Wednesday 22 November 2017

Finding oneself before a blank canvas

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

ECHOING Father Rank's attitude in Graham Greene's Heart of the Matter when he says, "The Church knows all the rules but it doesn't know what goes on in a single heart," Susan Morley was not hemmed in by the paralysing orthodoxies of late Sixties Dublin.

She was a young student at the National College of Art and Design (then in Kildare Street) bristling with idealism and energy who believed firmly in women's liberation and free love (and every women's right to practise it).

Unsurprisingly, the fuddy-duddy misogynists holding sway at that time didn't share Morley's gusto and, as such, made access to birth control of any sort problematic to say the least. That didn't, however, stop Morley's application of free love.

"There were certain doctors who did proscribe the pill for girls. I had a GP who was very sympathetic to women's and young women's requirements. We had it all and it was pre-AIDS as well."

Describing herself as the archetypal 'hippy chick' who experimented with the en vogue drugs of the era - LSD and pot - Susan tells of hitchhiking across Europe through Greece and Italy, getting the Magic Bus en route from London. She took part in the anti-Vietnam marches in Grosnevor Square in London and was not above demonstrating closer to home.

Susan was photographed by one of the newspapers at a sit-in demo in NCAD, she recalls. "A lot of the plaster casts were smashed by the more militant students.

"They were very headydays politically. There was definitely a kind of crossover from what had happened in Paris," she says, referring to the May 1968 Paris student riots which, some argue, had a fundamental impact on French and European society in general.

"There was a lot of militancy in UCD at the time.Trinity always had that arty thing but there was actually a political movement going on in UCD."

Still, art college wasn't all Militant Morley had hoped it would be. She enrolled in NCAD expecting to throw off the shackles of "the whole bourgeois existence where I felt nobody could possibly understand what I wanted".

She had grown up in Glenageary reading about the Bohemian artists and the Rive Gauche in Paris. She craved that existence and was desperately disappointed at how "provincial" they all seemed in Dublin.

"There were a few exceptions but everybody was pretty ordinary," she says.

Was she hoping to meet a young Rimbaud to take her off on a fearless adventure to Tangiers?

"Yes! People who didn't care. People who were really quite revolutionary . . ."

Rimbaud being dead, a friend at Trinity College introduced her to young English, arts and philosophy student Paolo Tullio, instead. They got on instantly. Susan and Paolo were pretty much together from then on. They lived together for a couple of years, and when they married in 1975, they moved to Annamoe in Co. Wicklow.

I wonder, as Susan was only 21 when she met Paolo, whether she felt she was giving up her hippy lifestyle.

"I wasn't giving up anything. I didn't think of it like that. I had packed an awful lot into those years up to the age of 21. We went on exploring everything, but we just didit together."

Together, Paolo and Susan famously ran the restaurant Armstrong's Barn in Annamoe for 10 years in the Seventies. Everybody came, she says bemoaning the fact they didn't keep the visitor's book. U2 were regulars, as were foreign ambassadors - with their security invariably "hiding in bushes" - and the like.

Then-Taoiseach Charlie Haughey came to the private room with Terry Keane.

"They drank champagne. He was well known for his luxurious life."

When John Boorman was filming Excalibur in the region in 1979, the acclaimed director brought Helen Mirren and Gabriel Byrne in practically every other night.

"We went through some pretty tough economic times. Everybody thinks it has always been like this but it certainly hasn't. We had ESB strikes and petrol shortages and rivers flooding."

Paolo and Susan would close the restaurant in the winter months - "because nobody came out," she says. Not that snow bothered the Tullios. They relocated with their two young children, Rocco and Isabella, to a village in Italy. They trekked up the mountains to cross-country ski in the snow; with young babes not quite in arms . . .

"We would strap the baby buggy onto a little pair of skis," she says, laughing, "and drag the children along - probably frozen - into the snow for these Italian picnics.

"It's beautiful, beautiful up there. There was always a bunch of other guys and occasionally one other woman;because Italian women don't have that sense of adventure. There would be no problem with that here; Irish women are on for jumping incold rivers!"

