Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal

Patrick Swift and Irish Art
By Brian Fallon (chief arts critic to The Irish Times for 35 years)

Patrick Swift was other things besides being a painter. He was, in fact, a key cultural figure in Dublin (and London) before his voluntary withdrawal to Portugal and virtual disappearance from artistic life in either an Irish or British context. As an artist and as a man, he discovered himself rapidly, and his first exhibition at the Waddington Gallery in 1952 established him as a mature and individual painter while he was in his middle twenties. Victor Waddington had a flair for recognising genuine talent... After the triumph of his first show, Swift could have looked forward to an assured career and place in Irish art. Instead he packed his bags and left for London, where he was only one more artist among thousands. He became the friend and intimate of some of the best living painters and poets, who accepted him as an equal, one of themselves, and with David Wright he became joint editor of the magazine X, a remarkable publication which, in some respects, was light years ahead of its time. Yet he formed no relationship with any official or quasi-official art group, nor did he seek a regular berth with any of the established London galleries. When Victor Waddington moved to London in 1957 and opened a new gallery in Cork Street, Swift could well have resumed his former ties with him, but there is no proof that he ever tried to do so; in fact, there is a tradition that Waddington offered him a show, and he refused. Throughout his years in London, when he was right at the nerve centre of its art and literary life, he showed little interest in exhibiting his work, and, in fact, had only two shows in his entire career.
There is, of course, an enormous gap between the art world of the 1950s and that of today. The 1960s, in historical retrospect, has proved to be a watershed in cultural as well as social life, and the outlook of the era immediately before it is probably hard to grasp for anyone who has grown up in the interim. Indeed, it represents an entirely different outlook, a different intellectual climate and set of values...
In the 1950s, by contrast, Modernists in Dublin were still relative outsiders who relied on the support of a strictly limited number of liberal-minded buyers, critics, and propagandists...There was, to be brutally frank, little or no money in modern art except for the elite dealers of Paris and, to a lesser extent, of New York, and, in any case, it was a period of austerity, particularly post-war Britain... there was a greyness and a corrosive sense of anxiety which coloured — or, more accurately, discoloured — life in general. The reverse, and positive, side of this was that those people who were active in the arts were not there to make money, since money was very rarely to be had; neither was there the type of media publicity which nowadays is taken for granted. To be an artist, in the genuine sense, was a serious matter, a vocation rather than a livelihood. This explains the tone of the intelligentsia of the period, cynical about public affairs, contemptuous of the media rather than courting them... It was a mentality closer to Baudelaire than to the cheerful populism of the Beetles a decade later, and, in fact, Baudelaire was an essential part of the intellectual diet of the time (In Swift's case, he was a virtual obsession. In London he painted several pictures of the spirit or ghost of the poet)
Irish art, when Swift appeared, had varied between the moderately progressive... and the dug-in, fingers-in-ears conservatism of the older academicians... Yet, while Swift may seem a rara avis in this artistic climate, he was less isolated in Irish art than he appears today... he belonged — insofar as a man so individualistic can belong to any specific trend — to a tendency which showed itself in the Living Art exhibitions of the early 1950s. It was in this context that Swift first made his mark, even before Waddington took him up... a number of figurative painters who emerged in the early fifties via the IELA, and which included, besides Shackleton, Swift himself, Edward McGuire, Patrick Pye... These people were in no sense a group or alignment, though several of them were linked by friendship or sympathy. They were much too disparate and individualistic for that, too uninvolved in art politics, too much outside any dominant fashion of the day. It is difficult to pinpoint what they had in common since it was not a style as such, more a quality of mind and sensibility. All one can say is that all of them drew well, tended to use quiet or tonal colours, and were original and personal without being obviously innovatory in a formal sense.
It is generally accepted that the great influence on Swift was Lucian Freud... In fact, for many years after he left Dublin, he was remembered mainly as Freud's leading Irish follower. This was almost inevitable, given that his first and only exhibition was notably Freudian and that Freud's reputation was so high at the time (it went into temporary eclipse later, under the abstract domination which lasted for perhaps a decade). But though the influence is plain to see, there are big temperamental and even stylistic differences between the two men; Swift probably would have painted very much as he did if he had never seen a Freud canvas. They shared a common Zeitgeist, but their emotional worlds were not the same, in spite of the rather tense, spare, more-real-than-real quality which they have in common. Freud works, or at least worked then, in predominantly pale colours, with a strong, wiry outline learned partly from Picasso and Leger, partly from painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) in Germany. His work was artfully flat, with a minimum of modelling or relief, and usually achieved with characteristically thin paint. Swift, in such works as the 1951 self-portrait, was generally darker in tone, less mannered, more inclined to give both figures and objects a place in space, and to model in light and shadow.
What they shared was the ability to give ordinary objects an aura of tension and strangeness, a quality noticed by the Irish Times art critic 'GHG' (Tony Gray) when he reviewed the Waddington exhibition. A motif of Swift's work at this time was his bird imagery, which appeared to him to have symbolic overtones, and may even have been a subtle form of self-portraiture. Certainly Seamus Kelly, in his 'Quidnunc' column a few days after the Waddington opening, noted that the artist himself resembled one of his own birds — beaknosed, sharp-eyed, wiry, with a kind of nervous, intense presence. The self-portrait mentioned bears this out, with its questioning, almost withdrawn look. This is the typical Irish artist-intellectual of the post-war years, reared on Joyce and Baudelaire, introspective, cerebral, at once cynical and idealistic, at odds with much or most of what the society around him believed in or affected to believe in. It was a type common enough in the Dublin bohemia of which Swift, for some years, was an essential figure...
