The interest of literary types will be piqued by a curious work at Whyte’s March auction. It’s a monotype (with pencil and ink) portrait of Brendan Behan by J P Donleavy; a very minimal but instantly recognisable depiction, with the Behan nose the telling feature. This is not Donleavy’s only artistic rendition of Behan. He featured in The Ginger Man as the flimsily disguised character Barney Berry. Donleavy and Behan knew each other socially in the hard-drinking 1950s. While Donleavy drank sparingly and took notes, Behan revelled in the drunken carnival.
Donleavy was in some ways an accidental writer. His first love was art and he had a number of exhibitions in Dublin before The Ginger Man was published. When he tried to show outside Ireland’s stagnant art market in the early 1950s, he was rebuffed. The Redfern Gallery in London rejected him and he determined that he would show the world. He wrote: ‘I would write a book that would make my name known in every nook and cranny all over the world.’ He hit the jackpot with The Ginger Man but never emulated its success. He was no great lover of Ireland, despite living here for most of his life. In his 1994 autobiography, he referred to the ‘agricultural, paupered, myth drugged greenery that is Ireland’. And in the 1992 documentary, J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland in all her Sins and Graces, he described Ireland as ‘a shrunken teat on the chest of the cold Atlantic’. Yet we can forgive him all his foibles and later failings for the gift of The Ginger Man – a novel that came along in the mid-1950s when fun was forbidden and the Church ruled the land. It plunged us headlong into a world where responsibilities are discarded in the headlong pursuit of drink and sex. It championed freedom of expression in a censorious era and it made us laugh.
After his writing career had petered out, Donleavy continued to paint and was showing at the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin as recently as 2017. This monotype with its rich literary associations has a modest guide price of €1,500 to €2,000.