Patrick Anthony Hennessy (1915-1980) has been termed “a strange, even exotic presence in Irish art”. A superb craftsman and technician, he was known for his polished still lifes, landscapes and figurative works. Throughout a long and commercially successful career, his work puzzled the art critics, who never managed to pin him down to any definite genre.
He was born in Cork city on 28 August, 1915. His father, John Hennessy, was a Sergeant Major in the Leinster Regiment. When John was killed at Passchendaele in 1917 – in one of the most terrible battles of the World War I – his wife, Bridget, was left with little income and the task of raising six children. In 1921, she married John Duncan – a Scot serving in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). When he resigned from the RIC, the entire family relocated to Arbroath in Scotland.
Patrick Hennessy’s artistic talents were noted and encouraged early in life. He was enrolled in the Dundee College of Art at the age of 18. Considerable sacrifice was made by the Hennessy siblings to pay for their brother’s further education. Patrick flourished in Dundee, winning a scholarship for post-graduate study and exhibiting as soon as he graduated. He also befriended another student – Harry Robertson Craig. Subsequent separations notwithstanding; they were to become lifelong companions.
With war looming on the horizon, Patrick returned in Ireland in 1939. Despite the dire economic plight of de Valera’s Ireland, Hennessy’s rise in the Irish art world was meteoric. The next two decades were to be his heyday. From 1941, Hennessy exhibited annually with the Royal Hibernian Academy and gained many commissions. In 1948, he was elected an Associate of the RHA.
Hennessy reunited with Harry Robertson Craig in 1946 and, soon after, they moved to Crosshaven, Co Cork. From the early 1940s onwards, his work often incorporated a homosexual subtext. Hennessy was a gay artist who expressed his sexuality in his work when it was not commonplace to do so, and when homosexuality was illegal in the State. His exploration of sexuality is coded, with figures set against bleak land and seascapes – perhaps suggesting the social isolation and loneliness that many gay men would have experienced at the time.
In the 1960s, the international movement towards abstract painting saw Hennessy fall out of fashion, and his later years were complicated by health problems. He and Robertson Craig began to spend their winters in Tangiers, and moved there permanently in 1970. Not only did Morocco suit Hennessy’s health, but Tangiers offered a refreshingly liberal attitude to homosexuality.
Kassim by the Sea (1978) is one of Hennessy’s last works. Unlike other artists who were drawn to north Africa, Hennessy focused on painting individuals – not “types”. His models are never posed in oriental dress and there is no overtly ‘foreign’ background of souks or mosques. The young model, Kassim (who had also appeared in earlier works) stares forthrightly at the viewer while the sea plays on the rocky Moroccan shore behind him. It is painted in a lighter, clearer palette than Hennessy’s work from the 40s and 50s, and it is perhaps significant that, unlike those bleak earlier pieces, another figure features in the background.
Hennessy died from cancer in 1980. He left his entire estate to Harry Robertson Craig with the proviso that, on Craig’s death, the Royal Hibernian Academy should be the beneficiary. This legacy has been used to set up the annual Hennessy Craig Scholarship for aspiring artists.
David Hendriks of the Hendriks Gallery, who knew Hennessy for over 20 years, said on his death: “He wasn’t fashionable: wasn’t in the mainstream – and he refused to change.”