Tuesday 20 February 2018

Pictures of passion and pain

Emily Hourican

TRADITION dictates that the rise and fall of a family fortune takes three generations: one to make it, one to consolidate it, one to squander it. TheFarrells managed this arc in just two. Artist Micheal Farrell may have played the part of third-generation wealth to perfection - financial insouciance coupled with artistic single-mindedness - but by the time he was born the fami

TRADITION dictates that the rise and fall of a family fortune takes three generations: one to make it, one to consolidate it, one to squander it. TheFarrells managed this arc in just two. Artist Micheal Farrell may have played the part of third-generation wealth to perfection - financial insouciance coupled with artistic single-mindedness - but by the time he was born the family fortunes were thoroughly eroded.

Grandfather Davy Farrell was a shrewd businessman who left his five children well established with land, property and shares. Not one of them managed to hold on to the inheritance. A wild streak ran right through the family, and their love of drink and horses quickly did for his careful provisions.

James, Micheal's father, inherited the family home, Cookstown, with its 500 acres of land in Co Meath when he was just 21. There was something of the gilded youth about him - handsome, charming and a legendary rugby player, he won 29 international caps and was a hero far beyond the confines of his home town. But a farmer he certainly wasn't. From the start, he neglected the Cookstown acres for long international tours, and alwayspreferred the dazzle of society, where he shone brilliantly, to the long hours and back-breaking work that waited at home. Micheal, who adored his gentle father, saw him as "a wonderfully kind person with a great sense of humour and a great love of life, a great story-teller and a great charmer".

He was also extravagant, living way beyond his means. His wedding to Nora Folwell, a friend of his sister's from Leicestershire, was celebrated with full pomp at Brompton Oratory in South Kensington, followed by a reception at the Hyde Park Hotel and a honeymoon spent in Paris and the Cote d'Azur. Essentially, a classic London society wedding, which was exactly the world Nora considered she belonged to, though the finances were never there to support such a lifestyle. Micheal later described her as "an extremely difficult lady, a whingeing Pom and an outrageous snob", and his parents' marriage as "a disaster - it was a desperate marriage".

At first, Nora threw herself into country life with good will, taking up hunting and socialising, and creating magnificent gardens out of the field in front of Cookstown House. But she too was extravagant, requiring five hunters and a couple of racehorses to keep up with her hobbies, and giving lavish dinner and card parties where poker was played for high stakes. Taking to life as a true Farrell, she also embraced drinking and gambling, and by the time Micheal, the youngest of four, was born in 1940, the huge fault-lines running through the marriage were starting to show. Relations between his parents were very strained and money was tight, meaning that Micheal, unlike the previous children, was brought up by his mother rather than a nanny. The result of this, claims his brother David, who has written Micheal Farrell: The Life and Work of an Irish Artist, was a thoroughly spoilt child.

Because of the age difference, Micheal was often alone during his early years, left to trudge the Cookstown acres with only a corgi for company. He was dyslexic - for which oddity he was frequently beaten at the local Christian Brothers school in Kells - and anyway stood out starkly among his classmates, his middle-class origins proclaiming themselves too clearly. Ever after, Micheal would look back on his childhood as a lonely and unhappy one. So much so that he was delighted to be sent away to boarding school - first to Bray, later to Ampleforth in Yorkshire; it at least was an escape from his ringside view of Nora's drinking and his parents' incessant squabbling.

Much as he loved them both, it was impossible for any sensitive child not to recoil from the nightly scenes - "half five till eight seemed to be fighting time" - during which Nora would bait and berate James non-stop, calling him a "bollocks" and "no good" while he hid behind the Irish Field, taking the abuse in silence. Thoroughly bullied by a character far more elemental than his own, he ignored her galloping drink problem and would bring home bottles of Sandeman's medium dry sherry as a peace offering. But such were Nora's frustration and unhappiness that there was no placating her, and the demise of Cookstown continued without check.

The house was finally sold in 1956, but the money went almost entirely to the bank. Nora and James, having exhausted the family fortunes, went into service in a large house in Essex, she as cook, he as butler. However, nothing deterred Nora from drinking, and often James would have to cook in her place as well as perform his own duties. There was a kind of headlong hyper-reality to their decline and fall, the completeness of which left a lasting impression on all their children.

When he was 16, Micheal's parents sent him to St Martin's School of Art. Despite his youth, he went alone and was left to negotiate the world of Fifties London - bedecked with signs saying 'No Blacks and No Irish' - for himself. Luckily, he didn't lack confidence, at least on the surface, and quickly established himself, attracting fascinating friends - Patrick Swift and Patrick Kavanagh were pals from early on - and glamorous girlfriends effortlessly. He began to spend much of his free time drinking and socialising, beginning a lifelong love affair with the pub.

