Achill Island has been a location of interest to artists for over 100 years. Landscape and marine painter Alexander Williams RHA lived and worked on the island in the last years of the nineteenth century. His works focused on marine and landscape compositions – an observed realism – worked into romantic finished imagery. In 1870 he first exhibited at the RHA and participated each year until 1930. Paul Henry and his new wife Scottish born painter Grace Henry, (née Mitchell) arrived in Achill in the summer of 1910 for two weeks holidays – on the advice of their friends writers Robert Lynd and Sylvia Dryhurst. They were so enthralled by the people and landscape that they decided to stay on – and remained on and off until 1919. Paul Henry was inspired by the landscape of Achill Island, finding source material which informed his distinctive robust western landscape imagery and style, which was to become the iconic imagery associated with the new Irish Free State. Henry felt Achill provided everything he required for his work. “Achill spoke to me, it called to me as no other place had ever done…….. The landscape was vast and seemed to demand a huge canvas, a sort of panorama…… “ Life in Achill reminded him of Breton farming and fishing communities which he had visited when a painting student in Paris. His early work in Achill focused on the figure located and working in the landscape – as well as in interiors – going about the daily routines of subsistence village life. These works show the influence of the late / post impressionist period of French painters, in particular Van Gogh and Millet. His later works of Achill evolved to the more stylistic, and characteristic iconic vast empty landscapes – with mountains, lakes and typically a vast dramatic clouded sky. On his arrival on the island Paul became involved with the Gaelic revivalists active on the island, and directed the Douglas Hyde play Casadh an t Súgáin in the Scoil Acla Hall in Dooagh village. Grace Henry too was inspired by the rugged landscape and simple island life she observed found on Achill. Her work from this time shows her experimenting with various painting styles. She was frequently traveling between Dublin and London – all the time developing a more modernist style using expressionistic colour and fluid, painterly brushwork. Some of her ‘Achill’ landscapes were simplified almost to abstraction, depending only on outlines and flattened shapes. Others were outstanding in capturing atmosphere, – examples are her well known Prussian blue and grey moonlight scenes of Achill.
Perhaps American painter Robert Henri is the most significant painter associated with Achill. He visited the island after 1913, and returned during the 19 teens renting Corrymore house, – and again during the nineteen twenties when he purchased Corrymore – from where he completed significant landscapes and portraits. He began his career at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts He was one of the leading American painters of his time, leader of the “Ashcan Eight”, and teaching at the Arts Students League and the New York School of Art. His students included important artists Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and George Bellows. The publication of The Art Spirit, a collection of his lectures and observations, in 1923, was one of the most significant events in twentieth century American art education. His work on Achill focused mainly on portraits of local people often children. One example Kathleen was of Kathleen Gallagher who lived in Dooagh village. This work reveals much about his style of painting. The thick and carefree brushstrokes, and the rich use of color, were both distinctive elements in his art. These works are now located in significant museum and private collections across the US. His portrait works from Achill were similar in approach to depictions of native peoples in the west of the United States, New Mexico and California, – and in Spain. Like Paul and Grace Henry, Robert Henri found similarities in Achill to the indigenous rustic village communities he had found in Brittany – while an art student in Paris. Given documented dates it is possible that Robert Henri and Paul Henry would have met in Paris, and later most likely, they met in Achill. Intriguingly they never mention each other in their individual comprehensive written accounts of their working lives in Paris and Achill.
Marei Howet, trained in Brussels until World War I caused her family to flee to Paris. There she exhibited at the Salon d’Independants and the Salon d’Automne before winning the Prix de Rome, the first of many awards. She traveled extensively, and in the early 1920s arrived on Achill Island. She was friendly with Maine Jellet and Nano Reid among other Irish artists. At the time Reid exhibited at the RHA in 1924, she is on ecord as having greatly admired Howet’s Achill landscapes and Howet is credited with having a serious influence on Reid’s work.
Through the twentieth century many more painters and writers, Irish and international,visited and worked on the island, – often as a place of escape and from urban life. These included Mennie Jellet, Maurice MacGonigal, Louis le Brocqey, Derek Hill, Graham Green and Louis MacNeice, among many others. The landscape and lifestyle of Achill informed the works of these artists – as in MacNeice’s poem The Strand ;-……So loved the Western sea and no tree’s green / Fulfilled him like these contours of Slievemore / Menaun and Croghaun and the bogs between…….
Art critic Ernie O Malley visited in the 1930’s and 40’s with his wife the Sculptor Helen (Huntington Hooker), O Malley – Roelefs, and together they established a representative collection of works by many artists who had worked on the Island during those years. Peader O Donnell also spent a couple of years working on the island in the early 1930’s, and renewed his friendship with O Malley – they were imprisoned together during the civil war. German writer Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll arrived in the early 1950’s, and described his visit in his influential travel book Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Journal, 1957) . He established a summer home on the island – now used as a residency for writers and artists, funded by Mayo County Council and The Arts Council of Ireland. The residency is an appropriate continuing memorial to the writer in Ireland, and a tangible support for contemporary writers and artists, – facilitating the continuing tradition of artistic expression on the island.
By John McHugh