Hughie O’Donoghue at Abbot Hall

Vulcano Solfatara III

Vulcano: Solfatara

On Monday we drove up the M6 for another visit to the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal – our discovery for 2012. It was our third visit this year. In their 50th year they’ve been showing some excellent exhibitions and the current one, Vivid Field, featuring works by Hughie O’Donoghue , is no exception.

I first came across Hughie O’Donoghue, a Mancunian of Irish heritage who now lives in Ireland, in 2009 during a visit to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. They were showing an exhibition of his works – Recent Paintings and Selected Works from the American Ireland Fund Donation. I was impressed by his dramatic and moving paintings. On until the end of December, the Abbot Hall exhibition features a large number of his paintings from both private and public collections covering a period of almost thirty years.

He creates paintings that are abstract and figurative at the same time, incorporating what are almost ghostly figures. Some including photographs. Many of them are on large canvases, although he also creates smaller, more intimate works as well. He uses colour extremely well particularly luminous yellows, creams and white, often apply the paint in thick layers.

the paintings are built up in successive layers of oil paint over time and following no clear plan or drawing but rather being freely improvised in relation to their subject, the painted surface often acquiring a weathered or excavated quality reflecting the parallels of his painting process to an archaeological dig. (Abbot Hall press release)

His subject matter can be rather morbid, but, and I don’t know why, I find many of them uplifting. Perhaps it’s the colours.

The exhibition included one of his earlier paintings Liquid Earth from 1984, a large scale work created just after he had spent 6 months as Artist in Residence at the National Gallery in London.

Liquid Earth

Liquid Earth

It’s a much darker painting than many of the other larger canvases on display. You have to look very carefully to see a human figure within the dark colours. It’s inspired by the bodies preserved in peat bogs, like Lindow Man, also known as “Pete Marsh”, discovered in a peat bog by commercial peat-cutters at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Cheshire in August 1984 .

Many of O’Donoghue’s works are inspired by photographs taken by his father when he was a soldier during the Second World War.

As well as the human figure, at the centre of his practice as a painter, is the recuperative act of remembering. The idea that memory is a creative process that draws upon the imagination and on our ability to be empathetic with the lives and experiences of others. (Abbot Hall press release)

There were a number of paintings inspired by his father’s experiences in Italy during the war – the Cumae series based on  photographs of allied soldiers relaxing on the beach and swimming in the sea at Cumae, a Mediterranean resort on the Italian coast close to Naples. The town has a long history, originally established as an ancient Greek Colony. The Romans believed it had been the home of the mythical Prophetess, the Cumaen Sybil who was consulted by the hero Aeneas before his journey into the underworld.

A Moments Liberty V

A Moment’s Liberty I

Cumae is close to Vesuvius, which features in some of the paintings and  the figures included in some of the paintings could easily be mistaken for the plaster casts of bodies from the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, victims of the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

Another painting based on his father’s experiences is Fool’s House (2007).


This work also featured in the IMMA exhibition, so I’d seen it before. It’s a large canvas, incorporating a transparent photograph of a soldier who could be either sleeping or dead. I like the way he has incorporated found objects – a wooden panel and a post into the canvas.

There was a series of smaller paintings, the curiously named, The Changing Face of Moo Cow Farm (2012). In these works, rather like Monet’s studies of haystacks and Rouen Cathedral, the artists explores the changing effects of light on the same location.

The Changing Face of Moo Cow Farm 9

The Changing Face of Moo Cow Farm 9

“Moo Cow farm” was actually the site of a battle in northern France during the First World War. So again he has been influenced by the theme of war and destruction.

I thought it was another excellent exhibition. We’ve been so impressed by the gallery that we decided to become “Friends” of the Lakeland Trust, which will allow us unlimited access to the gallery and also Blackwell (The Arts and Crafts House near Bowness on Windermere) for the next 14 months. So we’ll probably be driving up the M6 again soon to take another look at the exhibition.


Pictures copyright of Marlborough Fine Art

A full colour publication has been produced in liaison with Marlborough Fine Art at a reasonable cost of £7-95 to coincide with the exhibition.

4 thoughts on “Hughie O’Donoghue at Abbot Hall

  1. Thanks for the interesting review of Vivid Field. I’d come across ‘Liquid Earth’ as a tiny image in a brochure a couple of years ago and it is still pasted in my work book. I hadn’t seen Hughie O’Donoghue’s work apart from that (and certainly didn’t realise there was a body concealed in it!). Very enjoyable post (and images). Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Christmassy Kendal | Down by the Dougie

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