the first time meet the iconoclastic A.K. Donoghue, who informs J.P. that land is the source of everything. After pondering this insight, J.P. wrote he made three decisions: He would continue to paint, leave Trinity College, and head for the Wicklow countryside with his beautiful young wife Valerie to live simply in a cottage in Kilcoole near the sea and farm their small parcel.
Of his first three exhibitions, J.P. reported many years later in The History of The Ginger Man: “These had sold well enough to make me at least hope of making ends meet.”
Art and Artifice
At one exhibition,
a lady of delicate sensibilities was so upset by some of paintings she
took her rolled umbrella and commenced raining blows with it upon the
skulls and shoulders of Anthony Cronin, Gainor Crist, and Tony McInerney,
three friends of the artist who were helping out at the reception desk
while the painter fortified himself at a nearby pub. A photo in J.P.
Donleavy’s Ireland captures the smartly dressed and smiling
trio, looking uninjured and apparently enjoying themselves.
Reaction to the exhibitions outside the gallery as well as inside, and in the pubs and press was decidedly mixed and some of it hostile. Determined to prevail against insult, indifference, and hostility – “begrudgement” – to his work he knew to be worthy, the painter forcefully responded to all his critics in the catalogue of his fourth exhibition in little more than two years at 7, St. Stephen’s Green Gallery, January 11-25, 1951.
Like the catalogues of the three previous shows, this one measures 5x8 inches. On the top page of the six-sided catalogue, beneath the assertive, bold-faced heading AN EXHIBITION BY DONLEAVY, is the 350-word essay titled “FROM NOTES AND LETTERS”. In it, he wrote in part: “In the climb to disappointment, I feel a need of love and trust, but I have only met with calculation which is of money and faithlessness. … The animal wants its back protected and to eat. Man is that animal and when he has eaten, he deals in art and artifice, and it becomes lie and compromise; a soft, ingrate murmur of accents and incomes. …”
Unknowingly, the painter was preparing himself and the writer he was becoming for battles ahead that he would win through his commitment to his work. The talent he exhibited was undeniable to an ever-growing and eventually global audience of admirers and defenders.
Ussher for the Defense
Among the first was
Arland Ussher, Irish philosopher, art critic, and Gaelic scholar. In response
to unfavorable comments in The Irish Times regarding J.P.’s
artwork, Ussher wrote a letter to the editor, observing in part: “I
was at once struck by his delicate and sensitive line – a little
reminiscent of Paul Klee, though he does not seem to have been greatly
influenced by Klee, or, indeed, by anyone else. Anyone who buys one of
these drawings at the catalogue price will be getting a bargain. Some
of his oil-paintings I thought, on the whole, less successful, though
most of them had fine passages of color, and an almost frightening vitality
and sincerity. … ”
Fittingly, Arland Ussher wrote the introduction to the British and the American editions of The Ginger Man, which has achieved classic status, been ranked by one panel as one of the Best Novels of the 20th Century, and published in some two dozen languages. In the work’s 50 years of increasing sales it has never been out of print. While confusing some critics and antagonizing others by his independence and defiance, J.P. Donleavy has managed to find his audience – readers and collectors of his 24 books and the viewers and collectors of his art.
A Style of His Own
His painting style
remains his own, unschooled yet subtle and skilled. He uses a unique method.
His oils, while still favoring darker colors, are effectively applied
in swirling, layered strokes that create still-lifes and portraits at
once engaging, accessible yet moody, mysterious, prompting the viewer
to wonder about the place or person captured on the canvas.
The watercolors, which have become highly prized, are whimsical, bright of color, and upbeat, revealing the artist’s humor and playfulness that he has exhibited so well in his many books. Inspiration comes from J.P.’s own experience in zoology and microbiology as seen in such recurring themes and images as colliding molecules and other building blocks of life that have fascinated him since pre-med days at Trinity, smiling striped animals called beastly beatitudes, as well as the fighting fish with teeth bared, symbols of people and situations encountered in modern life. Then there are the beautiful girls and women, the sources of life and the occasional grief to the boys and men who know them. Then finally there are the cemetery scenes, where we will all wind up and the artist beheld as a boy in the northernmost reaches of the Bronx, playing the American Indians’ games, hunting and trapping, and wandering the spacious hills of Van Cortlandt Park and Woodlawn Cemetery.
