MARTIN MOONEY‘s home and studio in Co Donegal is built on land formerly belonging to 17th-CENTURY CHIEFTANS. It’s surrounded by inspiring views, perfect for his ACCLAIMED LANDSCAPE ART …
When Martin Mooney applied for planning permission to extend the house he shares with his wife Aislinn in Ramelton, Co Donegal, (Letterkenny is the nearest town), little did they know their plans would be derailed by the impulse purchase of another property several thousand kilometres away. Dividing their time between Donegal and Greece, and more specifically the idyllic island of Hydra, the Mooneys discovered an 18th-century Captain’s house in the quaint island’s port after several painting trips over many years. “There is no public transport on the island apart from donkeys!,” Mooney says enthusiastically – yet another reason to invest. That put paid to further extension work in Donegal but has provided visual inspiration aplenty for the acclaimed landscape and still life artist, who counts HRH Prince of Wales as a patron, and with whom he has been tour artist for the royal visit to the Baltic states and Russia. “It was a culturally rich and rewarding experience,” says Mooney with utmost discretion.
As for his “bi-coastal” lifestyle, Mooney says, “I love the contrast. The light and colours and the vividness of the Mediterranean and its lush florals, and the bare wildness of Donegal, with its northern light – perfect for painting.”
His residency in Ireland is focused. “I have a strict routine and am very disciplined – I paint from 8.30am to 6.30pm each day. I work through any artistic blockage and am not one for sitting around and thinking.” Clients and gallerists often make private visits to Mooney’s studio which is adjacent to his home and of which he is justifiably proud. “I designed it myself,” he says, ensuring that natural light was maximised with skylights and as many windows as possible. “In Ireland older cottages were very dark but I wanted to use as much glass as possible which would also reflect the light from the water when the tides are in.” The studio is a fully self-sufficient space with small galley kitchen and sitting room. Painted in Farrow & Ball Old White, which Mooney chose for its calming effect, the sense of serenity is visceral. But then the history of the homeland is as poetic as it is beautiful.
“I had been looking for a Georgian house in the area. I couldn’t find anything suitable, then was told there was a wonderful piece of land with the remains of a derelict cottage that happened to be for sale on the shore. I purchased the land and engaged Jeremy Williams to design a house. Initially, drawings were of a large farmhouse, then a glebe house, until Jeremy finally got his way and plans were drawn up for a Palladian villa.” The land on which the property stands belonged to an O’Donnell chieftain in the 17th century but was abandoned at the time of the Flight of the Earls. Old stone buildings on the land are the remains of a 17th-century plantation star fort.
“After I sold the house, I designed the studio. As it was partly visible from the main house, I felt it should be a discreet building and therefore it was clad in cedar which has now turned silver in colour and resembles an old farm building. There is enough land surrounding the property for a small wooded area, lawns and cottage flower garden. We hope to plant a vegetable garden this year.”
As for the interior, having travelled extensively in Morocco, India and Europe, where he sources objets and accessories, the result is a thoughtful, layered approach to décor. Describing his style as simple, Mooney credits his mother for a lifelong addiction to auctions and their treasures, as well as his interest in art. “I remember accompanying her to auctions at Ross’s in Belfast, even at the height of The Troubles. I will never forget how the carriage clock, in the sitting room, was acquired. I sat at the back of the auction room from 11am until 5.30pm before my mother secured its purchase. It was the last lot.” By absorbing the details of paintings and sculptures and looking at the differing techniques of artworks at auction, Mooney became interested in old things.
Another formative experience came at age twelve: “I attended an adult class with a Mr McLoughlin and from him I learned how to compose a palette and mix colours. I did my first landscape of Tranarossan Bay in Donegal. A relation saw it and asked me how much I was selling it for. It was 1972 and I’d never sold anything, so I said £20. Afterwards I dashed off several similar landscapes to get further pocket money.” Needless to say his paintings sell for much more nowadays.
Studying at the Slade and being awarded Royal Academy prizes and an Irish Arts Council grant enabled Mooney to set up his studio in Barcelona. Accolades from renowned art critic Brian Sewell, and international exhibitions, have secured Mooney’s importance as a contemporary artist and his work can be found in The Merrion, Dublin as well as in numerous galleries in Ireland, the UK and US. His early style has been likened to the Flemish school for its glazed perfection.
“A new departure for me are large scale landscapes of the Antrim coast and the west. Those who have seen them say they have a tremendous power and range. In essence I work off a sketch en plein air and that way have a freshness of response. I hope to exhibit at some point next year.” His paintings at home are of a much looser style, while he describes the landscapes in Greece as more architectural.
When not in his studio, the house he now lives in was what he described as the guest house of his former home. “When my mother passed away I actually built the guest house for my father to stay in with friends – sadly he did not live long enough to see its completion.” Comprising two bedrooms, two bathrooms and kitchen, living and dining area, a predilection for ormolu and Empire style sits well with the natural textures of the accessories. Linen union covers, cashmere throws and Berber cushions are soon to be complemented with Irish tweed cushions from Magee of Donegal – an addition Mooney’s wife Aislinn believes will link the colours of inside to the landscape. Indeed Mooney credits Aislinn’s boldness of vision in juxtaposing the African statue in the dining room with the Empire antiques. “I’m addicted to auctions and fortunately my wife and I share similar tastes. She studied Art History at Trinity and has a very academic take on antiques. A recent purchase is an 18th-century pastel portrait in a gilded frame which hangs in the dining room. Quite often it takes time to find the right space, but once in place it usually stays.”
The dining room was built as a conservatory, though it also houses a fireplace, and the Mooneys enjoy watching the weather change. Everyday china, by the way, is a Masons Ironstone dinner set dating from 1810, “which we put in the dishwasher”.
A fan of his flower paintings, I ask Mooney about these works. “It was my wife bringing a bunch of wildflowers, picked from the garden, into my studio that got me started,” he admits, though concedes tulips are “difficult” and his original still lifes are much smaller than his more recent works. “My painting latterly is much more expressive and more natural.” Much like his home.
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