From all of this, Swift's basic tendencies and mentality emerge plainly enough, and though his style changed considerably over the years, his essential personality as an artist never did. He was plainly not interested in the formalist aspects of Modernism... He wanted art to have an expressive, emotive, even psychological content, though not in any literary sense... Considering Irish writers and artist are proverbially slow to mature, his case was quite exceptional.
This is not to ignore the fact that there are immaturities and moments of awkwardness in his early pictures, reflecting the fact that he was largely self taught (although, in any case, the kind of art teaching which Dublin offered at the time would merely have frustrated or enraged him)... This occasional technical and formal lameness is only the negative side of a very considerable virtue — his total lack of slickness and convention, the sense of personal dialogue and struggle between the artist and the subject.
It could be said without overmuch simplification, that Swift's entire early work tends to treat everything and everyone as still life...
However, after his arrival in London his style changed, not immediately but gradually and very thoroughly. In fact, it was less a stylistic change than a transformation. From being a painter with sharp, angular outlines and a thin paint surface, he became one who 'drew with the brush', modelled in heavy, laden strokes, and, in general, daubed and dragged the paint around until it did his bidding.
Stylistically his 'first period' and 'his second period' could hardly be more different from one another, though the underlying sensibility somehow remains the same... It is dangerous, however, to generalise too much or too widely about Swift's development, since it is so inadequately chartered. He did not date or sign his work, or even give his pictures titles... and though he liked on occasion to write about other artist's work, past and present, he did not discuss his own except in the most general terms... he is a headache to write about in any but the loosest chronological terms.
One motif which he took with him to London was a love of urban views seen from a window — his studio, presumably — of old gardens and backyards, an everyday world somehow peopled with possibilities of human lives and encounters. This world existed very strongly in Dublin at the time, especially behind the tall Georgian or neo-Georgian houses of Baggot Street, Pembroke Road, Waterloo Road, and other quintessential Southside areas. It had a special appeal, or at least a special significance, to the bohemian intelligentsia of McDaid's and other literary pubs, who often lived temporarily in such places and certainly went to parties, discussions or drinking sessions in them. Just as the Soho or Camden Town of Sickert's time remains embedded in his work, so the psychological aura of the 1950s haunts Swift's paintings, as it does Lucian Freud's rather similar views from his various London studios. The milieus of McDaid's and of bohemian Soho, after all, were closely allied, and many people, including Swift, travelled from one to the other...
Swift's portraits of George Barker, Patrick Kavanagh, David Wright and others of his circle include some of his best works, and are among the finest portraits painted in Britain at this period. A deeply cultured man himself, with literary tastes, he was specially qualified to interpret in paint the complex, individualistic people who were his contemporaries or friends. Once again, his approach was basically humanist, not formalist... In the George Barker portrait there is an obvious residue of Cézanne, and in a sense the work is rather a transition between his earlier, sharp-focussed style and the more ‘painterly’ one into which he was moving. The Kavanagh and Wright portraits, however, mark a complete change or liberation, and show that by now Swift was close to Expressionism. Incidentally, the Wright portrait is larger than lifesize, which enhances its effect of almost baroque monumentality. The portrait of David Gascoyne by contrast is leaner and more refined in style, perhaps one of Swift's finest.
Since Expressionism was not at all in favour in England (or Ireland) at this time, it is very relevant to wonder what precisely moved Swift in this direction. Partly, no doubt, his own volition, and in the virtually underground art circles he was moving in there was a certain Expressionist strain, even though it was confined to a few. Bacon, of course, is an obvious case, but Bacon's painting is sui generis, and though Swift admired him greatly, he never worked on Bacon's scale or took the technical risks he did. Bacon might be an inspiring force, but his style was inimitable and afforded no direct model to anybody. Auerbach was another artist whom Swift knew and admired and featured in X magazine when Auerbach was still little known, but his glutinously heavy paint and very individual mentality — half central European, half Londoner — were not attributes Swift could or would have imitated. I believe that the real influence behind his new style was Soutine who was being rediscovered about this time both in England and America. There is no doubt at all that Swift admired him, and in fact Soutine became something of a cult in his circle (I believe personally that Bacon himself felt his influence for a while). He was certainly an influence on Auerbach, as Robert Hughes's book on him brings out.
These portraits then, even with all their faults and occasional overstatements, are remarkable of their kind, and how much more vital and personal they are than the tight, mannered, dully coloured and dully painted portraits by Graham Sutherland about which at least half the London intelligentsia were so enthusiastic at the time. They are also at the furthest remove from the accomplished but meagerly painted portraits of William Coldstream, one of the creators of the 'Slade School Style', with its tight drawing and paint no thicker than a razor blade. They are more interesting and individual than those of Rodrigo Moynihan, a better painter then either Sutherland or Coldstream, but at heart equally conventional. Yet they were seen by only a handful of people, and in some cases were even lucky to have survived. The Kavanagh portrait... The poet's big, hulking, slightly shapeless body leans angularly towards the viewer, while his face is ridged and furrowed into what verges on caricature, yet remains a very good likeness, a psychological likeness as much as a physical one. Only a man with a keen literary sensibility could have painted it, a man who could get inside his sitters psychologically. George Barker seated with his hands joined on his knees seems curiously inscrutable, almost oriental, while David Wright is massive, shock-headed and slightly teddy bearish. But Swift could also paint women well, as is shown by the various heads, almost classical in their clean, simple contours, of his wife Oonagh, the fine almost full-length portrait of Claire McAllister, and one moving picture of an old woman who I am told, was his grandmother and seems to have hated it.
It is easy to regret that Swift did not paint more portraits, but it is unlikely he would have wanted to. His high-mindedness would never have allowed him to be a professional portraitist, while his temperamental tendency to paint only those whom he knew well would have ruled out a larger clientele. Looking back, we should be glad that he was never trapped into such a career: Edward McGuire, one of the most gifted Irish painters of his generation, was caught up in the toils of professional portraiture, with results which undermined his entire peace of mind and perhaps, ultimately his health.
