The House of Stuart
IAN Stuart is an artist cast in the heroic mould; Hemingway, without the pretension and aggressive masculinity. Today, aged 80, he is remarkably handsome, with a thick head of white hair, massive shoulders, and eyes that are kindled easily to amusement and a witty flirtatiousness. Once one of Ireland's foremost sculptors - chosen to represent the country in two Paris Biennales
IAN Stuart is an artist cast in the heroic mould; Hemingway, without the pretension and aggressive masculinity. Today, aged 80, he is remarkably handsome, with a thick head of white hair, massive shoulders, and eyes that are kindled easily to amusement and a witty flirtatiousness. Once one of Ireland's foremost sculptors - chosen to represent the country in two Paris Biennales - he lives an almost reclusive life these days. A one-man show at the Cross Gallery in Dublin last year seemed to slip off the critical radar, and the hectic days of Sixties Bohemia are far behind him.
His is a story that branches into art, literature, history and society. It weathers storms and upsets aplenty, tragedy too, before finally coming to rest in this calm harbour in Co Wicklow, where Ian lives surrounded by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
What for most of us is just history are for him the people and events that criss-crossed his life, casting light and sometimes long shadows into various parts of it.
Ian is the son of Iseult Gonne - Maud Gonne's daughter, one-time lover of Ezra Pound, proposed to twice by Yeats - and the writer Francis Stuart, about whom controversy over his wartime doings in Germany seems doomed never to be laid to rest. Francis converted to Catholicism in order to marry, but the union was a deeply unhappy one.
The neglect and violence that scarred it began early, barely years into the marriage, and were obvious enough to prompt Yeats's lines about having seenA girl who knew all Dante
Live to bear children to
- even though as a writer he admired and often championed Francis. "He said other things about my father that weren't so bad. Not in poems, but he did say it in other ways, I think he thought that my father was a great writer. But it doesn't matter what Yeats said anyway."
Before Ian there was a daughter, Dolores, who died while still a tiny baby. Ian was born in 1926 and for a while Francis, who was already emotionally remote and obsessive about his muse, was subdued by love for his son. In the novel Black List, Section H, an autobiography in all but name, he writes, placing himself in the third person: "He was unexpectedly delighted with the baby and proud of how it responded to him. Ian was robust and demanding. Only H could quiet him, taking him in his arms and sinking into an inner repose that developed the baby too as he walked with it slowly up and down the room."
But it was a short season of love. Determined, maybe driven, to hack his own path out of life, Francis had little inclination for the responsibilities of fatherhood. Asked about him now, Ian says simply: "I'm not very interested in my father. He wasn't much of a father to me, and he wasn't very good to my mother." By the time Ian was 13, Francis had abandoned the family, moving to Berlin, where he lectured at the university and made his infamous wartime broadcasts. Behind him he left Iseult, Ian, a daughter, Katherine, and his own mother, who lived with the family until her death; "she was one of the people who I loved most in my life," Iansays quietly.
Left without any money, the family survived in Laragh Castle on monthly donations from old Mrs Stuart's pension. "I don't know howmuch her pension was, but she gave us £30 a month, and that's what we lived on. It was the only means of support. And the occasional bit from my father.
"Those years in Laragh Castle were very isolated. A great help to my mother was the German ambassador, Eduard Hempel, and his wife. He came down a lot and helped her as unobtrusively as he could. He bought some things out of the house, antiques, but never sold them. It was just a way of giving her money. He also managed to get the German government to take some money from my father's salary and send it to us. Which of course infuriated my father later on." Then he adds, with a wicked twinkle, "He was very mean, my father. That was the Protestant side."
Iseult led a sort of half-life, drifting between the roles of daughter, lover, mother and artist. She was conceived on the grave of her dead brother - because Maud Gonne was convinced this would allow his spirit to be reborn - and the almost secondhand life that was bestowed upon her lingered. In Black List, Francis Stuart depicts her as profoundly idle - smoking incessantly and playing endless hands of patience. Ian, who loved her dearly, insists that she was a "good" poet, but agrees that her idleness - far from being a cruel construct of his father's - was an issue for most of those who knew her. "There was this thing about her idleness, it wasn't just from him. Mind you, I never quite understood what she could have done, down here on her own with two kids and no money. She did write, though she never quite got on. She wrote some quite good poems. Ineffectual, I suppose is the word. She spent a lot of time smoking. I suppose that's what killed her."
