Tuesday 25 June 2019

Bairbre Power: Don’t you just love it when life starts imitating art? Oh look, there I am on a Titian canvas

Bairbre Power. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Bairbre Power. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

I was down moseying around Merrion Square last week with time to kill before an appointment with the dentist. That, in itself, is a column I want to pen because of what put me back in the dentist's chair. With an hour to spare, I doffed my hat at Oscar Wilde on the corner and headed off to spend some time in the National Gallery of Art.

The impressive gallery beside the lawn of Leinster House used to be a real haunt of mine for years, but for some inextricable reason I hadn't visited the Dublin gem for a while. Stepping in under those giant pillars, it was like going back to see a dear old friend and the sight of the long hall with the wooden parquet flooring and the distinctive smell was like getting a hug from an old pal.

Gosh, the hours we used to spend in the gallery during school days when it was our 'default' excuse to avoid something like extra Latin classes or exam revision in the library. We were regulars to the gallery because I went to school just around the corner on St Stephen's Green and a few of the girls in my class at Loreto shared a mutual interest in art, with varying degrees of actual skill. Like bees to a honeypot, we'd troop off to the Wednesday lunchtime lectures and happily abandon the horribly mundane tub of cottage cheese with peanuts (which was the in 'diet' of the moment) and race down to the gallery in our noisy wooden clogs - the height of schoolgirl alternative chic at the time. Or so we thought!

My friend renamed one of the young male lecturers 'Um' because of his habit of studding the word several times into most sentences. "Oh Um is giving a lecture on the Irish Impressionists," she'd announce and off we'd trot, delighted to be avoiding the head wreck of pre-exams stress for something soothing for the soul.

There was such romance in the canvases, manna for us teenagers dipping our toes shyly into the dating scene. One of our favourites was Frederic William Burton's 'The Meeting on the Turret Stairs' which shows the doomed lovers, Hellelil and Hildebrand. Her father disapproved of the relationship and ordered her seven brothers to kill the young prince. The painting of their final meeting on the stairs was not that well-known when we used to visit but it has since been voted Ireland's favourite painting.

My personal favourite was 'Tea in the Garden' by Walter Osborne, which sat at the very end of a series of connecting rooms. The giant canvas was bewitching and partly unfinished on the right hand side because Osborne died before he could complete it.

When it came to my Leaving Cert still-life practical, I opted to pay homage to a blue and white jug and basin in the Degas' pastel of 'Two Ballet Dancers in a Dressing Room'. I didn't have so much an artist's talent, you must understand, more of an appreciation of art which my teacher stressed at the parent-teacher meeting. She was taking no flak for my C grade.

In the end, my bestie, who was imbued with an incredible artistic gift, went to art college. Meanwhile I parked teenage day dreams of studying the history of art in order to follow my first choice, journalism. At the time, I reasoned that the course probably concentrated too much on the classics.

I think my words back then were "big curvy ladies" but in those times, Goya, Titian and Ingres were not my cup of tea and I was all about the nudes by Klimt and Modigliani. But the idea of the course always niggled away at me and when an Evening Herald colleague went off to do a diploma in it as a mature student, I was well jealous. Eamon Carr - you might know the Meathman and excellent sports writer from a former life as the drummer in the band Horslips - well, Eamon did the course, took Trinity by storm and ended up winning the Sarah Purser Scholarship and Prize.

I thought of Eamon, a very able talent at spotting great art, last week as I headed into the National Gallery. I paused a while to admire a painting and turning right, there it was: 'Le Petit Dejeuner' by Sarah Purser. Her name flew out of my mouth.

It was like recognising old classmates at a school reunion. You just don't forget their names. The small oil on canvas of Maria Feller, who had shared an apartment in Paris with Purser and two other women, always appealed to me, right down to the Limoges porcelain cup and the morsel of crusty bread.

Whatever about my capacity to remember things today, there's nothing wrong with recall when it comes to art matters. The names rolled off the tongue. Ah, there was Lady Hazel Lavery in 'The Artist's Studio,' painted by her husband, Sir John Lavery, with her daughter, step-daughter, maid and even the family greyhound.

Years ago the talking point was that the artist had included himself in this family portrait by including a reflection of himself holding his palette and brush, but this time around , I was rooted to the spot by the beauty of her clothes. The rich jewel tones of her fur-trimmed coat, the patchwork of colours in the matching dress and that triumph of a feathered headpiece.

Over a confidence building coffee before the dentist, I reflected how maybe, as a uniformed schoolgirl, I hadn't found my eye for fashion but now I was viewing all these paintings that wowed me in another era with a fresh perspective. All that lace and white dresses in William Leech's sun-dappled 'A Convent Garden, Brittany' reminded me of Simone Rocha's heavenly white broderie anglaise dresses I had stopped to drool over in the window of Havana in Donnybrook. I went to the end of the room in search of Walter Osborne's 'Tea in the Garden' but it had been moved so all the more reason to go back and find it. That night I discovered that Osborne had been born in Rathmines, close to my hood, and the coincidence didn't end there because didn't he turn out to be a cousin of Sarah Purser.

I've vowed to find out more about the college course that got away from me as a teenager. The timing is more appropriate and I've definitely a better appreciation of rotund ladies lying around on couches. Don't you just love it when life imitates art! It's time to sign up methinks.

Irish Independent

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