Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Suzy Solidor* of the Irish Lighthouse scene


The sinking of the Gunboat Wasp off Tory Island, stylised sketch that appeared in the Illustrated London News 4th October 1884. By all accounts, the sea was relatively calm at the time!

When the question is posed - as it is regularly at dinner tables across the country - as to which is the most photographed Irish lighthouse of all time, bitter arguments normally ensue. Fanad and Hook are soon at loggerheads while the Fastnet tries to stand aloof and watch the bedlam unfold. In the meantime, Poolbeg nips out to rob some hubcaps before returning to the fray. In short, there is no definitive answer to the question and all claimants to the throne have merit on their sides.
When it comes to paintings, however, most lighthouses reluctantly admit there is only one real Supermodel on the coastal beacon scene. And the answer is quite surprising as it is a difficult subject to approach without a large volume of retching (well, in my case, anyway) - Tory Island.

"Evening (from Derek Hill's hut)" by Derek Hill 1980

Derek Hill was an Englishman, born in 1916, who was a world-famous portrait and landscape painter in the second half of the twentieth century. He fell in love with Donegal and Tory Island in particular, renting a small disused hut on the island from Irish Lights from the 1950s onwards. The story goes that he heard about Tory from lightkeeper Bill Dunnigan on a train journey and, intrigued, had to see it for himself. The hut - which is still there - had no sanitation and Derek would get water from the lighthouse. He built up a considerable body of work on Tory Island and naturally the lighthouse looms large (as many lighthouses do!)

"Tory Island lighthouse, Donegal" by Derek Hill

"Tory Island Lighthouse" by Derek Hill (whatever about the paintings, the titles could lend themselves to a little more imagination)

Before he died in 2000, he became one of the few men to be bestowed with honorary Irish citizenship.
The story goes that, one time, Derek was painting at his hut, when one of the islanders, looking over his shoulder, declared that he could do better than that. Delighted, Derek offered him paints and brushes, which the interloper refused, preferring to make his own brushes from the hair of a donkey. James Dixon, who was 72 and had rarely left the island, produced his painting, which the flabbergasted Hill managed to sell for him. The Tory School of Art was born.

James Dixon's "Tory Island" The art gallery on the island is named after him

Numbers grew and over the next sixty years the islanders have created a large body of work that forms a pictorial history of the island. Painters like Patsy Dan Rodgers, Ruairí Rodgers,  Anton Meenan and others became highly sought after. It would be both patronising and incorrect to say that the lighthouse features strongly in their paintings due to the lack of other focal points on the tiny 6 kms x 2 kms island as the place is full of history, both natural and man-made and there is a photograph or painting at every turn, such is its wild beauty.
But, the lighthouse is indeed regularly painted, as it tends to stand quite still when asked to do so.

"Tory Island lighthouse at sunset" by Patsy Dan Rodgers

"Tory Island lighthouse" by Anthony Meenan

"Tory Island, county Donegal" by Ruairí Rodgers

Inspired by the Tory Island painters, many other artists have since visited this artistic haven.

Dave West (2022)

Verner Finlay

Hugh Frazer (2022)

Gill Tyson

Not forgetting of course, the wonderful Roger Reilly, whose "Lighthouses of Ireland" featuring his own paintings of our lighthouses is a book I still regularly take down and marvel at.

A video about the Tory Island painters can be found below

Derek Hill's hut on Tory. It apparently housed the old fog signal.

*Suzy Solidor - French singer and actress who apparently sat for nearly 300 artists during her lifetime. She was the Kim Kardashian of her day, which was well before digital cameras and selfies.

1 comment:

  1. It would be difficult for the eye not to be drawn to a lighthouse Pete...or indeed Suzy S it seems :)