Hector McDonnell, Ulster Artist

This how the House of Lords ends—in the arts.

Hector McDonnell is an established painter, etcher and illustrator born and raised in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Raised in Glenarm Castle to be exact. McDonnell is the younger son of the 13th Earl of Antrim, Ulster’s only aristocratic Catholic titleholder. Hector’s older brother—an architect—is the 14th Earl, still living in the family castle. Glenarm, like so many of England’s great houses, helps pay the heating bills by opening itself to the public at certain times of the year, as well as for weddings and corporate events. (Bertie Wooster sightings are said to be plentiful but surely apocryphal.)

Since 1988, Hector McDonnell has been dividing his time between Antrim and Cold Spring, New York. He began exhibiting in London in 1973. It was the start of a long public career. Over the last three decades, he has enjoyed an impressive number of one-man shows in London, Munich, Vienna, Paris, Stuttgart, Belfast, Stockholm and Madrid, as well as others in London and Ireland.

His first exhibition at WM. Brady is a handsome event. Twenty eight oils are on view, a lively, richly colored medley of interiors, street scenes and a selection of travel pieces. Of these, it is the interiors—including street scenes glimpsed from indoors—that convey the greatest conviction. More precisely, these move beyond accomplished picture making to become expressions of a felt response.

Rose in a Cold Spring Café is particularly fine. A young girl faces the viewer down the length of a cloth covered table. Luncheon debris separates the girl, sandwich in hand, from the viewer. The table top, from the checkered cloth to a plate of half-eaten burgers, is beautifully rendered. An upside-down ketchup bottle lends a certain whimsy to the incident. (That is what we do with ketchup, isn’t it?) A carefully constructed design, the image transcends anecdote in the balance of compositional elements. McDonnell locks the centrally placed figure into the picture plane by the window segments behind her. Strategically placed color notes—dark red tones on a paper cup or a yellow-green lettuce leaf—that punctuate the dominant spread of blues.

Dancing Monks,Tibet typifies the “treks abroad” half of the exhibition title. A freeze-frame view of moving figures in an exotic setting, it has the appeal of accomplished travel photography. The tradition of the artist as a visual diarist has long been supplanted by the camera. Nowadays, tout le monde posts vacation shots on the web. Painters can depict Tibet or Capri from the comfort of their studios. McDonnell’s translations of his own travel shots, adept as they are, lack the immediacy of his homelier settings. Nevertheless, Lily Pond, Stuttgart, is a small panel so deliciously colored that its origin is irrelevant. All that counts is the loveliness and deft depiction of the motif.

Fiery cadmiums enliven the static horizontals of Staircase, Drogheda. Celbridge Staircase, County Kildare, offers a seductive view from the landing of a angular staircase. The viewpoint divides between the landing above and the room below. This fine, light-filled performance conveys that sense of personal intimacy at the heart of McDonnell’s work.

Interior Journeys and Treks Abroad remains on view until May 15th at W.M. Brady & Co., 22 East 80th Street, 212-249-7212. The gallery has no website. The best way to get a cleareer overview of what McDonnell’s word—both painting and illustration—is to browse his website.

©2010 Maureen Mullarkey