Iseult, however, did enough to get herself sent to prison when Ian was just 14. It's a strange kind of story, in which Francis again seems to have been the dark motivator. In 1940 he directed a German spy, Hermann Goertz, to Laragh Castle as a safe place to hide out while he made contact with the IRA. Ian recalls Goertz hiding in the bushes above the house by day with his radio transmitter. At night, under cover of darkness, he would slip into the house and have dinner with the family, and, as Ian recalls it, "my mother fell in love with him. That was the big thing in her life, and that was the thing that wrecked her really. When he committed suicide." His suicide and her imprisonment were linked.
Together they had gone into Brown Thomas to buy him some clothes. "He had these dollars that Hitler used to give to his agents, but they were fake dollars. And they cashed some of those in Brown Thomas. My mother ended up in jail and he ended up in the Curragh. He was about a year there. They kept in contact, then one day . . . At this stage the war had finished, and the Americans wanted all of Hitler's spies - he wasn't a spy really, but they wanted them for repatriation, to be de-Nazified. He had a lot of mad notions about what the Americans would do when they got him. When they brought him to Dublin Castle and told him he had to goback to Germany, he had a pill - they all had these pills - and he bit it. That was a great blow for my mother. There was no more love in her life after that."
Of Goertz, Iseult would later say: "No voice has ever caressed my ears like one which I may never hear again, no smile has so inveigled me."
Although Iseult spent only a month in prison, before being found not guilty and released, Ian left his boarding school in Bray and came home to take care of his grandmother and sister. "That was the happiest time of my life really. Not because my mother wasn't there, because I loved her, but just having complete freedom." He was never to go back to school.
At first, Ian wanted to become a poet - "I wrote things from early on" - yet he isn't much interested in his father's writings. "I've read them, of course I have, but Black List, I had to put it down, it was so deceitful and lying, I couldn't read any more. I never cared for his work, but he wrote some very good poetry." Did Ian ever show him things that he had written? "Never. We didn't have any contact. He was a stranger to me really." Deciding he had insufficient talent to make it as a poet, Ian went to a trade school in Limerick, where he trained to be a cabinet maker. "I got quite successful at that," he says.
While there, he met an old Benedictine monk from Glenstal Abbey who taught him wood carving. "I got into that, and then sculpture."
The Stuart family's connections to Germany run far deeper than mere coincidence. Both Francis and Iseult had strong emotional attachments to the country, and when Ian was ready to leave Ireland and deepen his knowledge of sculpture, it was to Bavaria he went. Again, Iseult's friendship with Hempel laid the path. "Hempel had a friend called Werner who was a writer. His daughter was studying art in Bavaria, taught by a professor fromthe Berlin Art School whohad moved back to his home town." The friend was Bruno Werner, a noted art critic, intellectual and force for political good. His daughter was Imogen.
She and Ian corresponded for a while, and it was agreed that he would go and live with the family and study under her teacher. Germany may have been in ruins, but to the young Ian it was a dynamic, wonderful place. "This was just after the war, Germany was completely wrecked. I remember walking though one town and there was nothing standing except the cathedral. It was very exciting." He and Imogen "met, we fell in love and we got married."
Both of them were happy and fulfilled living in Germany, but the intense, invisible ties of family brought them back. "My mother got sick and my grandmother wasn't very well either. My mother had an ongoing heart thing, so we had to come back. But it was difficult living here, especially for my wife. We lived in Laragh Castle, which was really an old barracks. It had been castellated by some landowner, but it was still a barracks. Cold, miserable and we had no money.
"Imogen was very good, she put up with it. Eventually we both started getting commissions here, mostly from the church, so we lived and we kept the family going, three daughters."