Underlying both early and middle-period Swift — in fact, most of his output apart from the sun-soaked, serene works of his last years — there is a basic disquiet, a quality which is obvious to the most superficial observer. Fashionable psycho-babble will look straight-away for private sources, not to say neurosis, but what we are dealing with is a metaphysic not a mere psychic knot. From the very first, there is a shadowed, and shadowy, essence in his work, and the figures and objects are often ringed with a kind of penumbral quality, almost a halo in reverse. In a sense this can be read as a kind of modern-equivalent to chiaroscuro, using the word in a deeper sense, not as a mere technical device for making a figure or still-life object stand out more... In an article he wrote about Caravaggio's work, published in the magazine Nimbus, Swift spoke of the impact the great Baroque realist's pictures made on him, especially those in the church of Santo Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Caravaggio, of course, was just coming into fashion intellectually about the time, but Swift's discovery was a personal one which seems to have come as a virtual revelation. He saw and understood the power of Caravaggio's rhetoric and his sense of gesture and drama on a grand, heroic scale, but equally he was impressed with his attention to detail, including quite ordinary objects and things: "It is the fact that no detail is unworthy of his love that affects us deeply, in painting the gesture in full rhetorical flower he is at the same time in love with the very simple existence of the object apart from its significance in action".
Plainly it was a potent lesson to him that accurate, almost descriptive detail could enhance emotional intensity, just as in moments of stress or exhilaration, quite ordinary familiar objects are seen by us with almost abnormal clarity and become virtually symbols of our emotional state at the time. This goes a long way towards explaining the almost unnatural clarity of Swift's early style...
It should be remembered, however, that he was not only a painter of suburban bohemia, he was also a painter of nature. Swift's first exhibition contained flower pieces, close-ups of foliage (faintly Sutherlandish by the way), birds and plants, and all his life he painted landscapes. His last period, in fact, is little else, an almost rapturous reaction to the fertility of the sunlit country he saw around him... Both in Ireland and England he painted out of doors... The landscapes are very rarely panoramic; in fact, the foreground tends often to shut out any views in depth, and the viewer finds himself brought up sharp against a wall of rather somber greens...
The third period of course belongs to Portugal... There were prophecies in his early work the he would settle in a Mediterranean country — one of the pictures shown in the Waddington Gallery was entitled Almond Tree in Flower. Perhaps it would be over romantic, or over simple, to say that it was in part a flight from foggy London to southern sun...Perhaps, too, after the nervous energy expended on editing X, he needed a new air, new surroundings, even a new lifestyle. By that time, in any case, Soho was well past its peak and swingin’ London was under way... Pop Art was taking over... it is difficult to see him having much in common with the generation of Hockney and Caulfield and Peter Blake. His generation had been a private, rather introverted one... He was almost chauvinistically and romantically European... The painting he did of Baudelaire’s ‘presence’— for lack of a choicer word — in his London studio, show his intellectual allegiances, and are a strange balance of imaginative eeriness with mater-of-fact description; the accurately rendered studio clutter in fact is oddly reminiscent of the ‘Kitchen Sink School’, much discussed about that time by John Berger and others. Yet the poet’s imago seems almost wistfully at home there, and it is a fairly safe assumption that Swift had in mind the very similar bohemian studios which Baudelaire had frequented in Paris a century before. In a sense, he can be taken as a male version of the painter’s muse, as well as a mingled exhortation and warning...
My overall impression is that Swift's art was a very personal and private matter, usually carried on behind closed doors. In Portugal, I am told, he usually went alone to his studio and remained alone there until he emerged for meals, rest or recreation...
There remains Swift the critic, an aspect of him which may, on the face of it, belong in another context than this essay, yet it is difficult to ignore. Swift's criticism is that of the practising artist not that of a practising critic, and when speaking of his criticism I do not merely mean only his occasional critical essays, but his activity as co-editor of a magazine and as champion of Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Craigie Aitchison, Nano Reid, Giacometti and David Bomberg (whose posthumous papers he edited). This is criticism in the valid, active , propagandistic sense, not merely the daily or weekly grind of reviewing all sorts and conditions of artists, good and bad, but mostly mediocre. Once again much of Swift's activity in this field was semi-underground, almost subversive, often done in the teeth of the modernist establishment of his day. His record in this field speaks for itself. He had natural taste, he had the instincts of a born artist, he had intelligence and sufficient erudition, and he had firm and articulate opinions. I certainly cannot think of any other Irish painter who achieved anything like what he did as a critic and editor and discoverer of talent, and very few painters in any other country either. Wyndham Lewis, it is true, was a verbose propagandist, but on the whole he was a bad critic, and somehow his propaganda almost always turns out to be some form of self-aggrandisement, whereas Swift almost always pushed the fortunes and reputations of his friends and almost never his own. Yet, you do not get, from his general stance, that his motives were simply friendship and good intentions. There is a tone of dedication throughout, as though he was serving art, and not merely artists.
It is a peculiarity of his very individual psyche and personality that Swift cannot be ‘placed’ purely as a painter. He was an artist in the broad sense before he was specifically a painter, and his context embraces literature and other disciplines besides painting or drawing (It is noticeable that he had more friends who were literary men than friends who were painters). Swift is not a painter’s painter, he is an artist’s artist, a man whose mentality overlapped into other fields besides his own chosen one. Perhaps that was easier in the fifties and early sixties than it is today... there does not seem, in fact, to be a broad and inclusive culture today which embraces all the arts as a unity... Swift may have been lucky in that he lived in a milieu in which a synthesis was possible, but his synthesis was of his own making.

