Seamus Smith with his painting of Percy French at the Solstice Arts Centre.

Solstice exhibition to mark artist's half century of work

As well as being a bit of a bowsie (to put it mildly!), Charlie Haughey liked to portray himself as a connoisseur of the arts, a patron of the creative world, and lover of the finer things in life.

As Minister for Finance, he granted tax exemptions to artists to allow their careers blossom, and was an avid collector of pieces to hang in his Gandon mansion in Kinsealy.

Amongst the pieces commissioned by CJ was a painting of his old primary school, Cushinstown, near Kilmoon Cross, which he attended while the family lived nearby at The Riggins, a farm at the end of Greenpark Lane. The artwork was by Navan artist Seamus Smith.

Haughey was due to open an exhibition by Smith in that relic of aul’ decency that was the Beechmount Hotel in 1979, but was elected leader of Fianna Fail on the same day, so was otherwise engaged. Local TD, Jim Fitzsimons (later MEP, still hale and hearty) stood in and read Haughey’s prepared speech, and the exhibition was a huge success.

It was through Slane man and journalist Joe Kennedy, a spouse of a singing Johnston, that the Haughey commission came about. Joe and Seamus were invited to Kinsealy when the painting was completed, and the new Taoiseach was delighted with the picture.

In his memoir, Seamus recalled that Haughey laughed when he told him that he had changed the colour of the school door from red to green to symbolise Irish nationalism.

"I had done it to humour my father, who said: "You better put a green door in that painting, gasun."

Haughey brought the men to the bar, off the sitting room, and also took them through the house, showing them his picture collection, some of which had been acquired by his father-in-law, Sean Lemass.

It was Seamus Smith’s father, butcher Briany, who encouraged his talent at painting and instilled in him the love of nature which features so much in those landscapes with their flow of water and play of sunlight.

While Seamus has had many varied jobs over the years, from two decades in Spicer’s Bakery, to bar work and running a pub in Slane, he is best known as ‘Seamus Smith the artist’. Largely self-taught, with some lessons from local art teacher, Jim Culligan, he was accepted in the National College of Art in Dublin, but pressures of work meant that he had to drop out of the course.

But he continued to study the Old Masters, particularly Rembrandt, and their techniques. Then he studied the Impressionists, Monet and Van Gogh, and later, abstract painters, Picasso and Jackson Pollock.

His first exhibition was in the Old Foresters’ Hall in Navan, ironically now the site of the Solstice Arts Centre, where a new exhibition of his work is to open this weekend. This was in 1975, and he became a professional artist in 1997.

He had an annual exhibition every year until 2010, when he suffered a stroke, and among his major commissions was a mural on the wall of the new primary school in Longwood. Rural scenes as well as seascapes and streetscapes featured strongly in his work, as well as notable landmarks and buildings.

He sold over 1,000 paintings over his career, as well as receiving many commissions, and also taught classes.

50 years of painting by Seamus Smith is being celebrated in the Solstice Arts Centre in a two-week exhibition which was opened on Friday evening by the Mayor of Navan, Cllr Padraig Fitzsimons.