THERE IS A tradition in the Royal Hibernian Academy for a retiring President to ask a fellow Academician to paint their Presidential portrait. When Stephen McKenna stepped down as President in 2009 after four years at the helm, he asked me to paint his portrait. Stephen’s tenure saw the redevelopment of the RHA building along with the construction of the school and studios, a development that the Academy had aspired to for a long time. As I was Principal elect of the school, I was intimately involved with this stage of the redevelopment along with Des McMahon and the Gallery Director Patrick T Murphy as part of the design team. Once I agreed to paint the portrait, we discussed various possibilities, eventually determining that the painting should feature Stephen in his studio – he may have been President of the RHA, but he was primarily a painter.
A date was arranged and I asked Stephen to prepare the studio for my visit. When I eventually arrived with my acrylics and paper to the house and studio in Bagenalstown, I was greeted by BethAnn and Stephen; we had coffee and then Stephen and I walked across to his studio. We decided that he should stand for the portrait. There was the issue of the President’s gown and medal. Rather than portraying him wearing them, we hung them on an easel, arranged his paintings in the background and placed his pallet and brushes in the foreground.
He looked left, he looked right and then he looked at me with that gaze of his, and that was it! I commenced a full colour study with acrylic. We had lunch prepared by BethAnn and went back to the studio. By the late afternoon it was finished. I had my composition, the details could be worked out later.
Stephen gave me complete freedom to get on with my job. Once he made his choice of painter, it was now out of his hands: it was a matter of trust.
Armed with the colour study and photographs of the set-up, I worked out the details of the composition in my studio and commenced the journey. I deliberately employed his painting technique in as much as I could. I painted with the same brand of oil paints and used Cremnitz white as he did. The palette in the painting was positioned as if I was dipping my brush on it to paint the picture, the paints and brushes had to look like his paints and brushes. The large painting that Stephen stands in front of is Berlin Havelsee dating from 1984. Behind it, top left is another painting. Along with two easels, the tools of our trade are everywhere. The foreground was very important. It had to be a comprehensive introduction leading to the main subject, the painter himself, standing as he did, with authority, in his environment.
Stephen gave me complete freedom to get on with my job. Once he made his choice of painter, it was now out of his hands: it was a matter of trust. When I completed the painting I knew it was one of my best portraits. Stephen was a master, he had ‘the knowledge.’ I admired him as a man and as an artist. It was an honour for me to paint him; I knew that I had a responsibility to make an important portrait. I think I did that. We all miss him terribly. May he rest in peace.
Mick O’Dea is an artist and President of the RHA.
Image: Stephen McKenna PPRHA