Suggested Reading

This is not a list of everything written about or by Swift, merely a guide to books, articles and occasional pieces which give a better understanding of the artist and his period.
—A comprehensive book Patrick Swift 1927-83, edited by Veronica Jane O’Mara (Gandon Editions, Kinsale, 1993). The fully illustrated book features a biography by the editor and essays by David Wright, John McGahern, Anthony Cronin and many others. The Irish Museum of Modern Art published a catalogue to accompany their retrospective exhibition in 1993.
An Anthology from X (Oxford University Press, 1988), edited by David Wright, who pays tribute to Swift in his introduction. There are further tributes to him in Wright’s selected poems (Carcanet Press, 1988) and in Poems and Versions (Carcanet, 1992).
—For evocations of Dublin cultural life of the fifties, Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails (Dolmen Pres, 1976; reprinted several times as a paperback by OUP) and Terrance de Vere White’s A Fretful Midge are both classics of their genre. Many books have appeared recently which deal with the bohemian epoch of Soho, but Swift is not mentioned in many of them. An exception is Rosemary Sullivan’s life of Elizabeth Smart, By Heart (Lime Tree, 1991, and republished as a paperback by Flamingo, 1992). He is ignored in the various books on Francis Bacon, and even Robert Hughes’s Frank Auerbach (Thames and Hudson, 1990) does not give him a single mention, in spite of his efforts to publicise Auerbach’s art.
—The laudatory review of Swift’s first exhibition in October 1952, was signed ‘GHG’, the usual signature for Tony Gray, then art critic for The Irish Times. ‘Quidnunc’ (Seamus Kelly) devoted his influential ‘Irishman’s Diary’ to Swift and his exhibition in the same newspaper. John Ryan’s article on Swift appeared in his Envoy magazine for April 1951, and his biographical entry on him for The Irish Imagination was part of the catalogue for the 1971 Rosc exhibition in Dublin

