Saturday 23 November 2019

The Dubliner who inspired Mr Spock's ears

There are two fabulous stories in this book. The first is that Mr Spock of Star Trek is based on a painting by Harry Kernoff entitled A Bird Never Flew On One Wing (below). The second is that Kernoff had a long and passionate affair with the great Irish ballad singer Delia Murphy (right), famous for such songs as 'Three Lovely Lassies From Bannion'.

Kernoff was indeed the "little genius" of this book's title: he was a tiny little Jewish man in a big black hat, part of the scenery of artistic Dublin in the middle of the last century, whose best pictures can today fetch close to €150,000.

In other words, he is in the same class as Jack Yeats and Louis Le Brocquy, a great painter and not as well known today as he should be.

According to legend, in the early 1960s a designer for the TV series saw the Bird painting in O'Brien's pub in Leeson Street, where it hung for many years, and when he returned to the Hollywood studios he kitted out Leonard Nimoy with the same pointy ears as the Toucher Doyle, the man on the right.

Come to think of it, the man on the left, who is said to be the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne, has the same sort of eyes as Spock.

The problem with the Toucher part of the story is that he got the nickname for having touched Edward, the Prince of Wales, for a fiver at a race meeting at Punchestown in 1865. Whatever about the Toucher Doyle's age, Alfie Byrne, who was so fond of meeting people as Lord Mayor that he was known as "the shaking hand of Dublin", was born in 1882.

There is no doubt, though, that Kernoff knew Delia Murphy, the Queen of the Irish ballad, or as Kevin O'Connor describes her, "a handsome woman whose cheerful renderings enthralled both salon and music hall".

He painted a glamorous portrait of her, reproduced here, and her colleen features can be seen in many of his pictures of ideal young women, including the charming Turf Girl Of Ardee that is now in the collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Delia and Harry's affair was bedevilled by the fact not just that she was a married woman with four children but that her husband, Thomas Kiernan, was variously Irish ambassador to the Vatican, Australia, Germany and Canada. According to O'Connor, when Delia was in Ottawa with her husband, she "signalled to Harry her loneliness for his company", whereupon Kernoff set off for Canada.

The story in the book gets a little complicated here. Kernoff could afford to make the trip because he met a visitor from Nova Scotia called Albro Ettinger in the Bailey pub "in the early spring of 1957". The "primary reason" for Albro being in Dublin "was to tease out with premier Eamon de Valera constitutional issues of the British Commonwealth as Nova Scotia was an early colony to become self-governing in the 19th Century".

This is a bit peculiar because not only was Dev not bothered by Nova Scotia in early 1957, he wasn't even Taoiseach.

Anyway, Albro was apparently so taken with Harry and "the conviviality of the Bailey" that "he lobbied de Valera the following day to sit for a portrait by his new-found Dublin friend. Not only was a sitting agreed and a charcoal portrait of de Valera bought by Ettinger, but in its aftermath he invited Kernoff to an expenses-paid sojourn in Nova Scotia".

Harry definitely went to Nova Scotia: he painted a series of lovely pictures in Halifax, the capital city of the province. But if he was romancing his beloved – according to Kevin O'Connor, "his personal meetings with Delia are shrouded in family discretion" – he must have been doing it at a distance: Halifax is almost 1,000 miles from Ottawa.

Kevin O'Connor's 125-page biography is woefully short on facts, but what makes it a guaranteed stocking-filler for Christmas and of lasting value is the large number of colour and black and white reproductions of Kernoff's wonderful work.

The biographical shortcomings are a pity, because Kernoff's story is hugely interesting. Born in London in 1900 but brought up in the Little Jerusalem of the South Circular Road, he studied at the Metropolitan School of Art.

Academically, he was the equal of any of his contemporaries – he could draw like an angel. Socially and politically, he was a left-wing Bohemian and hung around with all the poets, writers and artists of the period, including the White Stag Group who, because a number of them were gay, were known as the White Shag Group.

But unlike most of the Bohemians, Kernoff wasn't an alcoholic, though he was fond of a glass of absinthe. In fact, like most Jews in Dublin, he was devoted to his family, ultra-respectable and immensely hardworking.

From his studio in Stamer Street he poured out thousands of paintings, drawings and prints. At his best he recorded the look of the Irish landscape, but particularly the Dublin landscape, with more affection and insight than any other artist in 20th Century Ireland.

He did in art what Spock and his colleagues on the Enterprise do in Star Trek – to boldly go where no man has gone before.

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