Original Christmas Greetings
Arguably the artist’s
most productive – and briefest – period of painting came at
Christmastime (circa 1950) at Kilcoole when he and his wife sent out Christmas
cards to friends.
The white cards are folded twice to create front doors each measuring 2½x3½ inches. Printed on the front top left: “CHRISTMAS GREETINGS / from”, with space left for their signatures. At the lower right of the left door is the notation “original watercolor / by DONLEAVY”. Open up the front doors and inside each card is an original watercolor on the interior back page, measuring roughly 5x3½ inches.
Hopefully, recipients realized what arrived in the mail and kept the cards, unlike those from others that wound up in the trash. Forty-nine unsigned cards are in J.P.’s archive.
Since his early Dublin
exhibitions, the painter emerged as an international author and playwright
with the 1955 publication of The Ginger
Man and the 1959 stage productions of The
Ginger Man, followed by a prodigious output of successful books
While the writing quickly overshadowed the artist’s paintings, J.P. continued to paint and to occasionally exhibit his watercolors and oils.
Coming to America
His fifth exhibition,
and the only one to date in America, was held in Westchester County, New
York at the Bronxville Public Library, February 2-28, 1959. This exhibit
was preceded the previous month by the Retrospective Exhibition of the
paintings, sculpture, and ceramics of his younger brother T.J. Donleavy.
The library exhibition was recognition of a native son who left New York for Ireland after World War II, came back to New York in 1952 only to leave for London in early 1953 in disappointment after failing to interest New York publishers in the work in progress that would be published in Paris in 1955 as The Ginger Man.
There were no exhibitions in the 1960s, a busy and important literary decade that saw the publication the first unexpurgated U.S. edition of The Ginger Man (Delacorte Press / Seymour Lawrence Books, 1965), the publication of two more novels, a collection of short pieces, a novella, the debut productions of two more plays, and the publication of the scripts of his first three plays in book form. Yet, J.P. managed to find the time to paint, as much for enjoyment and relaxation as to express himself.
J.P. achieved an artistic
breakthrough with the exhibition at London’s Langton Gallery, September
30-October 14, 1975. Langton was the first Donleavy exhibition in a leading
international arts center and the first in London, where his paintings
had been dismissed in the early 1950s when he sought galleries there to
handle his work. The exhibition was an acknowledgment of the artist’s
complementary careers as painter and writer.
J.P. Donleavy at the Langton Gallery was announced in black print on a 4x8½-inch white card on the front of which is J.P.’s free-flowing signature above the details of his career as a painter. The reverse contains a red line drawing followed by his accomplishments as a writer with details of the exhibition at the bottom.
The show included paintings and watercolors and featured several of the humorous pen-and-ink illustrations from his book The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners, the first of his books the author illustrated. The exhibition coincided with the London publication of The Unexpurgated Code by Wildwood House.
Exhibiting More More Often More Places
exhibition – more than a decade later and back in Dublin –
was at the Godolphin Art Gallery, November
1986. But other exhibitions followed more quickly than previous decades.
And where the earliest shows were produced by the painter himself, the
later shows were proposed, organized, hung, and promoted by gallery owners
or art dealers, who sought out the painter.
Art dealer Tom Caldwell brought J.P. and his art to Belfast for an exhibition at the Tom Caldwell Galleries, November 3-21, 1987. The striking invitation to the opening features on its cover “Self Portrait”, a watercolor capturing the artist in somber reflection. Except for the painter’s signature in the lower right corner, there is no other identifying or explanatory text on the cover. The invitation is one folded sheet of white coated card, each side measuring 57/8x77/8" inches. Inside are particulars of the exhibition.
While the only exhibition thus far in Northern Ireland where J.P. is popular, the Caldwell Galleries there and at its shop in Dublin offered J.P.'s works for several years.
