Sunday, March 17, 2013

Leech's Lilies

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day, and that got me thinking. I don’t know a single Irish artist. Francis Bacon maybe? He was born in Dublin, but his parents were British, and art historians typically consider him British. While Bacon still may count, I knew there must be more Irish artists out there. So I scoured the internet. My search naturally led me to the National Gallery of Ireland and last year’s “Ireland’s Favourite Painting” competition. Competitors included Jack B. Yeats, John Lavery, Sean Scully, Harry Clarke, and the eventual winner Frederic William Burton.

But the artist I fell in love with was William John Leech (I probably would have picked Harry Clarke, but he’s a prolific illustrator and stained glass artist, and the magnitude of his oeuvre overwhelmed me).

William John Leech, A Convent Garden, Brittany, 1913, oil on canvas, 132 x 106 cm.

William Leech was born in Dublin in 1881. He studied under Walter Osborn (yet another Irish artist!), but didn’t actually do much work in Ireland. He went to France, painted in Brittany, and eventually settled in England. I’m mostly interested in his work in Brittany. Or the work he made around that time at least. It’s bright, and thick, and juicy. A wonderful mix of the impressionism of van Gogh and the finish of John Singer Sargent. Any earlier and his paintings are a bit too dark and traditional. I’m not really sure why I don’t like his later stuff as much though. It just doesn’t have the same draw.

Right: Vincent van Gogh, Undergrowth with Two Figures, 1890, oil on canvas, 49.5 x 99.7 cm
Left: John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1886, oil on canvas, 174 x 153.7 cm.

On to the painting I chose. A Convent Garden, Brittany is set in Concarneau at a hospital run by the Sisters of the Holy Ghost. Leech was there in 1904 while recovering from typhoid fever. In 1911, he painted The Secret Garden from drawings he made at the time. His leafy lilies are painted with vivid energy and life, but at the same time, the brushstrokes seem to break down into pattern.

William John Leech, The Secret Garden, 1911, oil on canvas, 112 x 86.5 cm.

Convent Garden is basically Secret Garden with nuns. Plant life frames and partially obscures a novice holding a prayer book. She’s dressed in a traditional Breton wedding dress, a custom marking the day a novice takes her final vows. Her little clearing is bathed in light, but it’s surrounded by shade. A group of older nuns seems to be walking away in the background. The whole scene makes me feel like I’m eavesdropping, hiding in the lilies. The energy of the plants contrasts with the stillness of the novice and creates a sense of tension. It’s as if you’re witnessing this pivotal, highly private moment in time. The painting pulls you in, yet keeps you at a distance.

The model for the novice is Leech’s first wife Elizabeth Saurine Kerlin. When the couple first met, Elizabeth was married to another man, but by 1912, she had gotten a divorce, leaving her free to marry Leech. When we consider this new information, Convent Garden becomes a wedding portrait. A young bride surrounded by beautiful white lilies, symbols for purity and promise.

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