The New CraftsMan | Autumn 2017 | Works by Breon O’Casey

A Major Exhibition of Works by Breon O’Casey in association with the Breon O’Casey Estate.

As part of the St Ives September Festival, New Craftsman Gallery presents a major exhibition of work by celebrated artist Breon O’Casey. Held in association with the artist’s estate, this show includes pieces from the wealth of artistic disciplines O’Casey mastered in his lifetime, profiling his talent as a painter, printmaker, sculptor, weaver and jewellery maker.

“I am an abstract painter, closer, in my work, to the older definition of a still-life painter than a landscape painter. A painter, that is, who works best in the confines of his studio, and who sees the world through a collection of pots and pans, apples and oranges (or circles, triangles and squares) rather than the fields, trees and skies. To look outside at the vast vista of unending landscape flowing in all directions, is for me too difficult to try and get down on paper. I shut the door and work in my windowless studio..” Breon O’Casey

Sept/Oct 2017

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The New CraftsMan | Autumn 2017 | Works by Breon O’Casey

The New CraftsMan | Autumn 2017 | Works by Breon O’Casey

Breon O’Casey in his own words

Here is my story. I was born in London in 1928. My parents were Sean O’Casey, the Irish playwright, and Eileen O’Casey, an actress. My mother’s people came from Mayo; my father’s from Dublin.

In 1937 the family moved from London to Totnes in Devon,  partly because Dartington Hall, which was nearby, provided a sensible school for their children. The school was a success and I benefitted greatly from my time there. Dartington was founded by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, who had a vision of a Utopian community which combined the working of the land with the life of the spirit through the arts. The emphasis the school placed on physical activities and skills, considering them equally important to academic skills, was crucial to me. It was at Dartington School that I learnt to saw and hammer: to think with my hands as well as my head.

Art lessons at Dartington:
Because of the way teaching at Dartington was structured, and although there were periods set aside for art, the art room was available at any time. People did sit the art exam, learning the history of art, and drawing a sprig of ivy. But I never did: I took art too seriously to ever sit an exam, nor ever have.

Metalwork lessons at Dartington:
I was taught metalwork at Dartington by Naum Slutsky. Before the war Naum had been head of metalwork at the Bauhaus, but owing to Hitler, he had ended up teaching us kids. Naum was a short, dark haired man with massive shoulders, impeccably turned out and rode around the estate on a huge jet black stallion.

In one of his classes, we drilled holes in a small sheet of german silver and were told to saw a design at random. This was to teach us to use the piercing saw. And this was my first piece of jewellery.
Entry to his special metal class was a “square inch of mild steel”: he cut the end off a square bar of steel which was just proud of an inch. Your task was to file it down until each side was exactly an inch square and each angle was exactly a right angle. This was, of course, impossible; but if you nevertheless stuck at it for a number of sessions (3, I think) he let you in.

I was lucky in that, after my National Service, few people wanted to go to Art School. Fewer still wanted to go to the Anglo-French Art Centre, a small hard-up school in St John’s Wood, with close links to the French school of painting, which greeted me and my grant with open arms. Today, with the qualifications I had then (nil), I would never have been able to get near an Art School. At Art School we learned from each other, and from endlessly parading around the London art galleries, both private and municipal. After leaving, the next ten years were spent in the wilderness: perhaps a necessary process in the development of an artist, but a deeply depressing time, full of doubt and lethargy: dark years.

One day, watching television, sometime in the late fifties, I saw a film about Alfred Wallis, a primitive painter who had lived at St Ives in Cornwall. The film showed St Ives and the studios of some of the artists living there. I realised it was the place for me.

Ah St Ives! In those days still a working fishing port, with tourism and art only tolerated, but kindly tolerated. The relief of mingling with other crazy artists was enormous. It was literally as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. This is exactly how it felt. One must remember the strong antagonism to modern art then, and the nervous energy used up resisting it.

One was with a group of people who were hoping to make a living from their art and indeed some were professional artists. That times were hard mattered little. If no one has much money it doesn’t matter. And I certainly never experienced the depths of poverty and the necessary determination to survive it, that my father had experienced. Nor indeed did I face the privations that, as one reads, Matisse faced, never mind those suffered by the true early warriors, Van Gogh and Gauguin.

My studio was in a ramshackle, wooden structure tucked in behind other similar studios facing out over Porthmeor beach to the wide Atlantic. I slept in a curtained off alcove at one end – illegally- and in the winter the thud of the great waves would shake the whole crazy structure like a dog shaking a rat. It was kept standing by the law of inertia which says: if an object has been in one place for a number of years, it will resist, of itself, natural physical forces trying to move it.

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1 Comment

  • Kevin Kasik 3 years ago

    Happy to read OCasey’s biography in his own words. I just bought a painting on Ebay that I think may be from his early art school years. It’s a nude with the major aesthetic being line, edges and Fauvist color. However, there is also some playful division of planes as in early cubism. The work isn’t signed on the front, but the back of the canvas has a large ‘BREON’ written on it. I’ll be happy to send you a picture if interested.


    Kevin Kasik