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My favourite room: Portrait of the artist


You've heard about the type of person who still has his communion money? Holding on to your communion jacket is a different proposition altogether -- it's hard to know what it says about a person, but artist James Hanley, 45, confesses he still has his. Most of us hold on to something from our childhoods -- the odd teddy bear or doll; early love letters, perhaps, but the communion jacket is a bit bizarre. "I don't know why," he admits with a smile, adding, "maybe it's because it's the first thing I ever owned."

Actually, James still has many things from his childhood, including his collection of toy soldiers, his compass from the Scouts, his coins, stamps, medals and, stranger still, his spelling tests and copybooks from school. "I wrote them laboriously, I wouldn't want to throw them out," he says with a laugh, yet a tad defensively, betraying a glimpse of the small boy who laboured. Concert tickets are another one of his collectables, and he has boxes of them in his studio. Meanwhile, the charming home in Dublin 3, which he shares with his wife, Orla Dukes, is full of statuettes, knick-knacks and pictures, jostling for space with copywriter Orla's phenomenal collection of books.

While all this might appear to be random hoarding, he has a good excuse. "I've tried to clear things out, but it's hard. It feeds into everything I do. With art, everything is always a trigger of something. You work from your sources, it's how you put your stamp on things. I use a lot of these things as props," he says.

It's a way of working that has certainly proved fruitful for the engaging Dubliner, who has carved out a niche for himself both as a successful figurative artist as well as one of our foremost portrait painters. You need a portrait done? Call James. And many have. He has been commissioned to do some 80 portraits to date, mostly of leading churchmen, university presidents and heads of state institutions. His most famous sitters include Bertie Ahern, Archbishop Desmond Connell, President Mary McAleese, sportsmen Ronnie Delaney and Girvan Dempsey, broadcaster Cathal O'Shannon and actors Gabriel Byrne and Maureen Potter. Several of those were commissioned by John McColgan and Moya Doherty, who have been great supporters.

Portraiture is, James says, a particular branch of painting. "There's a fine line, the more flattering it is, the less truthful. I always think it's my duty to find the characteristic look of a person. You have to be thick-skinned about people's reaction."

It's also different from other painting in that you have to interact with your subject and put them at their ease. Fortunately that's not a problem for James, who loves to talk and listen. "I love listening to people. Some might say I'm nosy, but I'm not. I'm genuinely interested," he says. And interesting. He is, he says, a mix of both his parents: his mother, a very sociable person who loves connecting with people, and his father, who, at 79, is still working in his agricultural and gardening machinery business. "My father and I, our basic DNA is the same; we're both self-employed. Being an artist is about selling yourself," James says, adding that some people think artists live in a dreamy world and are flaky, unreliable people, but the professionalism required is not often talked about. He is professional to the point of workaholic, and, as well as working on several portraits at the moment, he is getting ready for a show of nudes he has painted, opening on March 4. As well as his painting, he is a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and served as its secretary for seven years, an experience which he says was as valuable as a double PhD in terms of dealing with the politics of an institution. He's also a member of Aosdana and on the board of the National Gallery.

The nudes, done in a life-drawing class with other artists in the RHA, are a complete contrast to the portraits. "The nudes are a lifeline in a way," he says. "There's something fresh about them and I do them in a day and there's an energy in the group, 25 or 30 of us, and we go for a few pints afterwards. They're a great antidote to the other work."

It's all work he loves. A Terenure College boy, he says he has always been artistic and always painting. When he was doing his degree in art history and English in UCD he did the posters for the entertainments officer, the Literary and Historical Society, and the like. He then did a degree in fine art in NCAD, and was lucky and good enough to get his first show almost immediately on graduation. "It was thanks to [artist] Bernadette Madden," he says. "She brought Brid Dukes, who had the Riverrun Gallery at the time, to see my degree show, and Brid gave me a show."

In a sense, Brid also gave him a wife. Through the show, James met Brid's daughter, Orla, who was a student in Trinity, and they've been together ever since. "It was a bit funny because Brid was my agent first. Our anniversary is the first of May and that's Brid's birthday, and I always joke that getting married to her daughter was the best birthday present I could give her," he laughs.

They married in 1996, and had a party in their new house. According to James, buying the house was a big deal in those days -- artists at the time usually rented -- and their families helped them out.

The house, which dates from the 1870s, is a Victorian cottage spread over three levels. Originally it had three bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, an outdoor bathroom and -- in contrast with the rest of the house, which is made up of compact spaces -- a spacious living room with nice Victorian details including high ceilings. James and Orla turned the third bedroom into a bathroom and added on another bedroom. In 1998 they extended the kitchen, and the next year James built a studio in the garden. He also has a studio in town and divides his working life between the two -- although, as James says, "Someone once said to me, 'When do you start work?' I said, 'When I open my eyes.' Everything is work, engaging with the world."

The house is extremely interesting, mainly because of the collection of wonderful artworks, which are beautifully hung throughout the house. "Owning other people's art is my great passion, but none is expensive. There've been swaps, things we've found on skips, wedding presents. One artist friend gave us a painting of a toaster for our wedding present as opposed to a toaster," he laughs. There are of course lots of portraits, some by James, some by artists he admires. There is even a portrait of James himself, a photograph by Amelia Stein. "I became a gay icon overnight," he jokes. James has a passion for all sorts of art, including kitsch. Fortunately, Orla seems to share his passion and together they collect statues, statuettes, old heads and Chinese dolls. The two seem to be made for each other -- Orla even has all her childhood dolls.

Although James insists none of these things are valuable, they do cost money, so, one thing is sure, whatever about his communion jacket, he definitely doesn't have his communion money.

See www.jameshanley.net

'One Day -- Works from the Life Work', opening on March 4, Solomon Fine Arts, 15, St Stephen's Green, D2, see www.solomonfineart.ie

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