Death of a Painter

In his obituary for the painter, Nancy Wynne Jones, in the Guardian of Wednesday 29 November 2006 Seamus Heaney demonstrated his respect and affection for the deceased artist referring to her paintings as ‘earthy and moist, with rich warm, subtle ochres and reds … place and palette and spirit all equal’.

What, Heaney reflects, might we learn about Nancy’s canvasses and how she perceives things via the launch pad of her studio window? Not an overarching dome of sky (tent of blue) rather the sweep of rich yellow (peek of gold) of the Irish landscape that inspired her (Wicklow cornfield) from her first floor room (gable window) most beneficial (favoured coign of vantage) to her intense powers of observation (long gazing).

With whom might she be compared? What creative correspondences do her works and personality suggest? Less to Heaney’s mind with a visual artist (not Cézanne) for all his intense study of his own iconic Ste Victoire  (hill) in Provence; rather by flashes of a mercurial figure from English literature (Thomas Hardy) not least perhaps because he like she worked unremittingly despite age and decline (to the end) and like him (his crocheted old heirloom of a shawl) she dressed in her own personal style.

Think not of the name (not Hardy) rather the frail creatures he ‘painted’ (butterfly one of the multitude) flitting (he imagined airborne) across a scene of his writing (through Casterbridge), living souls on sun kissed journeys (down the summer thoroughfare).

Compare Nancy (one might ask why) with a solid Old Testament figure – the hapless Jonah thrown overboard in the story (entering the whale’s mouth).

Everything may relative but a borrowing from Patience (an anonymous 14th century poem) suggests just how brightly tiny individuals stand out within the wider sunlit scheme of things (mote through a minster door).

Windows are a recurrent motif in Heaney’s work providing frames through which to look out, enter the world outside or let the light of the world in. One thinks in the latter case of The Skylight,  of the circumstances of Heaney’s aunt Mary in Field of Vision and the ‘upstairs outlook’ over his farming domain of Heaney’s ageing, demented father Patrick in The Ash Plant all three from the Seeing Things collection.

  • Nancy Wynne Jones: Welsh and Irish painter (1922-2006; also an accomplished musician; known early in her career for landscapes completed in an abstract fashion; from the 1970s she worked and exhibited in the Republic of Ireland where her contact with Irish landscapes took the edge off her abstraction; lived in homes in Ireland at one point settling like Heaney and family in Co Wicklow;

‘Before moving to Ireland, Wynne Jones’ early work was a form of abstract expressionism sometimes likened to Braque. Having moved to County Cork in 1972 Wynne-Jones’s work became more intimate with a period of still life and she started composing again. In 1988, the family settled in the more mountainous Rathdrum area of County Wicklow. She was now showing regularly, notably with the Taylor galleries in Dublin, and was elected an honorary member of the Royal Hibernian Academy   the discovery, in the 1990s, of the large bogs of County Mayo came as a revelation to Wynne-Jones. It was her desire, she said, “to possess and be possessed” by this multi-textured landscape which galvanised her into a late flowering, blending abstract and figuration to convey the total sensation of atmosphere’ obituary for Nancy Wynne Jones in the Guardian of Wednesday 29 November 2006 David Whittaker

  • tent: literally a portable shelter in cloth or canvas; here suggestive of a vast sky dome
  • peek: snatch, brief look;
  • coign of vantage: favoured and favourable spot for observation;
  • gable: triangular end of pitched roof;
  • Cézanne (1839-1906): French post-impressionist artist leading transition towards what would become cubism; friend of van Gogh; noted for intense study of his subject, a dogged and persevering approach to his work and freshness of design, colour and composition;
  • Thomas Hardy (1840-1928): English novelist and poet born and spending much of his life in the southern county of Dorset part of the historical Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex; he appears in a number of Heaney poems that centre on his birthplace and his eccentric behaviour as a precocious child and eccentric old man; both Wynne Jones and novelisy lived to advanced age (he to 88, she to 83) and enjoyed a close relationship with nature, especially rural landscapes that they expressed eloquently in their own medium;
  • crochet: handicraft using a hooked needle to produce textured fabric;
  • heirloom: valuable object kept by the same family over several generations;
  • shawl: wrap worn largely by women over shoulders (and head);
  • Casterbridge: fictional setting (town based on Dorchester, main town of Dorset) of the tragic Mayor of Casterbridge(1886) one of Hardy’s Wessex Novels all set in a fictional rustic England;
  • thoroughfare: main road in a town (not modern usage);
  • Jonah: Old Testament prophet punished by God for disobeying Him; saved the lives of those in a ship he was on by agreeing to be thrown overboard during a God-sent storm; he was then swallowed by a whale in whose belly he waited three days before God released him;
  • mote: speck, fleck;
  • minster: important church perhaps built as part of a monastery;
  • 4 triplets; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • mote: as if to reflect the minuscule presence of one human being within the expanse of the cosmos, a mere speck of dust, tiny compared with the hugeness of theminster door;
  • Frequency of not,  mimicking perhaps a painter or poet failing to achieve perfect expression owing to changes of focus, light or mood;
  • Internal rhyme: coign/ cornfield; Jonah/ Old/ mote
  • the advanced age of artist and author is somehow reflected in outdated vocabulary: coign of vantage; heirloom.
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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