An exceptionally talented history painter

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Born: September 16, 1929
Passed away: September 15, 2021

Painter Thomas Ryan was born in the heart of Limerick. His family home was on St Joseph’s Street near People’s Park, although they soon moved to near Davis Street, from where he attended Sexton Street Christian Brothers School. At 14, the brothers, recognizing his precocious talent, allowed him to skip a few afternoon classes to take evening drawing classes at the Limerick School of Art, then on O’Connell Avenue. Encouraged by the school principal, Richard Butcher, he chose to become a full-time student. Three years of studies allowed him to acquire solid knowledge in drawing, painting and sculpture techniques. He was also good at oils, watercolors and chalk and was a very skilled sculptor.

A scholarship allowed three additional years at the National College of Art in Dublin. There, another artist from Limerick, Sean Keating, was in charge. Influenced by William Orpen, Keating was an imposing and dominant presence, the guardian and promoter of an academic mode of representation centered on classical European painting, with local inflection and nationalist emphasis.

By the time Ryan went to visit museums in Europe in the 1950s, his ideas about artistic orthodoxy were fully formed, and they did not change during his lifetime. It was not an immediate problem. In the short term, his work was very well received and has developed promisingly into established academic genres: portraiture, genre scenes, landscape, and still life. His views also turned to what was traditionally considered the most important genre, history painting.

He was still in his twenties when he painted a beautiful portrait of Eamon de Valera (a courteous model, Ryan noted, who asked him math puzzles while he painted). In the same year 1958, he broached a major historical subject in an enormous composition, The Flight of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and submitted it to the annual Oireachtas exhibition. In his opinion, it filled the lack of authentic Irish history painting, the kind he had seen throughout Europe. He was taken aback when it took Keating’s intervention to get the work to pass before the selection committee, only to see it relegated to a disadvantageous place in the municipal gallery.

Feel left out

He was in the paradoxical position of being a highly skilled and ambitious artist with a valued and growing audience who was, in his view, with some justification, sidelined from the contemporary Irish art establishment. Against the backdrop of a modernizing Ireland, this sentiment only grew in the 1960s. His substantial composition The GPO, 1916, was dismissed for first prize in a competition marking the 50th anniversary of the ‘Easter Rising (she won a third place).

The GPO, 1916 by Thomas Ryan The GPO, 1916 by Thomas Ryan

With an outspoken temper, with a caustic mind, he was not ready to take this quietly. He saw it as the fashionable cult of Modernism eclipsing traditional values, the last phase of a long feud between the RHA and the annual Irish Living Art Exhibition.

It is fair to say that his lousy treatment by art authorities, allied with his core beliefs, pushed him, as he effectively pushed the RHA, into a relatively narrow academic identity, which rejected alternative modes of figurative art as well. than abstraction. His natural artistic home was the RHA, and he was made an associate in 1968 and a full member in 1971.

Always productive and widely appreciated artist, he has built over time a formidable work of portraits (including one of five-year-old Sinéad O’Connor), landscapes, still lifes, interiors and genre works, as well as religious and historical paintings. His sculptural efforts included the design of the Dublin Millennium 50p coin, issued in 1988, and the £ 1 coin issued in 1990. In 2006, his portrait of Ronnie Delany was featured on a 50th anniversary stamp.

From the start he had a strategic sense of the role of the RHA in Irish art. The academy did not have a dedicated gallery following a fire in its premises in 1916. The annual exhibition had to find a temporary location each year, and the National Gallery of Ireland was increasingly reluctant to provide it. . In the late 1960s, real estate developer Matt Gallagher offered to build a gallery at the RHA. Raymond McGrath produced a design and work began on the Ely Place site in 1972, ending with the developer’s sudden death in January 1974. Although the Gallagher Group is committed to completing the gallery, relations with RHA have become strained due to a prolonged lack of progress.

TK Whitaker at the unveiling of a portrait of him by artist Thomas Ryan, left, in April 2002. Photograph: Joe St Leger

TK Whitaker at the unveiling of a portrait of him by artist Thomas Ryan, left, in April 2002. Photograph: Joe St Leger

Big project

Ryan, seeing the importance of the gallery, found himself drawn into the practicalities of its completion. In 1981, he produced a position paper that openly criticized the Gallagher group, urging the academy to take a more proactive approach. Then the group collapsed, precipitating a crisis. The RHA was to secure ownership of the half-built gallery and then take responsibility for it. Elected unopposed as president of the RHA in 1982, Ryan embarked on the project.

Realizing that the academy would have to broaden its artistic base in order to succeed, and possibly survive, he set out to forge alliances. The first exhibition organized in the concrete envelope of the new building was, to the surprise of many, the GPA Emerging Artists Award show in 1984. The first RHA exhibition at Ely Place, the 156th, followed in 1985. It was not the end of the story by any means, but, remarkably, by the time Ryan’s presidency ended in 1992, the essentials were in place for the gradual completion of the RHA Gallagher Gallery, a more inclusive approach. its governance and exhibitions, and the modernization of the RHA.

Ryan has exhibited widely, served on numerous public bodies and committees, and his work is included in numerous collections, public and private.

He is survived by his wife, Mary; the children Pearse, John, Ann, Myles, Eavan and Aengus; sister, Nuala; brothers Justin and Denis; and his extended family.

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