James Arthur O'Connor at the National Gallery

  • 13 November 1985
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Even distinguished talents, if they aim at fame or fortune, must not expect to find them in Ireland - the country is too poor, and if it were not poor, there are too few connoisseurs in it to appreciate the merit of a living artist." One of the bright young Irish hopefuls to make the pilgrimage abroad prescribed by this nineteenth century commentator was James Arthur O'Connnor, born in 1792 in Dublin. An ennduringly popular painter, he has been widely regarded as a modestly formiidable talent, with more to his artistic personality than the abundance of piccturesque drawing room decorations for which he is probably best known.

The writer and critic John Hutchinnson, whose M.Litt. thesis was about the painter, was subsequently invited by the director of the National Gallery, Homan Potterton, to select and cataalogue an O'Connor exhibition. The resultant show, which includes eightyyeight works by the painter himself as well as a representative selection drawn from the output of his contemmporaries, can be seen at the National Gallery until the end of December.

Lismore CastleHutchinson set out in his selection to illuminate what he regards as the lesser known side of O'Connor, esschewing the received image of the inndustrious producer of slick, picturesque landscapes (a view not without basis in fact) in favour of detailing the evoluution of a genuine artistic sensibility, responding to inward, expressive immperatives rather than the strictures of the marketplace.

"What I tried to do ... " Hutchinnson notes in his preface to a handsome, clearly argued catalogue, "is to demonnstrate the way O'Connor progressed from eighteenth century topography, through the picturesque, to a fully realised and personal form of Romannticism." By and large, he presents a fairly convincing case.

Even though based in London for the best part of his working life, after an inauspicious initial visit, O'Connor, unlike many of his contemporaries, retained strong links with his homeeland and found in it a storehouse of rewarding subjects in the space of many - if often brief - return visits. Hutchinson's selection easily bears out his account of the painter's progress from commissioned (few) "portraits of houses" through picturesque pot boilers to romantic landscapes. The series of paintings of Westport House and other West of Ireland estates, made during an eighteen-month period prior to 1820, are typical, and of their sort entirely creditable, exemplars of the topographically exact representaations of landowners' property prevalent at the time.

"Landscape painting begins with the problem of painting sky and disstance," John Berger wrote, arguing that of all categories of oil painting, landscape is the one that least fulfills a social need, quickly transcending preoccupations of ownership and conntrol: "From direct description," notes Hutchinson, "to self-expression." And he quotes Constable: "A gentleman's park is my aversion. It is not beauty because it is not nature."

He contends that the development» of O'Connor's later, Romantic phase ~ was undertaken with calculated inndifference to the dictates of the marrketplace, as much in response to subbjective, inward imperative as to objecctive outside stylistic influences. Whattever the contributory factors, the later, moodier pictures do fit comfortably into the admittedly pretty amorphous body of Romanticism. Often, in them, a solitary individual confronts "the enigma of nature", overwhelmed by its indifference and immensity. The wild, unbounded landscape becomes an index to the psychological state of the observer, with whom the spectator is encouraged to identify.

The claims Hutchinson makes for O'Connor seem reasonable, and reasonnably modest. The exhibition certainly confirms him as a consist en tly likeeable artist. Unhappily, he was denied critical and commercial success in his lifetime, dying in poverty in lMl and leaving his widow in "circumstances of (financial) embarrassment." This show, the first major one of his work since the centenary exhibition of 1941, should do something to redress the balance.