by Seamus Heaney
taken from T.P. Flanagan book by S.B. Kennedy, Four Courts Press, Ulster Museum
Ever since I've known him, T.P. Flanagan has been a painter with work in progress and an œuvre in the making and this exhibition pays due homage to his lavish achievement. As an artist, he has gone his own way, explored the Irish landscape and enhanced Irish landscape painting through the discovery and elaboration of an individual style, one that we now take so much for granted that we tend to forget that it had to be invented. But during all that time, Terry has also been very much a personal friend as well as an artistic presence, somebody with his own inimitable blend of humour and cultivation, one of those people who have the gift for bringing company to life and keeping the spirits high. Delicacy and down-to-earthness are equally important elements in his make-up; they are what I cherish in his often hilarious expatiations on art (not to mention artists) and life, and they also inform the confidence and finesse of his characteristic work.
On our walls at home, for example, we have a picture which combines these qualities and seems as spontaneous and inevitable now as it did when we first saw it more than a quarter of a century ago. It is called A Stream through Sand and was painted in the late sixties, at a time when our families used to spend the occasional intensely packed weekend around Gortahork in County Donegal; we went partly for the gregariousness and the Guinness in McFadden's Hotel, for Scan 0 hEochaidh's seanchas and Lillis O'Leary's cuisine, but also for the refreshment of being exposed to the land and sea and skies of Bloody Foreland; and for the mutual inspiration which all of that entailed.
In the mid-sixties, Terry had often taken me into his studio—which means, with a painter, into his confidence—and given me a kind of informal education in how to see pictures, how to read them, and told me about his debts to recent and remote teachers such as Kathleen Bridle and Piero della Francesca; but now, a few years later, he was showing mc that in his case too the old command to go to nature and be taught by the experience was the primary one. On the shore, on the roadside, behind a turfstack on the bog, his sketch-pad would be out and with a few quick strokes of the pencil and a few stolen glimpses to check the shapes and the light, the impulse would be well on its way towards its transformation. He taught me to see blackness in brightness, for example, and every time I look at the sinuous dark line he made of that stream through sand, the excitement of his insight returns.
Our friendship had begun under the approving eye of Michael McLaverty who told Terry about my poems while I was teaching at St Thomas's; and very shortly after that we became colleagues when I went to lecture at Trench House. Terry was an art lecturer at St Mary's, the sister college, where my wife Marie had been a student a few years earlier and had benefited from his wonderfully liberating teaching, so all of us—Terry's wife Sheclagh included—gravitated towards one another's company naturally and increasingly; and since the first flush of our relationship happened to coincide with a particularly creative moment in the cultural life of Belfast, I continue to think of the Flanagans not oniy as artistic personalities in themselves but as sponsors of an opener, fuller, freer, richer life.
Through his childhood connections with Lissadell and the Yeats country and because he had written poems of his own before we had met, Terry brought a romantic even bohemian element into play wherever he went; here was somebody who had served his artistic apprenticeship in a caravan with Basil Blackshaw and had once looked at the vorld—as instructed by Cohn Middleton—upside down, backside in the air, head between the legs, on a cliff top in County Down. Somebody who was equally at home painting the erotics of a hawthorn hedge or the stand-off of an episcopal visage; somebody who had worked in the Lyric Theatre and had been a friend and a protégé of John Hewitt, before Hewitt had been sent to Coventry. Sheelagh too had been an actress with the Lyric, had played in those important early productions of Yeats and brought the glamour and gossip of theatre alive in a very vivid way. It was a blissful dawn to be alive in and I cannot help recalling it with pleasure and gratitude on the occasion of this retrospective exhibition, which salutes and celebrates the growth and consolidation of T.P. Flanagan's work as an integral and historical achievement in Irish art.
That growth has been subject both to the accidents of history and the inner laws of a temperament. On the whole, the Flanagan sensibility inclines to the lyric and the opulent; he is in tune with the notion of an earthly paradise and hence the radiance of the painting is entirely this—worldly. Romantic it may be, but what it calls to mind is more the fluvial intimacies of Corot than the sublimities of Caspar David Friedrich. The topographical element was there from the start, the early, amorous relationship with Sligo and Fermanagh presaged the mature, comprehensive treatment of ampler and more stately locales, and always there has been that necessary painterlv hedonism. The hedonism, of course, is in the doing of the picture itself. What is equally necessary for achievement is intelligent dedication between times, a critical balancing of self—knowledge and self-challenge, a long maturation of the sixth sense in the critical intelligence. At every stage of development, the artist's alter ego will cry out, like the ghost of Plato in Yeats's late poem, "What then? 'What then?' What this exhibition shows, however, is that T.P. Flanagan, like the master who speaks in that same poem, can boast that he too has 'something to perfection brought'.
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