Saturday 16 December 2017

Carving a life out of destruction

Ian Stuart was 13 when his cruel father, the writer Francis, left the family to be replaced by a Nazi. And yet the acclaimed sculptor, who readily admits to 'bad but not terrible' things, prides himself on being a naturally good dad, writes Emily Hourican

Emily Hourican

'There's no point being too critical of myself; I can see how silly guilt is. But if I could change things, I'd like to have been more faithful to my first wife.

"I put her through a lot of misery and it was unnecessary. Chasing women -- for God knows what reason. Ego, I suppose ... mostly that. Looking back now, I can't work out why I did it; it seems like a mystery."

We are talking about regret, guilt, things we might have done differently, and other such atrophying futilities, in the kitchen of sculptor Ian Stuart's Wicklow home.

It's a kitchen he built himself, applying his considerable skills as a wood carver to shaping this bright, warm, gently weathered space.

The house is a series of rooms and extensions added on to the original old stone cottage, and sprawls outwards in pretty, higgledy-piggledy fashion. Around it are placed Ian's sculptures. Most are stark, slightly spooky figures, made from dry, polished bones and old carapaces; mesmerising, sexually confrontational, and full of sly wit.

There is one beautiful carving of a dove on a branch, made from driftwood so delicate it looks almost like lace. It's not hard to see why he was twice chosen to represent Ireland at the Paris Biennale, or why critic Anne Crookshank described him, in her Irish Sculpture From 1600, as "the first Dublin sculptor to emerge as a 'modern' figure."

These days -- aged 83, though still handsome and vigorous-looking, with broad shoulders and a thick mop of snowy hair -- Ian no longer works. "I didn't lose interest, but I just can't do it any more. If I dropped a chisel it would take me half an hour to bend down and pick it up."

He also lives remote from the idealistic, exotic, bohemian world he used to inhabit. Although he is admired by such discerning collectors as Dermot Desmond, for many people it is not as a sculptor that he is primarily known -- but as the son of writer Francis Stuart and Iseult Gonne, daughter of Yeats' revolutionary muse Maud Gonne, twice proposed to by Yeats, and one-time lover of Ezra Pound.

What is history to most of us -- fascinating but remote -- is family and memory for Ian, who grew up in Laragh Castle with his mother, younger sister and paternal grandmother. Francis Stuart left the family when Ian was 13, although he had made an emotional break long before, subjecting Iseult to cruelty and neglect from shortly after they were married. He went to Germany, drawn by thoughts of the anarchy and annihilation of that State; first as a lecturer, but he stayed on to give the controversial wartime broadcasts that would earn him the title 'The Irish Lord Haw Haw".

Francis sent almost no money home -- "he was very mean, that was the Black Protestant side," says Ian with a laugh -- leaving the family to survive on old Mrs Stuart's pension of £30 a month.

These were cold, impoverished, isolated years, yet Ian recalls them with joy and affection. "My childhood is when I was happiest." He adored his mother, although he agrees that she was "idle, ineffectual I suppose, although I don't quite see what she could have done, down here on her own with two kids. She did write, although she never quite got on. She wrote some good poems. But she spent a lot of time smoking."

She was also, Ian says, "a Nazi. My father wasn't, she was. She'd have gone to bed with Hitler, given half a chance." Because Ian loved his mother, he says this with affection rather than censure, and with the mitigating kindness of many years' distance.

When Ian was 14, Iseult was sent to prison, for her part in helping a German spy, Herman Goertz, sent over by Francis, apparently to make contact with the IRA. Goertz hid out in the bushes above Laragh Castle by day, and Ian would bring him food. After dark, he would slip down to the house and spend the evening with the family. He and Iseult fell in love. "That was the big thing in her life," Ian says. "And the thing that wrecked her really, when he committed suicide."

It started with an expedition to buy Goertz a suit in Switzers, which ended in disaster when the Nazi dollars he was carrying were spotted and the pair arrested. He went to the Curragh, Iseult to Mountjoy. Ian recalls this as "the best time of my life, much as I loved my mother, because I left school". When war ended and Goertz was due to be released, he and Ian decided to set up a wood carving business together. He was, by then, something of a father figure for the boy, in the continuing absence of Ian's own father.

"I loved him, he was very attractive, strong and charming," Ian recalls. But it wasn't to be. A brutal fate intervened. Hearing that he was to be handed over to the Americans for "de-Nazification", Goertz panicked, and bit into a cyanide pill, killing himself. There was, says Ian, "no more love in my mother's life after that".

Although from the time his father left, Ian was the only man in a household of women -- one "ineffectual", one old and infirm, one younger -- he rejects the idea that he had to grow up fast or shoulder responsibilities beyond his years. "My mother, she really kind of looked after me. In a way I was very spoiled; I'm not sure that I ever grew up really." And, indeed, he says it with all the twinkle of a well-loved, much-indulged child. But some years later he repaid the debt, if debt it was, when he came back from Germany with his first wife, sculptor Imogen Stuart, to take care of his mother and grandmother, both of whom were dying.

