Terry Searle – A West Cork Artist

It’s all happening in West Cork at the moment! In particular, there’s a lot going on in Skibb: the fabulous Skibbereen Arts Festival continues to run all through the week and we have already enjoyed some memorable events. The first West Cork History Festival has been a resounding success – and a learning experience: look forward to great things in the future. But don’t leave Skibbereen without visiting the O’Driscoll Building at Levis Quay, in the town centre. Opening at 1pm on Saturday 5 August and running through to 2 September is an important exhibition of the work of two artists: Terry Searle and Ian McNinch. I’m concentrating today on the life and work of Terry – one of the ‘West Cork Artists’ Group’ who built up a reputation during the latter part of the 20th century, and the story of which has still to be written. Finola and I were privileged to meet with Terry and his wife Penny Dixey recently, and thoroughly enjoyed their accounts of the somewhat Bohemian life and times of artists in West Cork.

Penny (left, with Ted) and Terry (right) at home in Schull

The exhibition is a retrospective of Terry’s work. His great grandfather was from Dublin: he was born in 1936 and brought up in the East End of London. Like many of his contemporaries he was evacuated to the countryside during the war and spent six years away from his home. It’s hard to imagine how that experience might have affected a young, evolving mind: his positive take is that it imbued in him a permanent love for nature and this has been reflected in his life work.

Terry is a painter. At the end of the war Terry was called up for National Service, where he rubbed shoulders with would-be actors, artists and musicians: their outlooks attracted him and, when he moved back to London, he started evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art and then signed on for a full-time course at Goldsmith’s College of Art. Although life was hard – there were no grants available and he had to fund his studies through a variety of jobs occupying all hours – he never looked back. As he says “…life in the coffee shops in Soho was enjoyable, with a lively social scene…”

Terry’s influences were many – particularly the large, colour-full abstracts of Rothko and Joan Mitchell – but his life-long hero is JMW Turner. London’s Tate Britain has the world’s largest collection of Turner on exhibition, so Terry had the opportunity to study his hero at first hand. Turner challenged the art traditions of his time (first half of the 19th century) and his techniques appear very ‘modern’ to our eyes. Terry is no slave to Turner’s style, but has a very particular way of viewing his subjects. I think Terry’s work is vibrant – colourful – approachable – very attractive yet with a powerful individuality. I can see some parallels with William Crozier, whose work is currently being shown at Uillinn. By chance, Terry Searle and Crozier once lived in the same road in London but were only on nodding acquaintance. As their lives and work progressed, both found their way to West Cork.

Terry Searle at work, probably around 1986

Terry first visited West Cork when travelling with a group of friends in the 1970s. A number of visits followed and he found himself “enchanted” by the natural beauty of the place, and the civilised pace of life here. He must also have been aware of the strong artistic movement which focussed around Ballydehob and Skibbereen at the time. When he made the permanent relocation to the west of Ireland in 1981 he quickly became active in that movement, and was one of the founders of the West Cork Arts Centre. He contributed to the 1985 exhibition of West Cork artists in Zurich, and in 1987 was part of the important Living Landscape ‘87 Exhibition, which showed in the Crawford Gallery, Cork, as well as in the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen. This extract from the introduction of the exhibition catalogue is enlightening on the spirit of the time:

…Skibbereen is a small town in the South West of the country with a population of 2,000 people. Ten years ago, because of the number of artists living in the area, a small interested group started an art society and held an annual members exhibition which ran for two weeks every July in a local hall. The demand from artists and local people increased over the years and due to the hard work of a dedicated committee, they realised a dream come true – an Arts Centre for West Cork; and with the essential practical help from the Vocational Education Committee in the provision of the building, we became the proud ‘owners’ of a thriving Arts Centre. We run exhibitions monthly, organise musical and theatrical evenings, and provide classes for all, covering a full range of artistic interests in our newly reconstructed classroom. Today, we are very proud to be hosting the first ‘Living Landscape’ exhibition by the top 25 landscape artists working in this country. Our intention to make this a prestigious annual event is ambitious, but then all our plans are ambitious…!

The Living Landscape exhibition shown at The Crawford and in Skibbereen: Terry is third from the right

I wonder how many of those involved in those times could have foreseen just where those ambitions would lead? With Uillinn in Skibbereen, the West Cork Arts Centre now has the foremost public gallery west of Cork city, and it is pushing the boundaries with major exhibitions of contemporary work. Readers will be aware of the recent West meets West exhibition – which heralds a regular exchange of art between West Cork and Cornwall – and the gallery, currently, is hosting a collaborative exhibition with IMMA on the opus of William Crozier.

It’s so good that Terry Searle is being appreciated with this show: he has never been a self-publicist, and it is high time his work received full and proper recognition. He celebrates his eightieth birthday this year. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a degenerative neuromuscular disease and has now been forced to stop painting altogether. It is painful to imagine what a loss that must be to a creative ethos such as his. This exhibition is a very special one – be sure to see it!

Robert is lining up further posts on the stories of the West Cork Artists group dating from the 1960s (and still thriving!) and would be delighted to hear from anyone who has personal accounts, reflections or memories from those days…