ROBERT BALLAGH was born in Dublin in 1943, to a lower middle class family. Although living on a secluded leafy street in one of the Capital’s grandest suburbs, Ballsbridge, the Ballaghs had little money. Not many in 1940s Ireland did. Their home in Elgin Road was a rented flat, and Robert’s father worked in the wholesale drapery trade. Nearby dwellings on Shelbourne Road had clay floors and the children living in them went about barefoot.
But the Ballagh household was a happy one, an active one, and one where the young Robert would acquire many of the character traits that formed him. His passion for art, his questioning mind, his willingness, more accurately his determination, to plough his own furrow, to view the world through his eyes and his eyes only.
His father, also Robert, played cricket and tennis for Ireland and rugby for Leinster. His mother, Nancy, played hockey for Ireland. And in spite of attending one of Dublin’s most prestigious private schools, Blackrock College, the font of many Irish sporting heroes, foremost among them perhaps Ireland’s charismatic rugby great, Brian O’Driscoll, Robert inherited none of his parents’ sporting prowess. His interests and his talents lay elsewhere; in music, art and activism.
Not that Robert’s activism stemmed from the usual youthful desire to change the world, rather from the evidence and impact of his own experiences, the evidence of his own eyes, his deeply ingrained conviction that unfairness and inequality were evils that had to be resisted, and if not by everyone, then by him at least. He would do his bit to highlight and oppose oppression wherever he saw it, at home or abroad, in Dublin, in the North of Ireland, Iraq, in Gaza.
For Robert Ballagh, speaking out, objecting, criticising - though this sometimes brought disquiet to his own life - was easier than staying silent. In that regard, he has not changed in over 50 years. He is ever ready to lend his voice to the cause of the oppressed, the abused, the misunderstood, the downtrodden, the powerless. He has been termed a natural dissident, it’s just the way he is wired.
His support for individuals and groups who lack a voice has led him to be misunderstood and misjudged by some, who assume his empathy for victims of extreme poverty, oppression, terrorism and corruption resulted from his alignment with one political grouping or another. Robert Ballagh has never been party political and has always condemned violence and oppression whatever the source. The only axe he grinds is his own.
He is moved by a democratic impulse, and recalls his fathers words upon leaving the house to visit one or other of the city’s galleries, something he did often; “I’m off to see my paintings”. In his opinion the works of art belonged to the people of the city, to the ordinary citizens whose taxes had bought and paid for them, to every man, woman and child. They were not the preserve of the educated, the wealthy or the privileged.
Art, whether it is in the National Gallery of Ireland, any of the other galleries, in parks, on streets or in public buildings belongs to the people. It is there to be enjoyed by all, to be debated, discussed or ignored if they prefer. But it belongs to everyone, to us all.
Robert Ballagh’s Style
“In the beginning if I could have painted like Caravaggio, I would have” says Robert Ballagh on the subject of his style. But Ireland isn’t a great place for doing great expansive pictures, vast landscapes or dramatic frescoes. Ireland is part of Northern Europe and firmly in the Northern European tradition when it comes to art.
Northern art is always small and detailed, the wonderful illuminated manuscripts of ancient monasteries being great examples. The monks, huddled in their cells and working by what daylight there was and with the aid of candles, created brilliant, shimmering masterpieces that still draw open-mouthed admiration from around the world. Perhaps they envied their southern counterparts who could work and live outdoors for much of the year, capturing the brilliant colours and bright sunlight in the mood of their art.
Obviously Ireland is not a great location for painting frescoes, but on the other hand it is a place where you can really focus on something, on subtleties, on individual brush strokes, and then feast your greedy eyes on the details.
Robert Ballagh’s paintings are bolstered by extraordinary detail, the turn of a lip in his portraits, the folds of a sweater lying across a subject’s lap, the glint of an eye, the angle of a tie, a wisp of hair tucked behind an ear or dangling down a brow, the way a hand may drape across a book or hold a cup. Nothing is here by accident. Look into a Ballagh painting long enough and it will eventually talk to you.
Robert Ballagh’s style is highly realistic, and has always been. From his early days when he was inspired by American Pop Art, to his stamp and banknote designs, to his modern portraits, he enjoys precise, accurate rendering of his subjects. So much so that some of his paintings elicit a double-take; is it a painting or a photograph? But the depth to the work, the character in the face, the twinkle in the eye, the vibrancy of the colours and the precision of the lines belong to the creation of an artist who has mastered his craft.
Not that Robert Ballagh considers himself a finished artist. There’s always more to learn, and for the future, the aim is simply to get better.
With such a love of the realistic portrayal of people, places, objects - a style some describe as hyper-realistic but what he himself terms figurative or representational - it was logical that Robert Ballagh would make a great designer as well as an artist in the traditional sense.
Over the years, he has been commissioned by the Irish Government to design a series of postage stamps and banknotes. His works are in a real sense familiar to millions of people who handled them everyday, even if they were unaware of their author.
He is a leading theatrical designer, having created the look behind the global success story that has been Riverdance, among many other productions in Ireland and overseas.
Robert Ballagh is a most versatile artist: from large installations to individual portraits of business leaders, politicians and world figures, from postage stamps to banknotes, from stage design to works of hommage to the Great Masters.
But there is something unique and unmistakably recognisable to every product of Robert’s mind and hand.
He invests in his works certain tell-tale indicators of his style. Whether it’s a portrait of Fidel Castro, of scientist James Watson, of fellow artist Louis Le Brocquy or indeed his self-portraits, whether it’s a banknote, a set design or a poster, there is always something unmistakable about its provenance.
