Saturday 21 July 2018

Gay Byrne: People have always sent me pictures of myself..sadly, not all of them have come up to scratch

Every picture tells a story

Sally Downey's portrait of Gay Byrne
Sally Downey's portrait of Gay Byrne
Derek Hill's portrait of Gay Byrne, commissioned by RTE
John Kindness's piece for the National Gallery of Ireland.

Gay Byrne

In the 60 sparkling years of service to broadcasting in this country, my adoring fans would often express their adoration by sending me a picture, executed by them (in many cases "executed" is a fine choice of words there) which they thought would bring me joy.

I'm talking about oil paintings, watercolours, pencil drawings, sketches, cartoons - of me, some of which were very good indeed and many of which were... well intentioned.

So there's only one picture of me hanging on the wall in our place.

Right. Then about 20 years ago or so, someone on the top floor in Montrose got the bright idea that RTE should commission an official portrait of Gaybo.

Derek Hill's portrait of Gay Byrne, commissioned by RTE
Derek Hill's portrait of Gay Byrne, commissioned by RTE

Why? How? What for? Who took this decision? I've no answers to any of those questions.

All I know is that Derek Hill was the nominated artist for this mammoth task and was, presumably, paid a fair fee for the work.

He was internationally recognised as a fine artist, especially in portraiture, and was said to be tutoring Prince Charles in art. Indeed, on the morning Princess Di was killed in Paris, Derek Hill and the prince were booked to go away together on a painting holiday.

He was a regular visitor to his house in Donegal and specifically, to Tory Island, to which he liked to retire occasionally for short periods where he painted the Wild Atlantic Way before anyone else ever heard of it.

He was welcome to it. His abode, on Tory, from what I can recall of it, was a scruffy dump of a shed, in which he spent many happy, and presumably wet and cold, hours painting some of the most vicious seas around our shores.

Look, I'm not an island person; I've been on most of the Donegal islands and my favourite is Arranmore, mainly because there's a boat leaving every hour to get you back to Ireland. In 25 minutes.

John Kindness's piece for the National Gallery of Ireland.
John Kindness's piece for the National Gallery of Ireland.

Tory is a bit trickier. It is not a nice piece of ocean. But every man to his own taste.

The same Derek Hill was kind enough to leave his house in Church Hill, with many of his prized treasures, to all of us, the people of Ireland, and it's well worth a visit if you're up that way during your hols. It is beautifully maintained and curated.

Anyway, the confounded portrait.

I was simply told: you're being painted by this guy and he needs five sittings, at least. And you and he are in Donegal right now, so that makes it all straightforward and hunky dory.

I was indeed in Donegal - I WAS ON MY FAMILY HOLIDAY, and this was going to take five days out of it. It didn't occur to me to refuse, but I was grumpy about it.

Derek's studio was a derelict cottage near his house, complete with broken down fireplace which had that dank, rancid stink of ancient wet turf.

There were several quite large rat traps around the place, to which he airily referred by explaining that the rats were eating their way through the top shelf of the bookcase - a collection of ancient Etruscan manuscripts, or some such, which he would prefer to keep safely, but then, what was one to do?

He indicated a small three-legged stool, on which I was to sit. I did so, whereupon one leg instantly collapsed, and I landed on my bum in the midst of dust and dirt and rat-droppings and what was left of the ancient Etruscan manuscripts.

Lord! What a glamorous and exciting life we showbiz people live!

Somehow, we propped up the stool, I resumed my seat, trying to look brave and unconcerned, and the picture began.

He was a gentlemanly chap, really; we chatted during the sessions, and there were long periods of silence, too. He loved gossip and tittle-tattle but was discreet about his royal connections, although there was a regular footfall of such people through the place, which everyone knew about.

On a previous visit to his house Kathleen and I met Prince William's then housemaster and his wife; lovely people who just had to see Derek while they were on hols in Donegal. Those sorts of people.

There is no doubt that Derek loved Donegal and its people anyway.

I was never allowed to see the picture. Until, at last, it was finished, and the honour was bestowed on Kathleen for first view. She was, clearly, underwhelmed; and he asked her why? Kathleen said: "You've made him look very serious."

And he said: "I see Gay as a very serious man." And that, I guess, was the end of that.

I was given the picture for onward delivery to Montrose, and there was not one single enthusiastic response to the bloody thing from that day to this. It now hangs in the vestibule of the Radio Centre in Montrose and it is the property of RTE, and you can go and see it for real any time of your choosing. Don't all rush together - we don't want to cause panic and traffic mayhem on the Stillorgan Road.

Then, some time later, the board of the National Gallery decided to confer upon me the signal honour of including me in their collection. John Kindness was the artist assigned the job and we got on very well together.

John lived in Tullow, and I was still motorbiking at that time, and I enjoyed the run down for sittings. He also took many photographs.

The portrait is not to my liking, which seems enormously ungrateful and ungracious, but it's not; I would simply prefer something more conventional and in line with the other works in the room. And the artist must be free to be different and inventive - after that, it's simply a matter of taste. But have you seen James Hanley's portrait of Bertie? Or Mick O Dea's of President Michael D? Both superb.

So that's the story of my two "official" portraits. Not a bundle of laughs.

And then. AND THEN.

Three weeks ago there arrived at my front door a parcel which contained the third picture which you see on this page.

It was sent to me by the painter Sally Downey, who lives in Newgrange in Slane. I had never heard of Sally before, and know nothing about her. It is a canvas about a metre square, already corded for hanging but as yet unframed. And in her covering letter, Sally says if I like it to please keep it, and if not I can give it away or burn it or do what I like with it, but she sends it to me as an admiring fan, and as a get well card, and in place of another sombre, serious portrait, she wanted to depict me as she remembers me on The Late Late Show - in the throes of hilarity with people like Spike Milligan, Billy Connolly, Tommy Tiernan, Brendan Grace and so many others.

"Your whole body," says Sally "would shake with laughter, and it was so natural and infectious."

I think the canvas is invigorating and wonderful. As my wife would say, it's just a hoot. A perfect example of an artist seeing something with a completely different eye.

Can't wait to have it framed and hanging on a wall near me, so I can admire myself and enjoy a memory giggle every time I pass it.

So thank you a thousand times, Sally Downey in Newgrange.

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