The art of looking backwards
Homan Potterton's new memoir is a lively snapshot of an eventful era. Our reporter meets the former National Gallery boss to talk Haughey, the Beit robbery and retiring at 42
Homan Potterton doesn't do regrets. At 71, the former director of the National Gallery is able to look back at things that perhaps didn't go quite according to plan with the solace of age, even if from the outside, there were things he'd be within his rights to feel miffed over.
Having become the youngest ever director of the gallery at the tender age of 33, Potterton's tenure ended in frustration over a few issues, the biggest being a lack of enthusiasm or resolve on behalf of other parties to get the gallery renovated. He walked out in 1988 after eight years and did his best not to look back. He headed off to New York and watched from a distance as the Irish economic miracle made landfall.
"I wouldn't allow myself to have those sorts of thoughts," he swears, "but naturally sometimes I would reflect that I was unlucky to get the eight worst years. When I was here, it was grim. I went to New York when I left, and I always say that the day I left, the Celtic Tiger came in on the next boat. Had I stayed on, I would have had the good times as well. That certainly would have been nice, but I was having a very nice time in New York with no responsibilities and doing what I wanted to do."
He hasn't seen the marvellous new job that has been done on Merrion Square but one suspects having seen the scale of the work involved, he might go easier on himself.
"Well that's what I'm wondering," he says in agreement. "How I will react? It's what I wanted more than anything and I failed so to see it now… you don't know. Certainly in this book, I set out to not be bitter or angry about anything because that's destructive in the extreme. There's no point in raking over old coals. That would make me unhappy."
The book in question is Who Do I Think I Am?, a lively, silken and gossip-laced second memoir that follows 2002's bestselling Rathcormick: A Childhood Recalled. Many memoirs, especially by public figures in the arts or culture, can often be score-settling exercises, but instead Potterton is more concerned with being an entertaining host and tour guide through an exhibition of his adult years.
He retired (more or less) at the enviable age of 42, and attributes the air of twinkle-eyed zen he has carried through his later years, and which is present when we meet, to this. I say the concept of such an early withdrawal from full-time employment is inconceivable to me and ask him to tell me a bit about it.
"When you get to the proper retirement age of 65, people get very anxious and worried about what they're going to do all day and all that because you're into your last decades. I always say I was glad I retired at 42 because I was young enough to be able to adapt very quickly to managing day-to-day life without the anchor of having to get to an office at 9 and leave at 6. I was young enough to adapt my whole way of living and managing myself so that I'm always busy. That's easier to do in your 40s than your 60s."
Before and during his time in the National Gallery, he authored several art books. Post-retirement, meanwhile, Potterton edited the Irish Arts Review for nine years and wrote a Financial Times column for the art market while based in New York. He's true to his word about always staying busy.
"I was always writing because that's what I like doing very much. And then I got this thing in the Financial Times. It gave me a means and a reason to integrate in New York so that was a good thing. In other professions, it would be harder to freelance at things like that. So yes, I'm jolly glad I did retire at 42. People say, 'how could you have walked out of a job at 42, what about your pension?' and I say I didn't give a damn about any pension because I was convinced this country would never be able to pay anyone's pension. Everything was so bad at that time."
It sounds like a very nice life today, mind. Most of his time is spent in the south of France in the Tarn region near Toulouse. There, he spends his time writing or mucking around in a lively social scene of ex-pats and retired cultural doyens (the actor Derek Jacobi is a friend, he happily reveals). Winter months can be bleak there so he decamps to London to take in the cultural calendar. While fiercely proud of his Irishness, he has yet to seriously consider a move back here and finds Dublin drastically different to how he remembers it, which it probably is.
"It's very smart. I was in different hotels meeting friends this week and you could be anywhere in Europe or America. Even the local people are very smart with their hair all glossy and their teeth all white. Honestly, because I was nostalgic for the past, I was feeling, 'oh give me some spit and sawdust and a pint of stout instead of this chardonnay culture'."
That's a bit unfair, isn't it?
"Oh, it is unfair," he says, a bit bemused by himself, "because it's a very sophisticated city with a good standard of living, at least that's how it presents itself. But now it's really a foreign city by comparison. It's very charming and delightful but it's getting more moneyed and everything as well."
It is interesting to see he has come full-circle, back in a rural setting after his childhood on the family farm in Trim where he grew up the youngest of eight in a long line of Pottertons that dates back to the 17th century. Unlike his brothers, he never felt any affinity with farming, he recalls, and realised very early on that pre-dawn starts and feeding cattle were not for him. All he knew about city life, however, was vague ideas gleaned from going to Dublin for the day shopping with his mother. When rural Toulouse became his home, following a city-based lifestyle that took in Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Paris and New York over the years, he discovered he had more of an affinity for it than he thought.