“I’ve never had anybody say ‘God, I hate it’.”
If there is one thing more daunting than sitting, or standing, for a portrait, it is surely having to actually paint and then deliver that portrait to the subject.
The process of creating a portrait demands enormous trust on both sides. The artist must be allowed to see into the subject’s soul. And the subject must accept that the portrayal is an honest appraisal, if not necessarily always a flattering one.
But Robert Ballagh admits he has had rather a smooth run with his portraits. “I’ve never had anybody say ‘God, I hate it’.”
“I love doing portraits and the only thing I don’t like is people who don’t know what they want. I generally find that people trust me to get on with the job and they reserve judgment until they see the finished work.”
The roll call of names, some famous some less so, who have submitted to the process under Robert’s hand is fascinating.
James Watson, Nobel Prize-winner generally regarded as the father of DNA
Noel Browne, pioneering and controversial Irish politician and doctor
Dermot Desmond, billionaire Irish businessman and financier
J.P. Donleavy, Irish-American novelist and playwright, famous for The Ginger Man
James Plunkett, writer and TV producer, author of Strumpet City
There’s a lot of trust involved
In recent years, the portraits are among the works Ballagh is most proud of, and in particular that of Noel Browne. As Health Minister in the Irish Government, Browne led a successful campaign to eradicate the scourge of tuberculosis in Ireland. “We became great friends and I can never think of that picture without recalling that it led to a new friendship being formed.”
Another of Ballagh’s favourites is the James Watson portrait. Watson, a molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist is best known as a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick. He won the Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine in 1962.
Ballagh visited Watson at the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in New York State to prepare for the portrait, taking numerous photographs and looking for the angle that would capture the man. He asked Watson, a tall, thin man with a weather-beaten face, to stand with arms reaching out, facing the camera.“He said no one had ever asked him to stand like that before. I said ‘trust me’.” When the picture was unveiled at Trinity College Dublin, where it hangs today, Watson looked at it and said “marvellous portrait,” and the start of a wonderful friendship.
“If you’re just doing work in your studio, you don’t get that. There’s a lot of trust involved.”
I want my work to be out there and available
“You can be the most important artist in the world but 99 per cent of people may never have heard of you,” says Robert Ballagh “but I want my work to be available to everyone, to be seen, to be discussed, to generate debate, to be liked or disliked. But to be out there in the community that I come from.”
And prints from original artworks are a great way of achieving this. The production of high-quality prints based on Robert Ballagh’s originals is one of his favourite ways of making his work more widely available and of contributing to causes he espouses, causes which are generally those of the marginalised, the un-empowered and the neglected. Which in today’s world seems to account for most people.
The inclination to make prints is fuelled by what he terms the democratic impulse. “I’m always aware that original artworks are expensive and out of most people’s reach. That is a pity. I want to make my work available so I get involved with lots of prints of my work, and there is always a good selection available.” So in addition to making Ballagh’s art much more widely available, they are also a valuable tool in promoting causes close to the artist’s heart.
One print alone devised and launched in support of medical aid for Gaza aid raised €56,000. Featuring a dark-eyed women with a large tear clinging to her eye, the print struck a chord with many people sympathetic to Palestinian suffering at the hands of their powerful neighbour.
Another print, this time for the National Graves Association which tends the historic 1916 burial plot in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, raised much needed funds towards the upkeep of this important memorial. With the centenary of the Easter Rising fast approaching, the proceeds from the print are a timely tribute to those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish independence.
Yet another print, this time in aid of Cancer research, is providing an ongoing source of funding towards efforts to tackle a disease that has afflicted so many, including Robert himself. “There is no official funding for blood cancer research in this country, as I recently found out myself when I was diagnosed with leukaemia.”
Since the first prints were produced in the 1970s, Robert estimates that around €3⁄4 million has been raised for a wide range of causes in Ireland and abroad.
ROSC and its influence. People Looking At Paintings
The ROSC art exhibition in Dublin in 1967 was an eye-opener for the people of the city, who had never had the opportunity to see the works of 50 acclaimed international artists in one setting before. And for one of those visitors in particular - a 24-year-old Robert Ballagh - it was not just an eye-opener but a game-changer.
Up to this point it looked as if music would be the career path along which this now highly regarded artist would be propelled. But upon visiting ROSC, an idea struck Ballagh: “I could do that,” he thought. And he did.
ROSC may have fascinated not just Robert Ballagh but many other visitors too for, while enjoying a reputation for the genius of its writers, Ireland was somewhat behind the field in terms of the visual arts.
A three-person international jury chose recently completed works by 50 artists famous on the international scene for this ground-breaking exhibition. Many major names were included, among them Picasso, Joan Miro, Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning. These were the superstar artists of the day and to have them all in Dublin was a huge coup.
But it was not just the works on display that fascinated Ballagh, it was the way the visitors looked at them, related to them, beguiled at once by the works themselves, tinged with the fame of their creators and the slight incongruity of all of this happening in literary Dublin. Writers were ten-a-penny, but great painters?
It was this strange interaction that inspired one of Robert Ballagh’s earliest exhibitions in 1972. “At ROSC, it seemed as if art had become commodified somehow and I found that fascinating. I decided to recreate that feeling, so I painted a whole series of pictures consisting of two-foot-square panels, depicting men and women looking at famous paintings.
“I liked this approach as I was working in a rather cramped studio at the time and it allowed me to create large works by using small and much more manageable panels fixed together.”
From that time, Robert Ballagh’s immersion in art - taking in portraiture, theatre design, postage stamp and banknote design - has continued for almost half a century. And perhaps a great guitarist was lost to the world.