A Painter’s Life
O’SULLIVAN, SEÁN RHA [1906-64]. An important collection of autograph signed letters to his friend and patron Tomas Ó Muircheartaigh, the distinguished photographer, about seventy letters and notes, in English and Irish, with two telegrams from Philadelphia and a note from O’Sullivan’s wife Rene.
A splendid collection which enables us to track O’Sullivan’s creative activities over a period of some 15 years, 1945-60, with letters from Paris, London, Manchester, various stately homes in England and Northern Ireland, and several from Philadelphia, as well as Neary’s public house in Dublin, his studio in Stephen’s Green, and his home in Blackrock, a few with related envelopes. One letter (Sept. 1954) comes from St. Patrick’s Hospital, where the painter was possibly undergoing a ‘cure’.
In June 1945 O’Sullivan has to put off a trip to Kerry because his current sitter has the ‘flu; in July ’46 he is in Manchester to paint the Lord Mayor’s portrait. ‘Is uathbhásach an áit í seo. Tá an biadh – a bhfuil ann di – go huathbhásach & tá gach rud eile gann dá réir.’ [‘This is an awful place. The food is awful, the little there is, and everything else is correspondingly scarce.’] In August he apologises profusely for missing an appointment, and says he has been ‘ar an bhagon’ [on the wagon] since then. ‘Tá a lán oibre agam faoi láthair agus tá me ag obair go tréan’ [‘I have a lot of work on hands at present and am working hard’]; in September he is to go to Glin, where Madame Fitzgerald has asked him for a portrait and a ‘conversation piece’ with the family. On 8 September he is in Banbridge, Co. Down, ‘in the blackest part of the black north and I am so affected by the atmosphere that I have temporarily lost what knowledge of Gaelic I possessed. I have heard Orange drums for the first time, and yesterday my hostess had to ‘unveil’ some new Orange banners, I wanted to go along but they thought I had better not.’ On 12 September he reports that the lady of the house and her husband and friends were very pleased with his portrait and sketches, ‘ní fuláir mar sin go bhfuil an obair go dona’ [therefore it must be poor work]. ‘Tá na daoine annso ana-lághach & ní fhéadfaidís a bheith níos muinntearaí liom, acht mar sin féin ní de’n saghas céanna iad.’ [‘The people here are very pleasant, and could not be friendlier, but all the same they are of a different sort.’]
In December 1947 he writes from Wiltshire, c/o The Marquess of Bath, where the pictures are going well; but in February ’48 his wife Rene writes to acknowledge a loan of £10, ‘which shall be returned as soon as possible’. In July he is back in Wiltshire, and in August at Mrs. Pilkington’s, Stretton House, Lancashire, wife of a major glassmaker. He is painting their two young daughters, aged 4 and 8, a difficult task, everyone is delighted with the results – except himself. He is tired of the English, they are very civilised, but entirely lacking in humour or any sense of ‘ragairneacht’ [enjoyment] — and so on.
In January 1956, writing from Philadelphia, he says his exhibition has been a great success. ‘Deirtear liom ná fuil aoinne sa tír chun mé a shárú chun dreach-shamhail a dhéanamh, & dheineas peictiúirí do dhaoine gur péinteáladh iad leis na daoine ba mhó ainm sa tír.’ [I am told there is nobody in this country who can match me for a likeness, though I have drawn people who have been painted by some of the biggest names here.] He says he has made a lot of money, but spent it again, mostly, as he fell off the wagon. To tell the truth, he says, he hates this place. ‘Tá níos mó géire inntleachta & grinn ag an dream is boichte in Éirinn ná ag an dream is saidhbhre annso’ [‘The poorest people in Ireland have more wit and humour than the richest here’]. All he wants now, he says, is to make some good money, and keep it if possible, and return home to Ireland. In a continuation in English, he tells O Muircheartaigh that his marriage is over and his home has gone. ‘I gave it to Rene – who sold it and has gone to England. I told her I could never live with her again – the last few months before I left Ireland were enough to prove that to me.’
These are splendid and at times moving letters, showing the painter’s humour and honesty, his keen observation and awareness, and they amount almost to a diary of his work and life over an extended period of some 15 years.
Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, a civil servant from the well-known Kerry family, was a distinguished photographer and a patron of the arts. He commissioned O’Sullivan to draw portraits of writers in Irish like Tomás Ó Criomhthain, ‘Peig’ and Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and was evidently a close and loyal friend of the (sometimes erratic) painter.
As a collection, w.a.f. (1)