Sunday 25 September 2016

What lies beneath: The Convalescent

The Convalescent by Helen O’Sullivan Tyrrell, acrylic on canvas courtesty Solomon Fine Art

Niall MacMonagle

Published 04/05/2015 | 02:30

The Convalescent
The Convalescent

Thousands have already seen this portrait, shortlisted for the Hennessy Portrait Award 2014 at the National Gallery. Thousands more will see it later this year, in London. Last week, it was one of fifty paintings selected from two thousand entries for the prestigious BP Portrait Award.

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The convalescent in question is O'Sullivan Tyrrell's ten-year-old daughter Laragh who, two years ago, had emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. Ten days in hospital meant drains, catheters, invasive procedures.

"It was horrible for her; she was frightened and uncomfortable and I stayed with her during that time." For O'Sullivan Tyrrell her daughter's "fragility and vulnerability really struck me". They played board games and, since both love drawing and painting, they drew pictures. Sketches and photographs later became this "mother's eye view" of a very difficult time. O'Sullivan Tyrrell, from Bray and now living in Belgium, studied architecture. Her college days during the 1980s and 90s politicised her: "the social changes we were struggling with were so important, especially as young women. We all identified with 'X' and Ann Lovett." Student activism spilled over into her work with the NGO sector in Brussels. She was a lobbyist for the food and drink industry and "finally, finally found what I want to do for the rest of my life".

Her work focuses on girls and women, First Communions - "and our odd tradition of dressing children up in bridal outfits", midwives, the Virgin Mary. When Belgians saw her first First Communion painting they identified with it. "May parades, Corpus Christi processions, rituals all have a place in the Belgian national psyche."

"I think politics informs my painting to a large extent" but this image is one of O'Sullivan Tyrrell's most personal. Her daughter's gently pleading expression is one of helplessness and uncertainty, yet the hunched right shoulder creates a feeling of willing herself better. The paint, applied with the delicacy of watercolour, and the tentative brushstrokes all create a fragility. That pale young face and those huge, beautiful, lonely eyes are searching for a country called health.

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