Brian Fallon, taken from his essay 'Patrick Swift and Irish Art' (1993), Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal, Gandon Editions, 2001; First published: 'Patrick Swift and Irish Art', Portfolio 2 - Modern Irish Arts Review, Gandon Editions, Cork, 1993. Other articles by Brian Fallon Include: 'The fall and rise of Patrick Swift', The Irish Times, 11 June 1992 (link); 'The legacy of Patrick Swift', The Irish Times, Dec 2, 1993 (link)

Note: Brian Fallon was instrumental in IMMA (Fallon was a founder board member) putting on Swift’s retrospective in 1993. During the 1980s he frequently called for exhibitions to be held of both Edward McGuire and Patrick Swift. Writing in The Irish Times (Situation Vacated, Private view, The Irish Times, Feb 20, 1991): "With the Edward McGuire retrospective exhibition due this year in the RHA Gallagher Gallery, the talk of a possible Patrick Swift memorial show gains extra topicality…I have never seen a large Swift exhibition — not too many people still around have, I should imagine. But he was undeniably a painter with a style of his own, as well as playing a central role in the Dublin and Soho bohemia of the time. Such an exhibition is long overdue."


Almost all are of landscape subjects, or at least outdoor ones. Trees shimmer in the fierce white light, houses or cottages huddle into their fields or gardens, there is an abundant feeling of fertility and also of serenity. Figures are rare, though the human presence is implicit throughout. They have a faint flavour of Cézanne’s late watercolours, but they are bigger and also less formalised, looser and more lyrical. Taken as a sequence they represent one of the peaks of watercolour painting over the last forty years; certainly no Irish painter has done better.
Brian Fallon on a series of late watercolours by Swift, from his essay 'Patrick Swift and Irish Art', reproduced in Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal, Gandon Editions, 2001


He did not allow himself to simply accept the nascent effervescence of post-war English art, although he did live in its midst and analysed it and commented upon it... He maintained both a love of the figurative that he was never to relinquish, and a lack of interest in, and even an aversion to abstraction, geometric or otherwise.... Among his various influences we feel the presence of Giacometti and his infinite veils of grey, obsessively covering and uncovering a tortured and secret face… These affinities... were not enough to deflect him from his intuitive self. They constituted less a deliberate career focus and more a faith in an inner order, that manifested itself in his painting and writing. The artist distanced himself from fashion in order to grasp the permanent element which he believed he must seek in the world of painting, not just in that of his own day, but in that of all time, and in the relationship between art, reality and its interpretation.
Fernando De Azvedo (painter and President of Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes, Lisbon), Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal, Gandon Editions, 2001


Dublin Oil - Dublin Watercolour/ Ink - Italy - Oakridge/ Ashwell Watercolour - Oakridge/ Ashwell Oil - London Oil - London Watercolour/ Ink - France - Algarve Oil - Algarve Watercolour/ Ink - Self-Portraits - Trees - Portraits I - Portraits II - Porches Pottery - Books - Misc - Algarve Studio
Note: many of the reproductions displayed here are of poor quality

By Swift
Nano Reid - Some notes on Caravaggio - Italian Report - The Artist Speaks - X magazine - RHA Exhibition 1951 - Eça de Queiroz & Fernando Pessoa - The Portuguese Enigma - Notebooks - All

About Swift
Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal - IMMA 1993 Retrospective Catalogue - Dublin 1950-2 - By His Friends - X magazine - Poems - Further Quotes About - All

By His Friends
Anthony Cronin - John Ryan - John Jordan - C.H.Sisson - Martin Green - John McGahern - David Wright - Lima de Freitas - Katherine Swift - Tim Motion - Lionel Miskin - Jacques D'Arribehaude - Brian Higgins - George Barker - Patrick Kavanagh

Further Quotes
Brian Fallon - Aidan Dunne - Derek Hill - Brendan Behan - Lucian Freud - Patrick Kavanagh - Elizabeth Smart - Further Quotes About