"The two of them were terminally ill. They both had bells -- I used to sleep upstairs with my wife, and they'd ring at various times and I'd have to go and clean them up, or change them, or dress them. I didn't object to it really, because it was harder for them and we were so close."

Ian's wife, Imogen, daughter of Bruno Werner, leading German art critic of the Thirties and a cultured, well-off intellectual, was, he says now, "really great". "She came to this castle where there was nothing except two sick, old ladies, and she was wonderful."

Although a committed Catholic in his youth -- "I wanted to be a monk and was very devout, going to daily mass" -- and despite the excellent work he has done, commissioned by the church, Ian eventually parted company with Catholicism, and set out to explore different spiritual paths. With his second wife, Anna, a jeweller, and the three daughters from that marriage, he would travel to North Africa, Afghanistan, India -- the hippy trail of the Seventies counter-cultural aspiration.

"I followed different things, Zen Buddhism and so on. We lived in ashrams, you always imagine you're finding enlightenment, but you don't. It was lovely for the kids though." Back in Dublin, he was at the centre of a hive of artistic bohemia based around Dun Laoghaire and Sandycove, with Edward Delaney, Michael Farrell and Charlie Brady. They were a wild, free-living, radical set, in which Ian played his part with enthusiasm.

In many ways, the triumph of Ian's life has been as a father, despite the skeletal example of fatherhood that he grew up with. "I had a great friend, the artist Michael Farrell, he used to call me Daddy Stuart, because he thought I was so involved in fatherhood. It seems to come naturally to me. I'm not sure I was a good father, but it was one of my main interests."

There have been many children -- "about eight or nine," he says, and he truly doesn't know the exact figure. "I've had a few kids that I didn't bring up, who found out about daddy later," he says, with perhaps a shade of chagrin.

Recently, a young man arrived unexpectedly from Germany; "a son that I never knew, I thought I only had daughters."

It's a strange echo of the day Ian's father, Francis, did the same thing -- arrived unannounced on the doorstep one Christmas day, with "that brute of a cat," having left the nursing home where he was unhappy, and stayed for two years.

Francis talked little, choosing to live mainly in his memories -- "I can't imagine they were good ones," says Ian, wryly -- and never giving any clear indication of just why he had chosen to return to the son he had so definitively abandoned all those years before. "He would sit in his chair all day and the cat would sit on the arm of the chair. He wouldn't have a paper, he wouldn't have a radio, he hated television, he didn't read, he didn't write -- except for a scrawl in the diary. He'd get up at about 9am and sit there, all day."

Although he has, in his own words "done bad enough things," it seems that, unlike his father, Ian did them with love and warmth. Where Francis was emotionally icy, obsessed with destruction, caught up in his determination to pursue a difficult muse, to the exclusion of all else, Ian is warmly, passionately, human. Maybe it's this that makes the crucial difference.

"My children don't make me feel guilty," he says. "And perhaps I haven't done anything terrible. Bad enough, but not terrible ... " It would seem that even as he cut a rake's progress through the world, he did it with just enough gentleness or integrity to retain the affections of those who might have resented him.

The strange story of Bernadette Keenan, the girl Ian was engaged to before he went to Germany and met Imogen, seems to illustrate this. She was a singer, "a lovely girl, although I know we wouldn't have got on well." After Ian married Imogen, Bernadette married a surgeon, also German. It was an unhappy marriage, and when Bernadette died some years ago, her daughter brought her ashes to Laragh, where she had wanted them to be scattered. "It was strange, sad really," says Ian. "She wasn't from here, but had spent time down here and obviously had happy memories."

Nowadays Ian lives alone -- Anna is currently living in Germany -- but with the loving attentions of family close by. His daughter, Suki, drops by as we chat, to borrow the car. She lives next door with her husband, sculptor Laurent Mellet, and their two children. Another daughter, Laragh, lives down the road, with other children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all part of the willingly restricted world Ian now inhabits. The daughters of the two marriages are close, even though Ian sees little of his first wife.

Although he claims never to have had any interest in politics. "I never voted, except once, for my uncle, Sean MacBride. I was sorry afterwards -- he was s**t too."

These days Ian follows the news enough to be aware of the crisis point the country has reached. "I pay attention to the financial thing. I like to see destruction and disaster," he says with sly relish. "I love to see things going bad. Of course, I don't like it when I think of someone like you who has a job and all that, it's not good for you. But I see that it's no harm for Ireland. I like to see Ireland going down because I hate the Celtic Tiger and all that."

It's an appetite for destruction that makes him seem something like his father after all; until you spot that gentle, irresistible spark of mischief.

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