John Kelly, Irish painter and printmaker, 1932-2006

Works Letter Theme

John was fascinated with the handwritten word in letters and documents; a friend attributed the awakening of this interest to his having seen and admired a framed letter from Daniel O’Connell in her home in the 1960s. Whether or not this was the case, he delighted in receiving gifts of facsimile copies of, for example, the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, a letter from Rabbie Burns or old Title Deeds. This fascination is apparent throughout his body of work, from his exhibition “Letters from Napoleon” (Davis Gallery 1970) and “Love Letters” (Riverrun Gallery 1988), through his edition of lithographs “A Letter for Rembrandt” (1985) and many other prints and paintings. It was the visual, almost symbolic aspect of handwriting that was important; where actual words appear to be present, this was usually accidental, with very rare exceptions such as in “Molly I” and “In Memory” where the writing has real meaning.

As Gerry Dukes wrote in the catalogue for the exhibition “Signs on a White Field” (Hallward Gallery 1994): Reflect, for a moment, on a feature of Kelly’s visual style, his use of script in his paintings. This writing (ghost-writing might be a better term) is cursive, sometimes ligatured and always indecipherable. The writing will appear in various pictorial contexts in Kelly’s paintings, a love letter, the documentation of a revolutionary tribunal, the meditative jottings in an artist’s notebook. Its very indecipherability is the key to its meaning.