Although he was recognised and appreciated as an artist from very early on, Micheal was constantly broke. He borrowed from friends and family, negotiated advances from the galleries where he showed and bartered with restaurants; Ballymaloe House in Cork has walls full of his art, exchanged for meals in the days when the Allens owned La Ferme Irlandaise in Paris. In all these transactions he was impressively scrupulous about his end of the deal.

Another lifelong pattern was his love of women. He adored female company, was charming and attractive and, frankly, a womaniser. When he was 24 he had three girlfriends on the go, one of whom, Sarah Shearman, gave birth to his daughter, Georgia Brigit. Although Sarah recalls him with great fondness and no discernible regret, Micheal was an irresponsible father; his name doesn't even appear on Georgia's birth certificate and he provided no financial or emotional support.

However, when his next romance, with Patricia Lamplew, also resulted in a pregnancy, life took a very different turn. Pat was a passionate, ambitious and intelligent woman. This time, the couple were married, at the Knightsbridge Registry office.

Micheal's art was developing almost as fast as it was being recognised. He had no trouble securing teaching jobs, which kept the little family in steady income, and his work was being reviewed, rewarded and sought-after. Success came to him young, and gave him the confidence to remain true to his totally original way of thinking. His work continued to develop at a remarkable rate, and was accomplished from early on. His political opinions were just as well developed - a trip to New York, where he got a well-paid post teaching at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, nearly foundered when he was fired for encouraging his students to oppose the Vietnam War.

In New York, Micheal was immediately welcomed into an exciting, dynamic scene. He met a fascinating mix of artists, writers and poets, among them Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. "I met the whole of the history book in about a year," he later recalled. But Pat was nowhere near as content. She was homesick and sought out only British people to befriend. With a very young child, Seamus, and left largely alone in the huge, inadequate apartment Micheal had rented for them, it is hard to see how much of the experience she could really have made,but Micheal was totally unsympathetic to her plight;"all she could think about was London and this was a pain in the arse," was his rather rough verdict.

When he got the call to return to Ireland to paint two large murals for Sir Basil Goulding in the Bank of Ireland HQ, Pat was delighted. Micheal less so, but themoney was too good to refuse. Back in Dublin, Micheal rented a rambling, rundown house in Killiney from the actress Maureen O'Hara. It had no heating, a dodgy sewage system and an overgrown tennis court. It was, Robert Ballagh recalls, "totally inappropriate but a typical Micheal Farrell gesture".

At the time Ballagh was assisting Micheal in painting the two massive bank murals, and the working relationship grew into a lifelong friendship. Later, having demonstrated their ability to work on such a scale, the pair were offered the job of painting studio backdrops for Ardmore. There they met and befriended Peter O'Toole, who was working on The Lion in Winter with Katharine Hepburn. The Ardmore pay was good, but Micheal was still drinking heavily, usually in McDaid's, and the family's financial situation was as unsound as ever.

Attractive, flamboyant and colourful, though inclined to be outrageously rude, he was a great hit on the social scene. He and Pat were a golden couple, invited everywhere and regularly appearing in newspaper social columns. These were the rock 'n' roll years, and Micheal's passionate temperament was ideally suited to the social dynamic. But the couple were canny as well as glamorous, and every function was an opportunity to work the room and cleverly promote Micheal's art.

The explosion of violence in Northern Ireland in 1969 hardened Micheal's basic political beliefs; as he saw it, "Art is above politics but not humanity." He refused to allow his work to be shown in any part of Britain and, on being awarded first prize at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art that year, used the opportunity to donate the £300 to the Northern Ireland Refugee Fund. It was a gesture that cost him the friendship of the Irish art establishment, who largely felt that his behaviour was out of place and inappropriate.

Anyway Micheal was growing tired of Ireland and of being the darling of the social scene - "I don't feel at the age of 29 that I deserve that kind of thing. Going to dinner parties and hearing what a wonderful guy you are, that wasn't very good for me either." By now the couple had three small boys, but his lifestyle was as incompatible with domestic duties as ever. All his life Micheal drank and hung out in bars. He would go out for five minutes and stumble home five hours later. His habits were irritatingly unpredictable, and his attitude to money hopeless - although he wasn't exactly mean, his priorities were clear. Art came first, and nothing was allowed interfere with his ability to create. Boozing and socialising were next, and Pat and the children ranked well below. In fact, one friend maintained that "his painting was the alternative to his life."