They moved to Sandycove and became part of that hive of Sixties artistic Bohemia around Dun Laoghaire and Monkstown. With Edward Delaney, Michael Farrell and Charlie Brady, they were at the centre of a radical, free-living counter-culture. Ian took it further than most, journeying to Marrakesh and plunging deep into the extremes of that lifestyle. Those were also the high days of his career; in Irish Sculpture from 1600 to the Present Day, published by Anne Crookshank in 1984, Stuart is highlighted as the emerging artist, "the first Dublin sculptor to emerge as a 'modern' figure," and he is to be found mentioned in every important catalogue of the time. However, his marriage to Imogen didn't survive, and neither did his religious faith.
"I was very Catholic, I wanted to be a monk when I was down at Glenstal and was very devout, going to daily mass. But I have long parted company with the church. I can't remember if I drifted gradually or if I saw the light suddenly, but I do know that I was a long time seeing it." Later, the tragic death of their daughter, Siobhan, added its own mournful dimension to his personal journey.
Much later he married again, and although he and Imogen aren't particularly in touch, the children of the two marriages are very close, bringing some kind of closure to the upheavals of his emotional life. "My youngest daughter, Sophia, is working for Imogen now. She's a sculptress too."
These days Ian leads a much secluded life. Although he is collected by connoisseurs such as Dermot Desmond and has many prominent public pieces, he is no longer surrounded by the hype and attention his elegant, slightly spooky, shamanistic work deserves. Not that it seems to bother him. The main focus of his life is now family. "I'm not very sure I was a good father, but it was one of my main interests, being a father. I carried it a bit too far, I had about eight kids. Now I have 23 grandchildren, I think, and three or four great-grandchildren. And they're only starting. If I live a few more years I'll have a lot more."
His attitude to the time that might be left to him is philosophical. "When it's your time, it's your time. My father lived to 98 or 99, but I'd say he wasn't happy. The reason I always thought he lived so long was because he was utterly and totally selfish. A lot of your troubles are worrying about other people. If you have kids, especially, you never stop worrying about them. My father never got close to people, he never knew what love was, really."
In a strange twist of the story, a few years before he died, this unloved and unloving father turned up out of the blue on Ian's doorstep one Christmas Day. Arriving unannounced to close a gap of many years. He brought "that brute of a cat" and stayed for two years.
"He lived in the room down there. He wrote in a diary every day, which I read, of course." Ian laughs and quotes from the diary: "'X comes to see me' - I was X - 'not a great conversationalist'" - more laughter from Ian. "It was absolutely weird. He would sit in his chair all day and the cat would sit on the arm of the chair. He wouldn't have a paper, he wouldn't have a radio, he hated television, he didn't read, he didn't write - except for a scrawl in the diary. He'd get up at about 9am and sit there, all day. He would talk a bit, to me, to the people who came to see him, like [Anthony] Cronin and Ben Kiely. I asked once what he did, and he said he lived in his memories. I can't imagine his memories were good ones either."
Despite the proximity, father and son weren't, Ian insists, reconciled: "I was no closer to him by the time he died. He wasn't a person you got close to." Yet there is no bitterness in his memories of the man whose considerable sins of omission would have blighted a lesser life. "There's no doubt he was the product of a bad past. He had an awful childhood, you really can't blame him for anything he was. Not that I want to blame him anyway. His father committed suicide, and he was sent out to boarding school in England at an early age. His mother was a lovely lady but a hopeless lady, couldn't manage anything. He had a bad upbringing. I don't want to say too many bad things about him, in a way I feel sorry for him, you know."
Although deprived of a loving father, Ian knows himself to have been blessed amongst women. Sitting by the wood-burning stove of his charming Wicklow house, his thoughts are turned towards the distant past - his mother and grandmother particularly - and the future, a future full of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The difficult in-between years seem to have left little scar or mark. His is the calm that comes so well deserved on the heels of a long and turbulent life. Yeats probably has some lines on it, but then what does it matter what Yeats said? This is history, with a happy ending.