Patrick Hennessy was a highly individual painter, who may have sometimes perplexed the critics but cultivated a devoted following, especially in the United States and his own country of Ireland. He developed a virtuoso painting technique in order to produce carefully observed, highly-finished compositions, be they still lifes, interiors, landscapes or figure subjects. Hyperrealism, trompe l’oeil illusionism and Surrealism meld one with another in intriguing and seductive ways. Patrick Hennessy, known familiarly as Tony, was born at 2 Shandon Terrace, Cork, Ireland, on 28 August 1915. He was the youngest of the six children of John Hennessy, a company sergeant major in the 2nd Leinster Regiment in the British Army, and his wife, Bridget (née Ring). In 1917, his father was killed at the Battle of Passchendaele, in Flanders, leaving his mother to bring up the children.
She set herself up in the business of repairing and cleaning military and police uniforms. It was probably as a result of this activity that she met her second husband, John Duncan, a Scotsman serving in the Royal Irish Constabulary stationed in Cork. Soon after Bridget and John married at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Cork in 1921, the entire family moved to 9 Bridge Street, Arbroath, Scotland. Duncan had relatives in the town, and took up a position as a flax mill tenter. Once settled in Arbroath, Hennessy attended the local primary school, and then, from 1927, Arbroath High School. There he began to reveal a talent for art, which was encouraged by his art teacher, Patrick Ingles. In his final year, in 1933, he won the prizes for both art and history, so convincing his siblings of his promise, and persuading them to provide him with support.
In the autumn of 1933, Hennessy entered Dundee School of Art, and began a four-year diploma course in drawing and painting under James McIntosh Patrick. Hennessy played a full part in the school’s social life, including the design of theatrical productions, though not to the detriment of his studies. He gained a first class pass in each year of the course, and won prizes in both 1934 and 1936 for work done in the summer vacation. In 1937, he graduated with a first class distinction, and gained a scholarship to fund a further year on a postgraduate diploma course. An exhibition in Arbroath in 1938, at the end of his postgraduate course, confirmed that he was the leading student in his year, though some of his teachers, and especially Francis Cooper, the Principal, were critical of both his approach and his sometimes disruptive behaviour.
Hennessy was glad to be free of his Dundee years, though he had developed much as an artist, and also met Harry Robertson Craig, a fellow painting student, who would become his life partner. In June 1938, he won a travel scholarship, enabling him to visit London, Paris, Avignon, Marseilles, Rome and Florence. While in Paris, he met up with his artist friends, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, and together they travelled to the south of France. On his return to Scotland in 1939, he attended a residential summer school at Hospitalfield house, near Arbroath, led by James Cowie. However, he again became a disruptive influence and soon departed, by mutual agreement. While two of his paintings were accepted that year for exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy, he decided to leave Scotland and return to Ireland.
On arriving in Dublin in 1939, Hennessy made a fresh start, keeping secret many of the details of his earlier life. He may have planned the move because he was given a solo show at the Country Shop, St Stephen’s Green, in mid December of that year, which included landscapes, still lifes and a number of significant portraits, including those of the children of Eduard Hempel, German envoy to Ireland. The exhibition was opened by the predominant Irish Modernist painter, Mary ‘Mainie’ Jellett, and attracted favourable reviews.
Hennessy straddled traditional and modern painting, a position that often led him to be underestimated by critics, but made him popular among artists. In 1940, he was invited to join the Society of Dublin Painters, a progressive group, and contributed regularly to its annual exhibitions during the 1940s and early 1950s. Simultaneously, from 1941, through to 1979, he exhibited almost annually at the Royal Hibernian Academy. He was elected an associate of the RHA in 1948 and a full Academician a year later. Also in 1948, he held a solo show at the victor Waddington Galleries in Dublin. Harry Craig had joined him in Dublin in 1946, and they then shared their time between the city, where Hennessy had his studio, and County Cork, where they spent the summers.
In 1950, Hennessy’s painting, De Profundis (1944-45), was selected for an exhibition of Contemporary Irish Painting that was shown in both Boston and Ottawa. As a result of this exhibition, American critics, dealers and the public began to look more seriously at Irish art, including the work of Hennessy. he was also receiving a greater degree of attention back in Ireland, where, in 1951, he became the subject of a retrospective at the Society of Dublin Painters, which showcased his work of the decade 1941-51. He was patronised by many of the rich and titled of the country, and especially remaining members of the Anglo-Irish establishment, and responded to commissions for portraits of their houses, as well as for murals within them. Among others, he was introduced to the writer, Elizabeth Bowen, and, through her, a wide literary circle that included Evelyn Waugh and Iris Murdoch.
In 1951, Hennessy visited France, Switzerland and especially Italy, taking in Venice and Sicily, and producing studies for a number of paintings, including The Bronze Horses of St Mark’s (1953), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy, in London, in 1954. During this period, he also went to Greece and Spain.
In 1956, Hennessy’s friend, David Hendriks, opened the Ritchie Hendriks Gallery on St Stephen’s Green, in Dublin. Hennessy and Craig were instrumental in its foundation and development, and it became the main showcase for Hennessy’s work during the following 20 years. In October of the same year, Thomas Agnew & Son, in Bond Street, London, also mounted a show of his work. Highly successful in themselves, these exhibitions also led to further commissions.
From late in 1959, and especially during the winters, Hennessy began to suffer significantly from various illnesses, including pleurisy. So he took up the suggestion of William George Fegan, his doctor, and a friend and patron, that he winter somewhere with a drier, warmer climate. He and Craig then spent increasingly long winters in Tangier, Morocco, finally moving to the country in 1970. Morocco would have a strong effect on his painting, encouraging him to lighten his palette and introduce bright, patterned textiles into his still lifes.
Critics sometimes reacted negatively to the changes in Hennessy’s work, but it remained popular with collectors in Ireland and increasingly with those in the United States. The Guildhall Gallery, Chicago, mounted a successful exhibition in 1965, and, as a result gave him annual shows and a permanent display. By the end of the decade, American sales outstripped those in Ireland. Highlights of the 1970s included a joint show with Harry Craig in 1974, mounted by David Hendriks at the Cork Arts Society; a retrospective at the Guildhall Gallery in 1975; and a solo show with Hendriks in 1978. By then, he and Craig had moved to the Algarve, in Portugal, and he had entered his final decline. In November 1980, Craig brought him to London for medical treatment, but he died of cancer on 30 December.
Patrick Hennessy left his entire estate to Harry Robertson Craig, with the proviso that on his death the RHA should be the beneficiary. This legacy has been used to set up the annual Hennessy Craig Scholarship for aspiring artists.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Crawford Art Gallery (Cork)
Further reading Seán Kissane and Sarah Glennie (eds), Patrick Hennessy – De Profundis, dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2016
The 2016 exhibition catalogue, Patrick Hennessy – de Profundis, includes Kevin A Rutledge’s biographical essay, ‘Patrick Hennessy: A Life’, which provides the basis for this present entry.