Issue Number: 104
Newly elected Academician Hughie O’Donoghue tells Nigel Billen how his father’s wartime memories have inspired his work.
Hughie O’Donoghue RA enjoys sushi in Ikeda. Photograph by Julian Anderson What connects the Second World War, Ireland, Manchester and the Royal Academy, with Japanese food, Eric Cantona and the bog people of northern Europe? The answer, on this occasion at least, is the newest Academician and our latest lunch guest, the painter Hughie O’Donoghue.
Ikeda, a Japanese restaurant on Brook Street, has been a favourite of O’Donoghue’s for over twenty years, a place to drop into after visits to galleries or his dealer James Hyman. The décor is unassuming, the food amazing. O’Donoghue orders for us – mixed fish sushi and the revelation of the meal, deep-fried soft shell crab.
Both of us are struck by the beauty of the food but, at the end of our meal, O’Donoghue makes another point. ‘I have a very negative view of nationalism, about boundaries. Celebrating cultural differences is about sharing things – like this Japanese food.’ It’s a point made gently but it is typical of the thoughtful conversation that characterises our encounter.
Identity is a major theme of O’Donoghue’s paintings, the best-known of which were inspired by the wartime letters and photographs of his father, Daniel. ‘I am interested in how we construct our idea of who we are,’ he says. In that sense, his father’s story has been a gift. Though Irish, his father, like O’Donoghue himself, was born in Manchester, so his parents sent him to live with relatives in Ireland: ‘Manchester was
black from grime, like the Lowry paintings, and it was common for parents to give their children a taste of country life. But what was truly bizarre was they sent my father back to Kerry, into the epicentre of the Irish civil war.’
Shortly before his death a few years ago, he asked his father if his own parents had ever visited him in Kerry. The answer, a long-buried memory, reduced his father to tears, recalls the artist. ‘Instead of saying goodbye, they played hide and seek…’ When it was his grandfather’s turn to hide he simply didn’t reappear. ‘As an idea of cruelty to a small boy it is hard to get your head round. I think he had quite a troubled life; that whole confusion of identity. By the time he returned to Manchester in 1930 he could speak Irish and had experienced the civil war. Nine years later he was conscripted into the British Army and was there for the duration.’
O’Donoghue, who has raised his own family in Kilkenny, made his return to Ireland in the 1990s shortly before his father died. He was drawn to his father’s experiences of the Second World War almost accidentally. A residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art left him with evenings to fill which he spent going through his father’s archive. ‘I would do ten or so letters a night and some ran to twenty pages. They were not intended for anyone other than my mother.’
Obviously, his father’s story is personally significant but O’Donoghue, a teacher before he became a full-time artist, is also a meticulous social historian. The art, he stresses, is not about his father. ‘I know the pitfalls, but if anything the work is more about me than it is about him. I’m interested in the anonymous individual.’
Like the poet Seamus Heaney, he was drawn in the 80s to the images of Iron Age remains of bodies preserved in Danish peat bogs celebrated in the work of the archaeologist P. V. Glob. The striking photographs became the starting point for his haunting series of ‘Sleeper’ paintings. His latest exhibition in Leeds will include a fifteen-panel work documenting the summer before the war, drawing on material with no connection to his family. His new work for his London gallery takes its inspiration from the ancient past and the story of Pharos, the lighthouse at Alexandria.
But what of O’Donoghue’s own sense of identity? ‘I’ve always felt a bit of an outsider,’ he says apropos of becoming a member of the Royal Academy, ‘so I consider it a real honour.’ It’s a reference to his earliest days as an artist, painting in the evening after teaching. Not going to art college, was, he felt at the time, ‘a real impediment, no one took you seriously’. When he finally made it to Goldsmiths, it was to learn that, unlike those around him, he didn’t want to be a conceptual artist.
Currently, he is in the process of moving back to Britain but he will keep a place in Ireland: ‘From it you can see the cottage where my mother was born’. No doubt he will continue to draw on his parents’ story, but as we chat about his son’s support of Manchester United, Eric Cantona’s taste in art and the fate of the soldiers who, like his father, didn’t get out at Dunkirk, you feel this is a man at ease with himself.
Perhaps that’s why in his work he’s not afraid to be challenged. A few years ago he took on the subject of the Passion for a collector who wanted a ‘grand series of paintings’. It was, he says, a five-year struggle that ‘knocked me sideways’. Art, like life, O’Donoghue has learnt, isn’t always easy.