David Whittaker, Tony O’Malley - Obituary, in The Guardian (11 April 2003).

Tony O’Malley, who has died aged 89, was a major painter in the St Ives art community between 1960 and 1990. But his place in Irish art of the last half century is also well established, his peer group including William Scott and Louis le Brocquy.

O’Malley was born in Callan, County Kilkenny, and educated at the local Christian Brothers school. His father was a sewing machine salesman, though the family genealogy can be traced back to notorious stock from Clare Island, County Mayo, including the 16th-century pirate Grace O’Malley. At the age of 19, O’Malley became a clerk with the Munster & Leinster Bank, remaining there, apart from a year of military service in 1940, for 25 years.

His earliest exposure to art - and a lasting influence - came through the stone carvings of abbeys near his home, particularly the late-Gothic work of Rory O’Tunney. His health as a young man was atrocious - it included tuberculosis and the removal of a lung - and he took up painting for solace, mainly still lifes, landscapes and self portraits, which became a lifelong obsession.

Although the influence of van Gogh and Cézanne were clear, there were many other striking paintings, including a study of his mother on her deathbed, Portrait Of My Mother (1953).

O’Malley first visited St Ives in 1955 on a painting holiday. He could hardly have chosen a more exciting, fertile and dynamic place. The small Cornish harbour town, and its environs, boasted many of the finest postwar artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter, Patrick Heron, John Wells, Bernard Leach, and the poet Sydney Graham. The stimulation of this bright, energetic and inventive ambience must have totally exhilarated O’Malley after the guilt-ridden Catholic Ireland of the 1950s.

In 1960, he sailed from Ireland on the cattle boat and settled in west Cornwall. In 1961, he had a serious heart attack, and convalesced with the Heron family, an indication of how quickly people felt at ease with him.

The 1960s were tremendously creative years. He approached landscapes in a visceral way, akin to his fellow Celt Peter Lanyon, where canvas - or any surface, for that matter - was scored and ingrained, reflecting the harshness of the granite and gorse environment. Birds were a recurring motif in his work, with titles such as The Hawk Owl, Hawk’s Landscape, Birdsong Cycle, The Windhover, The Falcon’s Gyre, The Bird Window, Owls Ruling A Wood At Night.

In his 60th year O’Malley surprised those who thought they knew him by quietly getting married to the Canadian painter Jane Harris, then half his age. A new phase of his life began. She encouraged him to travel more widely, particularly to the Bahamas, and this broadened his palette to an exuberant use of daring colours. In 1990, they bought a labourer’s cottage at Physicianstown, near O’Malley’s birthplace, which they developed as a superb studio space with garden.

The Taylor Galleries in Dublin recently held a 50-year retrospective of O’Malley’s work, which contained more than 160 works. In later life, he received many honours, including membership of the Royal Hibernian Academy, a Guardian award for painting, and conferment with the honour of saoi (or wise man) by members of Aosdana. For this, he was presented with a torc (a spiral necklace) by the then Irish president Mary Robinson; the previous holder of the award was Samuel Beckett.

Widely read, as a raconteur and singer of ballads he was legendary. But it is his rich visual language as a self-taught artist that will remain his heritage. Jane survives him.

[ Tony O’Malley, artist, born September 25 1913; died January 20 2003 ]

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