Jo Slade’s biography poem The Artist’s Room traces the artist Gwen John (1876-1939) through Paris at the start of the twentieth-century: ‘I looked for her in Paris…/ walked from place to place, lived the smells, the sounds, / followed a plan I’d drawn.’
A painter-poet, Jo Slade uses her artist’s eye to distill the essence of Gwen John’s biography in a precise poetic structure where the artist’s decade-long relationship with Auguste Rodin is central. ‘Look, she’s holding out a hand to him / something like torture has begun.’
I envy those who, like Jo Slade, can write with a painter’s eye and express themselves with tone and precision in paint or ink: ‘Learning the habit of colour / raw umber, yellow ochre, burnt sienna.’
Sean O’Faolain provocatively wrote in an Introduction to Paul Henry‘s autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951): ‘Very few painters have written books and few of these are satisfying.’ Henry himself had a fascination with writing and finding the exact word to convey his emotions.
Jo Slade’s slim volume portraying Gwen John’s ‘passionate melancholy’ contrasts with the efforts of Mary Taubman – another writer and painter – whose work on the life of Gwen John became a life commitment. When she did publish a book in 1985 it was not the expected comprehensive biography but a succinct monograph covering the events of Gwen John’s life.
Jo Slade says of Gwen John’s artistic impulse: ‘She felt changes of colour, subtleties of tone / each of the other everything seeping together / making the world seamless, complete.’
Paul Henry’s ‘The Bog Road’ was sold at auction during the week to an anonymous bidder a century after the artist arrived on Achill Island, the setting for the painting, and stayed on and off for almost a decade, endlessly absorbed with the colour and variety of the island’s cloud formations.
Henry had a fascination with writing and his autobiography, An Irish Portrait (published in 1951), is mostly about his experiences of Achill. Sean O’Faolain wrote the introduction and made the provocative statement: ‘Very few painters have written books and few of these are satisfying.’
Henry famously tore up his return ticket to London on the rocky point of Gubalennaun in Achill and between the island points of Keel and Dooagh found inspiration for many of his paintings. ‘The intensity of the emotion I got from a purely Irish landscape always puzzled and disturbed me …’
Paul Henry came to Achill the year after John Millington Synge died, admitting that there was something about Synge that appealed to him deeply and touched a chord, leading him to read Riders to the Sea over and over.
O’Faolain saw the same impulse in the work of the painter and writer: ‘Like his painting Henry’s writing is a sponge of nature …’
Maybe Henry would be pleased that his image of Achill soared through cyberspace this week, a century after he arrived in a place where he struggled to find the right image – and the right words – to convey the emotions he felt ?