Sunday 16 December 2018

Portraits of the artist as friend and chronicler of his times

Anthony Palliser's new exhibition paints a vivid picture of cultural high society, writes Liam Collins

Anthony and Diane Palliser
Anthony and Diane Palliser
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

There was a certain air of one-upmanship in the sunshine-bathed government guesthouse Farmleigh, at the opening of Anthony Palliser's 'Irish Portraits' exhibition.

"Are you in it, darling?" trilled one socialite, striding through the former outhouses of the Earl of Iveagh, whose brooding mansion formed a backdrop to a parade of Irish celebrities and socialites hanging out at the Farmleigh gallery.

Sadly, the man who did so much to bring the portrait exhibition to Dublin, Garech Browne, passed away before the event, which in many ways was also ''a homage'' to him and his lifelong friendship with the artist.

The television producer (and former U2 manager) Paul McGuinness, piper Paddy Moloney, film director John Boorman, Heeun Ryan and some others could claim the distinction of being present at the garden party and hung on the walls of the gallery at the same time. The actress Charlotte Rampling, who was there but didn't qualify as an 'Irish portrait', still retains the amazing luminosity that she had when she attended the premiere of the now forgotten film The Purple Taxi so many years ago.

Guggi, Suzanne Macdougald and Sean Rainbird
Guggi, Suzanne Macdougald and Sean Rainbird

"I painted these portraits over 16 years, but they were done out of friendship rather than as commissions," says Palliser, a life-long friend of Garech Browne and a regular visitor to his Wicklow estate, Luggala. Seamus Heaney, John Banville, Sinead Cusack, Pierce Brosnan, Brian Friel and Brendan Gleeson all sat for him.

"All portraits are difficult, because you are trying to burrow beneath the surface," he told me and pointing to a portrait of the writer Colm Toibin, continued: "When he's smiling he's like a baby, when he's not he's quite fierce."

Guests crowding the courtyard enjoyed the magical piping of young Mark Lysaght, a great-grandson of Leo Rowsome, and a tune on the whistle from Paddy Moloney called Luggala composed for his friend of many years.

"It was a first time for me," said Paul McGuinness, dressed suitably in a summer blazer and straw boater, on the subject of one of his portraits. "Whether it is good or not is for others to judge, I am as vain as the next person and so it works for me."

Moya Brennan and Tim Jarvis
Moya Brennan and Tim Jarvis

According to curator Kieran Owens, the 'Irish portrait' series started when Garech Browne pointed the Irish poet Derek Mahon in the direction of the Pallisers's home in Paris, telling him, "at least you'll get a very good dinner, because Diane is a wonderful cook".

What followed was a procession of Irish poets, artists, writers and actors through the Palliser household and the parties at Luggala, and now the drawing and paintings are on public exhibition for the first time at Farmleigh.

"Portraits abound in his studio, the famous and the infamous stacked up; beauty revealed, secrets surrendered," writes John Boorman in an elegant introduction to the catalogue.

"Next door you may find the same faces at his dinner table, faces flushed from Diane his wife's food. The dinners are truth-telling, like the portraits... his Irish pictures are a snapshot of a nation in the early 21st Century."

Paul McGuinness and Sarah Owens
Paul McGuinness and Sarah Owens

Mingling over chilled wine were Barbara Dawson of the Dublin City Gallery, Frank McDonald, Mary Heffernan who organised the event, Mary R Cullen, senior lecturer in NCAD, Guggi, Carey Clarke, ex-Irish Ambassador Richard Ryan, Raymond Keaveney, a former director of the National Gallery, Sarah Owens, the actresses Kate O'Toole and Tara MacGowran and many more.

At the entrance to the exhibition was a self-portrait - of the artist as a young man. And this particular portrait was, according to Kieran Owens, hanging in a bedroom in Luggala when the late pop singer Michael Jackson rented the Wicklow estate.

"'Please remove that strange portrait' Mr Jackson requested," said Sean Rainbird, director of the National Gallery, "apparently his hair would have looked like a young Anthony's if he hadn't changed it."

For the piper Paddy Moloney, the evening was a reminder of events past. "We had great parties with Garech going back to the 1950s. I miss that fellah so much."

Charlotte Rampling and John Boorman
Charlotte Rampling and John Boorman

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