Susan has long since shared this enthusiasm. When she grew up in Ireland, she and her siblings would start sea swimming around April, whether they were in Brittas Bay or the west of Ireland. Indeed, she went swimming last weekend with her close friend and Wicklow neighbour John Boorman in Lough Dan.

"He is a real man of nature. He jumps into water and he comes out of it glowing."

The internationally-famous movie director was certainly glowing last Thursday when he opened Susan's new exhibition, 'The Goblet of Light', at the Origin Galleryin Dublin.

Susan's husband of 29 years, and now a celebrated food critic, Paolo was also there. His presence was surely proof that their split - with Susan moving to a house in Montpellier to paint for the summer - is something an adjective like 'amicable' can hardly do justice to.

On the morning after the launch, Susan tells me the split was more of an "evolvement" and that they are still "very much a family".

Over lunch in the Russell Court Hotel, I ask when she knew her adventure with Paolo had ended.

"I wouldn't say it's ended because you never know. I love him dearly," she says. "It's like he's so familiar to me. He's also a very mature, very reflective man. He thinks about things very deeply. He never wanted to control me. So we kind of made that freedom now. I found Sue Morley again and I just like that feeling."

Had she been lost for a while?

"A woman loses a lot of herself. You have to . . . "

Give so much to your children?

"You have to, yeah. I was always very aware with the children why I needed my painting. It just makes me free. I am kind of happy and I am free when I am doing it."

Susan says she eased off with her painting career when her first child Rocco was born in 1978. That used up her creativity, she adds.

"In a way, the most successful women artists have not married and have not had children because creativityis a force that is expressed in different ways and as a woman when you have a child that uses up a lot of that creative force."

SHE never stopped painting but it took a back seat. Motherhood combined with running a successful restaurant tends to have that effect. Second child Isabella arrived in 1982. "I suppose once the children were up and running around I got back into the painting . . . "

Morley is taking a "cheapo" flight to France on June 27 to close the deal on her new home: a simple little rustic building in the middle of a medieval village surrounded by lovely hills and vineyards.

"Great painting material," she smiles. "It is for me and my family and friends to visit. I won't be locked away. It is a kind of romantic dream to go off to France and live in a little house and paint," she adds. When asked how long exactly she's harboured this romantic dream the ravishing redhead doesn't blink: "Always."

Born in Tivoli Nursing Home in Dun Laoghaire, Susan lived in Glenageary with two brothers and two sisters (her youngest sister Diane is married to Chris de Burgh). Her mother Marion was a fantastic painter who encouraged her to paint.

"I grew up loving the Impressionists," she gushes. "Gaugin dropped everything to paint. Cezanne and Renoir were incredible artists too but they were all selfish. There is a lot of selfishness in artists. A lot of those men had devoted women looking after them and serving their needs. A woman doesn't expect to have a devoted man. In fact, I wouldn't really like the idea of devoted men . . . " she says.

Does she think Irish society today is a lot less misogynistic than in the late Sixties?

She shakes her head. "I still think it is. But it is not a one-way street. I think a lot of women don't understand men either. When I was growing up I always had this feeling that I'd never marry an Irishman. And I didn't. I married an Italian.

"But Paolo isn't your typical Italian man. He grew up in England and came to Ireland later. The thing is, Italian men really like women and don't just lust after them."

And you can feel a difference in societies where men like women, she theorises. Irish men, she believes, have a great twinkle in their eye but are confused about women and vice versa. Irish women, Susan maintains, are not as feminine as women tend to be in other countries.

"In Latin countries the women are incredibly feminine but still know exactly what they're doing," she says. "And yet on the other hand Irish women are very spirited. I always used to miss Irish women and their company when I was in Italy for any length of time with Paolo."

Doubtless Ireland will feel the same about Susan when she moves to France.

Susan Morley's exhibition runs at the Origin Gallery, 83 Harcourt Street until June 27

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