Within the space of just six years, beginning in 1989, there were four exhibitions in England. The first show was at Anna-Mei Chadwick Galleries, February 22-March 11, 1989.
The attractive programs of this and two additional Chadwick shows – coated white card folded once to create four sides each measuring 57/8x81/4 inches – carried the artist’s name at the top on the front with the dates of the exhibition underneath but no mention of an exhibition. A watercolor took up half of each Chadwick cover, with its title and measurements below and the gallery name and address at the bottom. Inside pages contained biographical information and exhibition details.
The watercolor on the cover of the 1989 program was a beastly beatitude – one in a popular series of drawings of grinning animals of uncertain species but pronounced testicles, erect penises, and curly-cue tails. This cover portrait is titled “The Turquoise Dog”.
The next show at the
Anna-Mei Chadwick Galleries, March
5-16, 1991, was a joint exhibition with daughter Karen Donleavy, who
displayed her appealing and very popular pottery with painted designs
of cats and dogs. Karen’s name appears just below her father’s
on the front of the program. The illustration is J.P.’s “Anaconda”
– a rainbow-colored snake with intricate designs along its skin,
wrapped around itself like a pretzel, keeping a sharp eye focused, its
jaws opened and split tongue extended.
Just four months later, J.P.’s paintings were being exhibited in Surrey, England at the Alba Gallery, July 16-28, 1991.
Then it was back to the Anna-Mei Chadwick Gallery, June 7-18, 1994. The cover for the program of that show again featured a beastly beatitude with a companion in a mountain setting at nighttime. The title beneath reads: “Beast And Bird West Of Idaho At The New Moon”.
“The Anna-Mei Chadwick Gallery is delighted to be welcoming back the celebrated author and artist – J.P. Donleavy,” began the inside notes. The exhibition coincided with the publication of The History of The Ginger Man. The program notes continue: “Visitors to Donleavy’s two previous shows at the gallery will once again be able to enjoy his zany sense of humor that is so evident in his prose. Not only the pictures themselves but their titles as well, are wickedly funny and reflective of his continuing talent as a humorist and artist. …”
Designer Rachel Murray organized a one-day exhibition in Dublin at the popular nightspot The Lounge, October 29, 1995.
Several of J.P.’s
works were knocked down for impressive prices at
Whyte’s Irish Art Auction, October 10, 2000, held at the Royal
Dublin Society (RDS) Centre, Dublin.
Damien Matthews organized and presented an exhibition at the Walton Gallery, London, March 20-April 6, 2002. The invitation card, measuring 5¾x8¼, contained a dramatic black-and-white photo of the painter as a young struggling artist, standing against the cold stone wall of his studio at his Kilcoole cottage. He wears a ragged sweatshirt, his hair and beard are wild. He has a contemplative yet determined look on his face as his eyes stare at a distant point, perhaps lost in thought of his unfinished painting or his future prospects. But the reverse side clearly indicates the struggling artist survived and thrived as guests are invited to drinks at a private view of an exhibition of paintings and to meet the artist at a proper Kensington address.
The 8-page Walton catalogue, 8¼x11½ inches, contains prints of 95 watercolors and drawings with descriptions of each. “Lonesome Bird”, a pastel wash of a solitary bird strolling beneath clear skies and a bright sun, graces the cover, between the names of the painter and the gallery. The invitation photo appears on the back cover.
Beastly Beasts in Dublin
by the London exhibition, Damien Matthews Fine Art organized and presented
a retrospective at the Molesworth
Gallery, February 7-20, 2006. It was J.P. 15th exhibition and 7th
in Dublin. In all, there were 11 oils and 76 watercolors and drawings
on display, created from the late 1940s to recent years.
The full-color catalog, measuring 9½x9½ inches and running to 72 pages, contains prints of all works, plus a foreword by Matthews, bio and chronology by this correspondent, and Q&A with the author conducted by Karim White. Staring out from the back cover is a smiling, fat, mustachioed face, hair parted down the middle, pince nez across the nose. The title of the work: “What Do You Say Are You In For Another Million Or Should I Make It Two.”
