Portraits of politicians

John Keating Photo lar Boland

Interesting to see that the Dalkey-based artist John Keating has been commissioned by the OPW to paint the official portrait of the former Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett. RHA members appear to get most of the official portraiture work – especially those very large canvasses of retiring worthies draped in academic gowns and the inevitable chain of office – but Keating is not a member of the RHA. The OPW’s function in this sensitive area starts with them offering a choice of half-a-dozen artists from which the politician can select his favourite. The OPW then looks after the details especially the payment of a handsome fee which normally runs in the €10/15,000 range.

Keating enjoys working in a variety of media and does not concentrate on portraiture although he did a series of heads for the refurbished Shelbourne Hotel of famous former guests including such disparate characters as Charles Gavin Duffy, Michael Collins, Princess Grace, Elizabeth Bowen and Peter O’Toole after whom suites in the hotel have been named. But as he says himself ‘It is not merely the subject matter that interests me; it is also the challenge of the medium in which I am working. The rich colours and textures of oils express something different to me than the fluent almost transparent quality of watercolour and the blackness of charcoal.’ A lot of his work is on still lives often featuring sumptuously coloured textiles.

Charles J Haughey was undoubtedly the most often painted of our politicians in the post-war years – all of which he commissioned personally. The most infamous of these was by Edward McGuire, which featured a bowler-hatted Haughey mounted on a hunter outside his Kinsealy mansion. But when it came to his official portrait which now hangs in the gallery above the entrance to the Dáil chamber in Leinster House, the former Taoiseach selected John F Kelly best known perhaps for the portrait as Pierrot of his friend and neighbour, the actor John Molloy.

Next up is the official portrait of President Michael D Higgins which will hang in Áras an Uachtaráin when, and if, the President retires. The artist here is another President – of the RHA – namely Mick O’Dea. The portrait of former President Mary McAleese was done by Joe Dunne, also a member of the RHA. JM

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