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Hughie O’Donoghue RA: “painting is archaeology in reverse”

Published 15 April 2015

The Royal Academician explains how the nature of memory and a sense of place are driving forces in his latest series of paintings.

  • As a young child growing up in Manchester, Hughie O’Donoghue was regularly taken to visit County Mayo in the west of Ireland, his mother’s ancestral home. He has been returning there ever since.

    “It’s the wildest part of Ireland in a way,” he says. “I can be there now and enjoy its scenic beauty, but my mother and her mother had to survive in this place and it was quite a harsh place to survive in.

    “Curiously, in the modern world, it hasn’t actually changed very much. There are some ugly new houses, but the hills and the mountains and the sea and the lake… they’re all still there.”

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    Hughie O'Donoghue RA on the process of painting

    We visit Hughie O‘Donoghue RA in his London studio, as he works on a new canvas and reflects on how, for him, the painting process is akin to “reverse archaeology”.

  • Abandoned cottages overtaken by nature and farm animals are recurring motifs that O’Donoghue explores in these new paintings, perhaps the most place-specific works he has created. He describes the landscape that inspired them with an artist’s sensitivity to colour.

    “It’s a place of incredible contrasts. Everything can be various shades of grey and then the light changes and you get tremendous bursts of colour - yellow gorse or pink and violet rhododendrons, red corrugated iron roofs.

    “The colours in my paintings are also intense, but in my work there’s never only one reason for why something is the way it is. I suppose I deliberately court the intensity of colour to mirror the intensity of feeling that comes with memory.

    “When I was taken to the west of Ireland as a child, for the whole time that I was there, my shoes would be off. I was barefoot on the grass, in direct contact with the natural world. And it’s that intensity that I’m trying to find an equivalence for in my painting.

  • “Lucien Freud said that he disliked the ‘tyranny of memory’. Freud painted things that were exactly in front of him, and he had to look exactly at what he was doing. I’m all in favour of the the tyranny of memory, because in a sense I’m doing the opposite of that. I’m looking behind myself… I’m looking into this sum of experiences over time.”

    The Permanent Green of the exhibition’s title is the name of a particular shade of oil paint. But it’s also “a kind of place in my memory,” O’Donoghue says. “It’s a location that I return to for inspiration, and as a source of energy.”

    Permanent Green is at Marlborough Fine Art from 22 April to 30 May 2015.