John Kelly, Irish painter and printmaker, 1932-2006

Essays “A Selection of Works from His Studio” – introduction

Essay written for the catalogue of the Ashford Gallery posthumous exhibition of “A Selection of Works from his Studio” by John Kelly RHA, January 2009.

John Kelly RHA played a major part in the Royal Hibernian Academy Ashford Gallery programme committee from 2000 until 2004. It was by looking at submissions with John that a grounded education in the critical appreciation of an artist’s work began for me. Grounded is a word that can easily be associated with John. He was the type of teacher who passed on experience and knowledge without the receiver feeling like a pupil. He offered a wisdom that sneaked upon the listener in the style of a stimulating conversation between two interested parties. He could tell a great story to make a point in the process of educating you.

He was an Academy member who had been cautious about his appointment. He was an individual in his attitude and his work. There was no nonsense about John. He knew his materials and the use of them exceptionally well and confessed that he had learnt probably most when he was working as an interior decorator about surface and application. He was well versed, well read, down to earth and sophisticated.

Visiting John’s studio in Henrietta Street, after he died, was obviously going to be emotional. Looking into the mirror John would have looked into whilst doing his many self portraits was a powerful and strange experience. It is difficult not to go to the well used clichés when writing about these works. They are truly soul searching and deeply honest. They are representative, (they look like John), but they look like aspects of the person you thought you knew. Sometimes another John can appear looking over the shoulder of the one being drawn as if checking that it is being drawn with honesty. The self portraits are the same person outwardly but with the realisation that there are several dimensions within and he pursues that with frightening authority. There were many Johns hiding in the organised drawers of the storage spaces in his studio, dating over a period of twenty five years. The opening of each drawer was a privileged intrusion because I was allowed to, but the intrusion was the same as going through someone’s wardrobe.

Clothes are the private things that the person has lived in. Discovering the previously unseen works of an artist’s studio had that same feeling. As I looked at the work I wondered why some works were not signed, despite the fact that to my eye they looked finished and powerful in execution and aesthetic. As I looked at the work that was signed I wondered why it had never been shown. My conclusion was that John was a hard task master on himself and would not allow himself to be complacent in showing old work for a new exhibition. It had to be work that had been done for that event and work he was proud of. It is our fortune that John perhaps had that attitude and those of us who have been allowed to discover this valuable work are in the advantaged position to show it to others. I do not know if John would approve, but the decision has been made to exhibit because there is no doubt that this previously unseen work is of a quality that stands alone.

This is not a retrospective. The selection process would have been entirely different and one that I would not have been qualified to do. John’s output was large and over a considerable time. However there is an important part of this exhibition that was not from John’s studio. Just before the Christmas of 2003 John had a heart attack and was told he was going to die. Whilst in his hospital bed with a small mirror, a torch, pencil and paper he drew six self portraits. I think most people in that position would have tried to strive towards an image that would have been regarded favourably for posterity. Ego would have come into that consideration. Not so with John. The pencil line drew into the soul. When I write soul it is not in the common sense of the spiritual, but as the dictionary helps out here, the moral or emotional or intellectual nature of a person. He extracted from his features more than a likeness. John scratched, stroked and shaded onto paper by torchlight something that most of us would not have the courage or honesty to do. He faced and perhaps mocked death and here is the pleasure, John did mock death then in 2003.

He survived that time in hospital to insist on climbing the stairs to his studio in Henrietta Street, not to work but just to be there and show he could climb those flights of stairs. He survived to give those of us at the RHA the pleasure of his company as he would come in dressed immaculately in what often appeared to be evening dress. This was not eccentricity but, for me, a celebration of the day given. John was taken away from us on the 26th of March 2006. Yes, there will be others to learn from, but they will not be John Kelly.

I would like to thank with love Mairead Breslin Kelly, Niamh Kelly, Fiona Kelly, Róisín Kelly, Sorcha Kelly, Caitríona Kelly and Lara Kelly for giving me the privilege of their confidence.

Mark St. John Ellis, October 2008