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Writing about Art: The Colony by Audrey Magee

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction
colony

By Audrey Magee

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What is it about the artist on an island? Is it romantic? A romantic notion of art and the artist? Or is it much deeper, more essential? The artist on the edge hunting for the essence of being.

My artist is Mr Lloyd, an English man who insists on travelling to an Irish-speaking island in a currach because he wants to be authentic, to live as the islanders live, even though the islanders have long stopped using the currach, preferring instead the safety and comfort of a motorised boat.

Lloyd is from London and has travelled to the remote unnamed island off the west coast of Ireland to escape the metropolitan art scene that has little time for his work. In a city buzzing over the works of Bacon, Freud and Auerbach, Lloyd is seen as too traditionalist, too conventional to be modern and interesting. He heads west, landing on the island to paint cliffs but also to prove them wrong in London, to prove that he is relevant, that he is an artist worthy of inclusion in the city’s top galleries.

I became fascinated by the concept of the artist on the island after a trip in 1999 to Tory Island with the English artist, Derek Hill. I saw his remote hut on the island where living was pared back, essential, elemental; utterly different to his mainland house in Church Hill, Co Donegal packed with bric-a-brac, paintings and rugs. So what is it that drew him and so many others to the islands off the west coast? Paul Henry, Robert Henri and Camille Souter went to Achill Island; Gerard Dillon to Inishlacken and Seán Keating to the Aran Islands. What is it that they are looking for? Is it isolation or the pared back elemental existence of island life? Or both? Is it about finding an existential space, as Gauguin did in D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous?

To create an artist, I needed to know one. How the artist thinks and sees, to understand that the artist’s perceptions are different from the writer’s. I read, extensively. I read biographies about many different artists, Rembrandt, Gauguin, van Gogh, Cézanne, Bacon, Freud, Auerbach, Picasso, Matisse, Hockney, Munch, but in the end it came down to three books that distilled for me the essence of the artist: Noa Noa by Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh Ever Yours, the Essential Letters and Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait. As well as reading, I scrutinised paintings over the years that I was writing, soaking in Rembrandt’s self-portraits in London and Amsterdam; Bacon in Norwich; Gauguin in Basel; van Gogh in Amsterdam; Donald Teskey in Dublin; and that special moment in British Museum in London when I finally saw Rembrandt’s Young Woman Sleeping, a piece that is central to my writing of The Colony.

As I wrote, I began to see to see the world Lloyd would see it, visually, everything around him an image for a painting, for a drawing, for a sketch; a scene in oils, a moment in charcoal, a fragment in pencil. Sometimes he draws what is actually in front of him:

He turned to a blank sheet and began to draw the pier, stubby and inelegant but encrusted with barnacles and seaweed that glistened in the sunshine, the shells and fronds still wet from the morning tide.

Other times he imagines his work and segues off into an interior world where he expresses himself in self-portraits:

self-portrait: preparing for the sea crossing

or

self-portrait: conversation with the boatmen

The self-portraits often express his emotions, in the instance below his terror as he attempts to step from the pier ladder into the low-lying currach;

self-portrait I: falling

self-portrait II: drowning

self-portrait III: disappearing

self-portrait IV: under the water

self-portrait V: the disappeared

His interior language is staccato and fragmented, sometimes even broken when he is the English man on the Irish-speaking island, far outside his comfort zone, a man who is deeply unhappy when he believes that the cliffs he has come to paint are too ordinary for his needs:

He opened his eyes and looked down on the cliffs. He kicked at the wind-burnt grass

pastels

blue

green

tinges of pink

sunday painters

and park railings

unworthy

of oils

of mildew

rain and cold

of cabbage

potato

of fish that’s fried

He slumped onto the grass and buried his head into his arms.

self-portrait: blind date, the aftermath

He had, however, been looking at the wrong cliffs. He climbed again and found the ones he had come to paint:

He looked down. On cliffs. As they were in the book, raw, rugged, violent beauty, the ocean thunderous as it crashed into the rock two hundred feet beneath his knees and hands. He flopped onto his stomach and reached further over the edge, the force of the ocean against the rock reverberating through his flesh, into his bones

beauty

unearthed

unseen

unpainted

worthy of oils

He laughed

of mildew

rain and cold

of cabbage

potato

and fish that’s fried

He stayed on his belly, watching as the setting sun lit the west-facing cliff, a light show to unearth the pinks, reds, oranges, yellows embedded in the rock, colours he had not expected to find so far to the north. He drew them in his sketchbook and scrambled on hands and knees along the cliff’s edge to peer at caves and archways cut by the ocean, to draw the herring gulls, cormorants and terns, squawking and caking the rock in a rich white fertiliser it could not absorb, to sketch how the light fell this far to the north, knowing that at dawn it would be different, as it would be at midday, at four in the afternoon, in rain, in fog, in winter, in autumn, in summer, in spring, the interaction between sun and rock boundless, infinite.

He was happy then – the English artist on the Irish island.

(c) Audrey Magee

About The Colony:

He handed the easel to the boatman, reaching down the pier wall towards the sea.

Mr Lloyd has decided to travel to the island by boat without engine – the authentic experience.

Unbeknownst to him, Mr Masson will also soon be arriving for the summer. Both will strive to encapsulate the truth of this place – one in his paintings, the other by capturing its speech, the language he hopes to preserve.

But the people who live on this rock – three miles long and half-a-mile wide – have their own views on what is being recorded, what is being taken and what is given in return. Soft summer days pass, and the islanders are forced to question what they value and what they desire. As the autumn beckons, and the visitors head home, there will be a reckoning.

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About the author

Audrey Magee was born in Ireland and lives in Wicklow. She worked for twelve years as a journalist and has written for, among others, The Times, The Irish Times, the Observer and the Guardian. She studied German and French at University College Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University.

Her first novel, The Undertaking, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for France’s Festival du Premier Roman and for the Irish Book Awards. It was also nominated for the Dublin Literary Award and the Water Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The Undertaking has been translated into ten languages and is being adapted for film.

Audrey’s second novel, The Colony, is published by Faber & Faber and will be published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on 17 May 2022.

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