Patrick Reel pictured at the opening of ‘A Life in Paint’, a retrospective of his work at the State Apartment Galleries, Dublin Castle. PHOTOs: Mark Stedman

Reeling in the years

Retrospective show of Navan artist's work opens in Dublin Castle

In the centenary year of the handover of Dublin Castle to the Irish authorities by the British, and almost 50 years after his first ever solo exhibition in the capital city, a retrospective exhibition of the work of renowned Navan artist Patrick Reel opened in Dublin Castle’s State Apartment Galleries last week.

‘A Life in Painting’ features some 60 works of the artist better known to Navan townsfolk as Patsy, which will be on display until the end of July at the city centre location. These range from sketches made by Patrick as a young man to his portraiture and landscapes, through to his more recent abstract work, regarded as some of the best work of art he has ever produced at his studio on Church Hill.

The exhibition was curated by John O’Hagan, a retired Trinity College academic, who had discovered his work over a decade ago, and Cavan artist Michelle Boyle.

O’Hagan got to know Navan through his wife, Carol Dunphy, who was a teacher in St Michael’s Loreto in the 1960s, when they became friends with a number of Navan families including the Finnerans. John and Mairead travelled to Navan every St Patrick’s Day to hear Margaret Finneran singing in church, and it was through her that John first discovered Reel’s "magic sweetshop", and then the "captivating" old house, gallery and studio on Ludlow Street.

John became fascinated with the personalities of Patsy Reel and his sister, Esther, and the wonders of the house and gallery, before he discovered Patsy’s art, and realised he was producing really incredible paintings coming up to his eighties. With Michelle Boyle, also a friend of the Reels, he began contacting galleries with the intention of gaining national recognition for Patsy, and they were delighted when the Office of Public Works came on board with Mary Heffernan and the Dublin Castle Gallery.

Opening the exhibition in Dublin on Thursday evening, Ian Robertson, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, and co-director of Brain Global Health Institute, said that Patsy Reel at 87 has made a profound contribution to the world in his paintings, in his life, and in his work.

He said that as they began to celebrate Trinity’s Creative Brain Week, that Patsy’s exhibition displayed an amazing flourishing of the creativity of the brain, and demonstrated that even in your eighties, there are journeys to be made, regions of the mind to be explored, and new contributions to the world to be made.

Born in 1935, the artist’s ‘Life in Paint’ encompasses a creative journey that spans over 60 years and still reflects, in his most recent works, his ongoing energy and enthusiasm for the medium of paint. Patsy Reel is the first to admit that his preference has always been for the abstract, as is evident in the work which was exhibited in that first show in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin in 1973. He spent three years preparing for that show, and sold all his paintings. The writer, Mary Lavin, who lived at Bective, opened the exhibition. It was an exciting time to be involved in the arts scene in Dublin, with the Project having only been opened and a new, young, vibrant, arts community in the city.

But he knew that abstract work wasn’t going to keep bread and butter on the table, particularly in Navan and Meath of the 1970s, and to survive, he concentrated more on realist and landscape work, as well as portraits. Many homes in Navan and surrounds have a Patsy Reel painting or sketch hanging proudly on their walls.

He first began sketching and drawing as a young boy and was encouraged at school in the De La Salle School by Brother Cashin, who recognised his talent. There was no art at his next school, the Carmelite College of St Therese in Castlemartyr, but it was the Boyne Valley and the megalithic tombs of his native Meath that was to be the greatest influence on the aspiring young artists.

"You could not get a more beautiful place than the Boyne Valley," Reel says. He was greatly taken by the tombs and high crosses.

Reel’s first major sale of a painting was to the Office of Public Works, in 1968, when it bought his depiction of High Cross, Kells. It had been in the Living Art Exhibition in Dublin, a group set up by young artists to challenge the conservatism and lack of imagination of the Royal Hibernian Academy and the National College of Art and Design. Fellow exhibitors included Louis Le Brocquy, Nano Reid, Mainie Jellett, Tim Goulding and Kells man Michael Farrell. These were the younger, more cutting-edge artists around Dublin whose activities led to the establishment of the Project Arts Centre, the first facility of its kind for artists wanting to show.

Also around this time, in 1966, James Shortt, the chief designer at Navan Carpets, invited Reel to join the company as a designer. He spent four years with the firm, before going to London, where he studied Francis Bacon and foretold that artist’s greatness.

In 1976, Reel converted some old stables on Church Hill, around the corner from the family’s Oriel Café on Ludlow Street, opening the Oriel Gallery.

"I wanted to sell my own work, without having to pay commission to a gallery," he says. It was a brave move, opening a gallery in a provincial Irish town in the 1970s, while much of the business was in Dublin at the time.

Reel had great admiration for Eamon de Valera as a leader and speaker and used to attend events to sketch him. He completed a portrait of him which was bought by Fianna Fail for their offices in Dublin’s Mount Street, and it was handed over to then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch.

For the next few decades, he concentrated on realist work, landscapes and portraits, until he was making enough to allow him return to his first love in his studio, his abstract work. Elements of this include strong stone and natural landscapes, hand carved stone and megalithic art, and work from his travels abroad such as the architecture of monastic buildings and ruins.

Three rooms in the State Apartments house his work – Abstract Room One, Abstract Room Two, and a Portrait Room, overseen by the de Valera portrait, late Navan camera man Simon Cumbers, and Mary Lavin. As early as 1963, his ‘Portrait of a Young Girl’ was hailed as beautiful and around ‘keen interest and admiration among viewers at the Boyne Valley Festival Art Exhibition.

Summing up Patsy Reel's work, Mary Heffernan of the OPW said: "‘Ultimately, over his many decades of production across several genres, it is the observational skill, the draughtsmanship, his love of his native Navan, his love of nature, the mystical majesty of the primeval Boyne landscape and inherited archaeology that leave a distinctive trace in his entire oeuvre, always moving the work forward, searching for new ways to express and release the creativity within.

"Rural Ireland has been fortunate that both Patrick Reel and his sister Esther have contributed a lasting and living cultural legacy in the town of Navan with their enigmatic and beguiling Ludlow Street home," she added.

"It is a gem of a home, a property, a sweet shop, and I hope the people of Navan understand that they have such a special place."

A Life in Paint: A Retrospective of Patrick Reel, State Apartments Galleries, Dublin Castle, until 1st August 2022, open daily from 9.45am to 5.45pm; Admission €3.