Artistic License With Markey Robinson

Penny McCormick meets Mandy Nulty, curator of THE ORIEL GALLERY, on the eve of a SPECIAL CENTENARY RETROSPECTIVE dedicated to MARKEY ROBINSON


Born in Belfast in 1918, Markey Robinson was a colourful man (and a one-time boxer) who travelled widely and is known for his honest, naive paintings and is often hailed as the founder of Irish Modernism. He was also passionate about stained glass and sculpture and forged a special relationship with The Oriel Gallery.

Can you tell us about Robinson’s connection with The Oriel Gallery?

There is a famous story of how my father-in-law, Oliver Nulty, stumbled upon Markey making his way to the American Embassy to emigrate in 1970. As fortune would have it, Markey just happened to have a few paintings under his arm, unframed and unvarnished, which Oliver duly purchased. From that moment and for over 30 years Markey painted in the studio upstairs and successfully exhibited his work in the gallery to much critical acclaim. The stained glass panel above The Oriel’s door testifies to Markey’s versatility and as my father-in-law said it’s “the silent salesman that still works while the city sleeps.”

This centenary exhibition celebrates the life and work of Markey, with paintings spanning over 50 years. Markey’s daughter, Bernice Muldowney, will unveil a plaque to commemorate his time here in the gallery and give her insight into the life of her famous father.

Markey Robinson is considered as the founder of Irish Modernism and had a distinctive style. How would you describe it?

Markey’s daughter, Bernice, describes her father as “a one-off in Irish art and within Modernism as he forged his own unique pictorial idiom”.

Early in his career, Markey was greatly influenced by the School of Paris and painters such as Utrillo, de Vlaminck and Rouault. He started by painting intricate images of villages and landscapes but as he gained more confidence in his authentic style, his bold strokes came to the fore.

His heart-tugging scenes of whitewashed cottages, peopled by shawled natives as they go about their rural tasks of fishing, gathering or returning home, in the backdrop of the mountains, lakes and inlets of the unmistakable Irish landscape.

The recurring themes in his work are landscapes and flowers and he travelled widely …

He travelled with his sketch book and painted everything from small French villages to the flower markets and cafes of Paris. His travels brought him to Morocco, where he stayed with nomadic people, absorbing their customs and the colours of their landscape.

He visited the Iberian Peninsula where at simple fishing villages he would paint their people in not too distant an image of the Irish landscape itself.

He lead a somewhat eccentric life too …

Markey was a conundrum in every sense. He was described by my father-in-law Oliver Nulty, as the greatest phenomenon amongst contemporary Irish artists. He liked his freedom to travel whether to Belfast, the west of Ireland or to the continent. He would then come back refreshed and ready to paint.

He spoke in a cryptographic manner, his witticisms being legendary. Most people’s memory of Markey is in his beige trench coat and his little white woolly hat. He pulled behind him a trolley (the gingham type) which he would fill with discarded sales boards from Switzers and Brown Thomas of Grafton Street. He would then bring back his hoard to the gallery and start painting directly onto the boards in his studio upstairs. This ritual continued until the year before his death. He was a well-known figure in Dublin.

Need to Know: “Markey at 100: A Retrosective exhibition” runs from March 8 – 24 and will be officially opened by Bernice Muldowney, daughter of Markey Robinson with paintings and works from private collections never seen before. 17 Clare Street, Dublin 2.

Penny McCormick

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