Robert Ballagh's portrait of the ageing process

SEVEN decades are celebrated in Robert Ballagh’s exhibition ‘Seven’, which opens next weekend at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. UCD recently presented Ballagh with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature to celebrate his lifetime’s achievements in the arts, and the exhibition of 14 portraits coincides with his 70th birthday later this month.

Born in Dublin, where he still lives, Ballagh is one of the best-known of Irish painters. His work as a designer includes the final series of Irish Punt banknotes, as well as postage stamps and sets for the theatre — these include Riverdance.

‘Seven’ consists of seven of Ballagh’s self-portraits and seven of his portraits of leading cultural figures, both alive and dead. Most of the work has been borrowed from private collections, so it has not been seen in public before. Ballagh himself hasn’t seen much of the work since its completion.

“I did an exhibition a couple of years ago of drawings and oil paintings that were self-portraits,” he said. “I thought they turned out pretty well, and they were reasonably well-accepted critically. They just got shown once and kind of disappeared into the ether. I thought this would be an opportunity to show them again.”

Ballagh’s series of self-portraits are derived from a series of photographs he had taken by a professional photographer. He considers them a fairly hard-hitting depiction of someone advancing in years and facing the inevitable end to life. They are head-and-shoulder studies, where everything is pared back; no clothes, no glasses, just the unadorned self.

“The most famous artist to depict this kind of journey is Rembrandt,” says Ballagh. “I’m not suggesting I’m in the same league..., but possibly I share the same motivation to record.

“A lot of people think of self-portraiture as an exercise in vanity or something. I think most artists, certainly myself, would see it in a different light, that it’s a depiction of an individual as they pass through life. If an artist does them every now and then, you can see what time does to an individual. I found it a really fascinating artistic journey and I just thought it was a wonderful opportunity.”

Seven also includes Ballagh’s portraits of Noel Browne, James Joyce, JP Dunleavy and Michael Farrell, as well as the Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Castro portrait was commissioned by an English collector; Castro is shown naked, clad in a red flag or banner. The collector wanted Ballagh to present Castro as he is now and not as he was as a young revolutionary.

A portrait of James Watson commissioned by Trinity College Dublin’s department of genetics to mark their 50 year anniversary is also featured. “He is possibly one of the most famous scientists in the world,” says Ballagh. “Together with Francis Crick he won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA. That painting is currently on loan from the genetics building in Trinity. That means unless you’re a genetics student you won’t have had the opportunity to see it. So again, here’s an opportunity for the general public to see this portrait of a really significant figure in the world of science.

“Watson was born in Chicago, he’s American, but he’s very proud of both his Irish and Scottish ancestry. In fact the last time he was here — he’s 85 by the way — he gave a lecture on the Irish connection to the discovery of DNA. It was a very interesting talk.”

One of the portraits which is a little more personal to Ballagh is that of the singer Eleanor McEvoy. “I’ve known Eleanor since she was very young,” he says. “I first met her when she was a violinist in the National Symphony Orchestra. She always had this interest in songwriting and popular music. And of course when she was quite young she had that phenomenal success with ‘A Woman’s Heart’. It was really interesting for me to be asked to do her portrait.

“A long time ago I was a musician for a few years. It was great fun not only to paint her but to paint her holding her Fender Telecaster guitar because I played a Fender as well way back in the ’60s. Painting the guitar was really a labour of love.”

Ballagh would like to see more cultural facilities in Ireland, as much of the work held in our national collections rarely gets put on public display.

“We still don’t have a place where a visitor can go and see a reasonable overview of Irish art of the last 100 years or so,” he says. “I’ve been making the case for years that there should be a really truly national collection that would provide such a survey. Where, if someone was interested in a particular artist or a particular strand in Irish art, they could safely go along and be sure they would see something. At the moment — certainly in Dublin — there isn’t a work of mine on show anywhere. And even though some of the major institutions would hold works of mine, they’re all in storage; they’re not on display because these galleries have a different purpose.”

*’Seven’ runs at the Crawford Art Gallery from September 14 to October 26.


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