While his father was "a good man", he was serious and hands-off (as fathers were in those days). He died when Homan was 14 and there wasn't much of a relationship to speak of, he says. His mother, by contrast, was warm and indulgent of his desire to go off travelling at a young age ("It could look like she was careless but she saw instinctively what I wanted to do and she trusted me that I was sensible enough, and that I wasn't going to get myself into trouble").
While he got a good degree from Trinity, he was not comfortable in the "competitive", "socially intimidating" campus environment. Lacking self-esteem, he didn't entirely enjoy his time there. Postgraduate study in art history in Edinburgh was eventually followed by his first job under then NGI director James White before he landed a position as an assistant keeper in the National Gallery in London in 1974. He flourished in London and found the landscape of dinner parties, openings and cultural events to be his natural habitat.
"I started being myself when I went to London to a terrific job that I loved," he smiles. "Art history was a funny subject at that time to study. People didn't really fully know what it was and where it would lead so it was good to find I was getting a career out of it."
Who Do I Think I Am? details the pre- and post-Merrion Square eras in a way that will engross anyone remotely interested in Dublin of the rare oul' times, whatever that is. Potterton ran into everybody sooner or later - lords and ladies, cultural elites and colourful characters, every shape and size of socialite going, and even the odd monarch - and has a flamboyant yarn or keen observation to relay from every step of the way.
There was the time he ran into Prince Ernst of Saxony while a lad working at Trim Livestock Market, as you do. There were run-ins with Garret FitzGerald and Charlie Haughey. The latter was not beloved of Potterton and echoed many of the prejudices and inverse snobberies that were levelled at him during his time trying to deal with the civil service. "Haughey himself said it more or less to me," he tells me. "He said: 'You can't be Irish if you're Protestant'. And it was very offensive because I was completely Irish and I was working very hard for Ireland, and then to be told you're not part of the heritage."
While he did endure much anti-Protestant bias from the civil service, he was touched to receive letters from Catholics after the publication of Rathcormick.
"I was upfront that it was a Protestant memoir and I hope I made a little bit of fun about the silliness of the differences between us. The tenor of a lot of the letters was 'I'm Catholic and we were brought up to believe that you lot were completely different, and now I'm reading your book and you're exactly the same'. It was most interesting," he says before waiting a comedian's beat. "I hardly got any letters from Protestants. Too mean to buy the book in the first place!"
Then there was the time he was interviewed over a "riotous" lunch by Mary Kenny (on behalf of this parish) and Maeve Binchy. "When Maeve's article was published," he writes, "it was very gentle, and then I waited apprehensively for Mary's piece. (She still, at the time, had the reputation of being something of a tearaway.) But she was kind too…".
Potterton's memoir is much more than just a who's-who, however. Then there was the time he received a ransom letter for the Beit paintings stolen from Russborough House by the crime boss known as the 'General' ("I immediately dropped the letter on to the desk for fear of adding my fingerprints to the paper"). When I tell him the chapter reads like the makings of great crime novel, he's already way ahead of me. "I've got a very good plot for a crime thriller about it," he says, "but I'm not going to tell it to you!". (He will tell me later on, none-the-less).
This letter actually turned out to be from chancers masquerading as Martin Cahill and the recovery of the pictures took place after Potterton's time. He was approached in New York, however, by a shady lawyer with a proposition to negotiate the return of the paintings. Photographic proof was provided that the paintings were indeed being put on the negotiating table this time but a "ridiculous ransom" was being sought. When Potterton insisted on FBI involvement, the scent went cold from the lawyer's end.
But if anything provides a real insight into the nature of the genial, ultra-polite and quick-witted gentleman sitting before me, it is the way he was able to convince Sir Alfred and Lady Beit to donate their collection of paintings to the State.
"I went down to Russborough and I pointed out that to leave the paintings in Russborough would leave them vulnerable not only from exterior factors there like the General but also interior ones. Russborough would eventually need funds when Alfred Beit was dead, I argued, and the trustees would probably sell some of the paintings in order to maintain the house. That of course induced a bit of panic in the Beits. I had to take my courage in my hands and ask them to do it because I might have failed, but in retrospect I must have been a godsend to them because they were elderly and worried about themselves and the paintings and I came along and offered them this lovely solution. So I'm only sorry I didn't ask more people!"
So he does have regrets?
"Yes, well now that I'm old myself, I realise that when a young person comes along and offers you a solution to your anxieties about something, you jump at it."
For now, there are other writing ambitions after his batteries are recharged and he's had "a bit of a think". He won't, he says, be writing any more memoirs because fiction is piquing his interest now. There is the issue of that crime thriller to be considered, right?
He can't hold back. Potterton excitedly reels off a plot involving "a dishonest museum director" who gets a copy made of the most valuable picture in his museum before inadvertently losing the real picture to art thieves. "When it's discovered years later, he has already retired at 42 and is living the good life!"
Who Do I Think I Am? is published by Merrion Press, priced €25
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