The move to Paris - undertaken by Micheal, like many before him, with a deliberate desire to be an exile - was meant to be a new beginning. Like most new beginnings, it quickly deteriorated into the same old squalor. Although his womanising may have stopped for a while just after the wedding, fidelity wasn't something Micheal took seriously. He began having affairs early in the marriage and continued throughout.

His work continued to find critical and commercial audiences, and the influence on it of political events in Ireland remained strong. The Dublin bombings of 1974 caused a dramatic change in style, leading him towards the creation of what was to be his masterpiece, the Miss O'Murphy series, including the first, magnificent Madonna Irlanda, now owned by the Hugh Lane Gallery. Miss O'Murphy was a beautiful courtesan, mistress to Louis XV at the age of 13. As Micheal saw it, in crudely sexist but effective terms, "Ireland is getting f***ed by the opposition, getting screwed up by Britain, by the Protestants. I don't like Ireland being a whore, but that doesn't mean that I don't like whores."

Of course his hardening attitude towards Britain did nothing to help relations with the English-born Pat. When his father died and his mother Nora moved to Australia to be near his brother David, it gave him an ideal opportunity. He bagged a summer appointment teaching at the University of New England in New South Wales and, leaving Pat and the children behind, gleefully headed off. His relentless drinking and outspoken ways meant that the college authorities were soon disapproving, but he was a big hit with the students and had a number of affairs of varying seriousness. A colleague from that time recalls that "he had a certain physical presence and personality, and his stature, his looks and everything about him were commendable from a female point of view. His charm overrode everything."

It was here that he met Meg, a student, who was to become his second wife, although their relationship didn't really develop until his second Australian visit a year later. This second trip was deliberately planned to be the final breach between himself and Pat. He began by spreading rumours that he was off to New York, then waited until Pat had left the house one night - at the time she was working in the local restaurant - and the boys were also out, piled himself and his belongings into a taxi and left.

When he got to Sydney, Meg was waiting in the arrivals hall. However, his mother was unimpressed by the mode of his arrival, and disturbed by the impact his reputation might have on her newlife. When she died suddenly a short time later, Micheal found he had been cutright out of her will, therewas not even a mention of his name; "so she was vicious right up to the end, liter-ally to the end," he said.Despite his mother's betrayal, Micheal settled down happily in Australia. Meg was a gentling influence on him. Tolerant and benign, she allowed him to lead his life without criticism or confrontation and he began to relax after the many years of chaos. However, his behaviour towards Pat and the three boys was far from exemplary. Although he claimed to have been sending money home during this period, hundred dollar bills in the post, they maintained that nothing ever arrived.

The eventual divorce was finalised in 1992, and Micheal and Meg were married. In the meantime the couple had moved to France, where Meg bought a house in Cardet, and it was here that he was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1988. He had many operations and underwent a series of painful treatments. He was, Robert Ballagh recalls, an incredible fighter. "I never met anyone who fought a disease like it." Initially given six months, he battled it out for 12 years. Sporadically, he thought he had it beaten, only for the disease to re-emerge as virulent as ever.

Even so, these were happy days, with Meg in the warm Cardet sunshine. He still drank in the local bars and cafes, something Meg never tried to stop him from doing, and painted almost every afternoon, but now he was also digging and planting in the garden, and cooking elaborate meals. The hell-raising of his youth, the angry, driven quality that characterised the earlier years, seemed neutralised. He even claimed that "cancer changed my life in a funny kind of way, I appreciate life more."

In his final days, all hope of survival eroded by the relentless disease, Micheal made peace with his children. Georgia, his eldest daughter, had made continual efforts during his later years, but his three boys had a far more complex and awkward relationship to resolve. In the weeks before his death, though, they all came to visit, bringing with them "just love, after shit, merde etc, unbelievable out of black came wonder", as Micheal wrote to his brother. By then he was in constant pain and on morphine, unable to eat or speak because of the cancer and the many operations to his jaw. Even Meg had difficulty understanding him. But he continued to paint and had begun work on two self-portraits when, one month short of his 60th birthday, he died in his sleep.

To many, Micheal Farrell was an enigma, complex and unknowable, but Ballagh recalls him differently. "He wasn't difficult to know, although he could be difficult. He was the most direct person I ever came across. Some considered him rude or outrageous, but I always enjoyed that. I was very fond of him, he was extraordinarily good fun to be with." A full evaluation of this passionate man, who lived and worked with equal conviction, is long overdue. The eventual evaluation will judge Micheal kindly. "When the dust settles he will be seen as one of the most important artists of the 20th century," says Ballagh. It's no less than Micheal would have expected.

'Micheal Farrell: The Life and Work of an Irish Artist' by David Farrell, The Liffey Press, ?29.95

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