On the front cover against a red background, the author’s name appears in black capital letters atop white letters of the exhibition’s title, which was chosen by the artist:
People & Places
In the lower right
corner, a grinning clerical-looking fellow, dressed in black, stands in
wait, walking stick in one hand, and a clothes iron held back in his other
as if poised to strike some beast, bird, or personage.
The Molesworth Gallery, operated by Ronan and Teresa Lyons, was an appropriate venue for the important exhibition, housed in a stately Georgian townhouse in the heart of the arts district on Molesworth Street. The gallery, once an elegant private residence with a greystone exterior and white paneled interior walls, is only a few blocks from Trinity College Dublin, where the artist first began painting in his college rooms at No. 38, and a few blocks in the other direction from 7, St. Stephen’s Green, where his first four exhibitions were held.
This time, the paintings were all dry. And there were so many, they were hung in the entrance hallway, two rooms on the ground floor, and one large room upstairs.
A Gathering of Friends and Admirers
exhibition proved a success in every respect. The show attracted collectors
who began arriving during setup and the press preview. They came to add
to their Donleavy collections. Opening night drew a shoulder-to-shoulder
Attending the opening were an intriguing and diverse group of sophisticated folk: a few contemporaries from Trinity days, longtime collectors including one gentleman owning a Donleavy oil done in the late 1940s, many successful Irish who having prospered in the Celtic Tiger boom are showing their confidence and pride by collecting Irish art, a dozen or more Americans and Brits who flew over for the show, the curator of the European art collection of the Bank of America, and Pogues frontman and Donleavy fan Shane McGowan. There were also a few young artists dressed in black, with spikey hair, and wearing combat boots who felt a kinship with J.P., ever the outsider even as he is now being recognized as a classic and belatedly claimed by his adopted nation.
In an impressive show of respect and clear evidence of J.P.’s standing among fellow artists were the leading artists who came to view the exhibition and be a part of this cultural event: Robert Ballagh, Brian Ballard, John Jobson, Mike Fitzharris, Barry Flanagan, Gavin Friday, Guggi, Patrick Scott, and Sam Walsh.
In the Long Tradition of Writer as Artist
The show was formally and enthusiastically opened by Enrique Jancusa, director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. He said in part:
There is indeed a long tradition of artists and writers from Victor Hugo and Hans Christian Andersen, to D.H. Lawrence and William Burroughs, passing through Federico García Lorca, Henri Micheaux or Jean Cocteau.
J. P. Donleavy's visual work is also wildly funny, being sometimes dirty, violent, satirical, charming or even lyrical, characteristics that have been given to his literary style. …
I think his works are a very energetic celebration of humor and life, and manage to create some analysis of the human condition. His beasts become human, showing us also the animal we have inside ourselves.
The Living Ginger
Where press attention
in the old days was local and often reflexively critical, media attention
in this Internet age was informed, balanced, and generally appreciative, re-introducing
J.P. Donleavy the painter to an international audience virtually overnight
with coverage by The New York Times, The International Herald
Tribune, Irish newspapers, radio and television, and the English
press. Bruce Arnold, dean of Ireland’s art reviewers and biographer
of Jack Yeats, wrote in part in his review in The Irish Independent:
“Jack Yeats talked of ‘the living ginger’ – the magic
that made art come alive. J.P. Donleavy has it.”
One of J.P.’s oils, “Don’t Mind Me I’m From The New World”, was purchased by The Irish Museum of Modern Art, the national museum of a country that up until the early 1970s banned his writings and allowed his first play to be driven from the stage by the Catholic hierarchy.
Portrait by Ballagh
painting in the Molesworth exhibition not by J.P. – yet prominently
displayed – was an oil portrait by Robert Ballagh. The portrait, measuring
28x36 inches, purchased by an anonymous collector has been donated to the
Irish National Portrait Gallery.
Appraising the success of his latest exhibition, painter and writer J.P. Donleavy joked: “I may yet get somewhere.” Beyond the self-deprecation, he remains as he always has been – confident, focused, committed to his work, disciplined, and productive. He knows he has gone far, indeed, since his first efforts in his Trinity rooms at No. 38. And he has done it all on his own terms.