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Fisherman with Lobster, c.1937

September 21, 2022


Charles Lamb was a talented painter whose output encompassed portraits, still-life, Breton subjects, western and northern landscapes, harbour and fishing scenes, as well as depictions of the Famine, and the Claddagh.  Fisherman with Lobster is a leading work of Lamb’s mid-career purchased in the 1940s from the artist by Jack McCabe of Portadown. McCabe knew and admired Lamb, and according to his son John, he purchased one of his paintings with his first pay packet (correspondence, 1998). McCabe continued buying works by Lamb when he was a young artist, and they formed the nucleus of the collection, which hung in his wife’s hotel, the Seagoe Hotel, Portadown, in the restaurant that became known as ‘Lambs’. The Lamb Restaurant opened in the early 1980s attended by many of the Lamb family. It was a popular venue and, in its heyday, displayed eleven works by Lamb ranging from northern landscapes painted in Rostrevor and around the River Bann to scenes from the west of Ireland, the largest of which was Fisherman with Lobster (correspondence with Jack McCabe’s wife, 1994).  The painting dates to c.1937, when Lamb showed a work listed as The Lobster Man at Newry Feis, which is likely to be Fisherman with Lobster.

The portrait is of Pádraic Ghrealís from Rinn, Connemara, known as ‘the lobster man’. He was married to Nan Mhichil Liam Mc Donagh, a close friend of the Lamb household, her portrait is in the National Gallery of Ireland. Ghrealís was a great sailor and deep-sea fisherman, as the portrait shows, earning his livelihood from lobster fishing. The couple had several daughters and four sons who, together with their father, were great rowers. The composition emphasises the large, seated figure, possibly positioned above Caladh Thaidhg harbour, overlooking in the background the small island and village of Lettermullan across from Carraroe. Ghrealís and his wife Nan modelled for other works by Lamb including, a commission from the Haverty Trust in 1934, to paint Pattern Day in Connemara, for University College Galway. The subject is the ancient ritual of the pattern, where a traditional pilgrimage to a site associated with a local saint involved people doing circuits around a holy well with prayers and penance.

At the time that Lamb painted Fisherman with Lobster he was living in Carraroe, Co Galway.  Born in Portadown, he trained at the Belfast School of Art, winning a scholarship to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (NCAD), where he graduated in 1921. Pádraic Ó Conaire, the Galway poet and writer, encouraged him to go to Connemara to find the landscape and skies he wanted to paint. In 1923 he met Katharine, the daughter of Ford Madox Ford, who was studying veterinary medicine in Dublin, and in 1927, after Lamb’s trip to Brittany, the couple were married. They settled in Carraroe, where in 1933, Lamb built a house and studio to accommodate their growing family. In the 1930s he was elected an academician of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and the Ulster Academy of Arts (RUA).  

Lamb began painting single figures early in his career. An early example, The Lough Neagh Fisherman, 1921 (Ulster Museum), portrays a young northern fisherman against the backdrop of Lough Neagh. It is a confident study that demonstrated Lamb’s skill at portraiture and helped him to make his mark at the RHA. He developed this portrait style into an idealised form of ‘national type’, which by 1930, included figures from the west of Ireland, singly or in couples, most notably in the well-known iconic painting, The Quaint Couple, 1931 (Crawford Art Gallery, Cork).  In Fisherman with Lobster, Lamb employs a golden light on the right of the figure leaving the left in shadow, placing Ghrealís in the foreground to stand out against a brilliant background landscape and blue sky. His hands hold a lobster and pot, and his rugged weather-beaten face betrays a lifetime of fishing. Ghrealís wears a well-used báinín jacket, brown striped geansaí, and black cap. The portrait is a work of great assurance and confident painting, reflecting virtuosity of brushwork in the tonal build-up of the face, the vivid blue sea and green island landscape. This is Lamb at his best illustrating a form of monumental portraiture at which he excelled, depicting the people he felt reflected the ‘national essence’ and, in the process, becoming one of Ireland’s most influential 20th century landscape painters.

During Lamb’s subsequent career, he ran a summer school from 1936 to 1950s in Carraroe, attended by numerous important artists, and hosted a summer exhibition where visitors could see and buy his paintings. He illustrated ‘Cré na Cille’ by Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1949) and ‘An Tincéra Buí’ by Séan Ó Coisdealbha (1962). His work was shown internationally in London, Brussels, New York, Boston, and Ottawa, the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition Chicago, the 1923 Olympic Games Exhibitions in Los Angeles, and 1948 in London. He exhibited at the RA, RUA, RHA, Oireachtas, Aonach Tailteann, Dublin Painters Gallery, and at art societies in Belfast, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford. Lamb died in 1964 and is buried in Carraroe.

Dr. Marie Bourke, August 2022

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