Cecil King – The Blackrock Expressionist

Stele for Cecil King by Colm Brennan. Location: Tobernea Park, Blackrock.

Cecil King was born in Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow in 1921. Initially, the future artist made a name for himself as a successful businessman. King held his first solo exhibition in 1959. From 1964 he started concentrating on painting full time, garnering recognition in Ireland and beyond and exhibiting one-man shows in Scotland, England, Wales, France, Spain, Germany, Norway and Sweden.

Idrone (1972) by Cecil King. Oil on canvas.
IMMA Collection: Heritage Gift by Bank of Ireland, 1999

The above image from the IMMA collection is entitled Idrone. King lived at 25, Idrone Terrace for many years until his death in 1986. Alanna Gallagher wrote about his house and address in the Irish Times when it went on the market.

“Idrone Terrace is one of Dublin’s great seaside settings,” Gallagher writes. “Views from its windows chart Dublin Bay’s aquatic traffic from the ferries in and out of the ports to the container ships that seem to literally sit on the horizon. Number 25 is a four to five-bedroom mid-terrace period house that was once home to the painter Cecil King.”

The spectacular views from Idrone Terrace inspired many of King’s works, such as the aforementioned aptly titled Idrone, and this painting entitled Howth.

Howth, Oil on paper

A prominent piece of local sculpture in Tobernea Park is dedicated to the artist. Stele for Cecil King by Colm Brennan was erected specifically to be interactive for young children, and pay tribute to his distinctive use of the colour red and clear, minimal lines.

His neighbourhood around Blackrock had an enormous influence on his work, as did Dublin city in general, and Berlin. “The Baggot Street series was the break that opened up another world for me,” King once said. “I felt I had found my identity so to speak”. A painting from his Berlin series was exhibited at the Municipal Gallery in the DLR Lexicon in recent years.

Baggot Street Series Gouache

Cecil King also collaborated with two very well-known poets with strong links to the area. He illustrated The Glanmore Sonnets by the late Seamus Heaney, who lived in Sandymount from 1976 and died in Blackrock Clinic in 2013. In this ten poem sequence there is a sonnet that celebrates the sea, and reads a bit like a poetic version of the Shipping Forecast.

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, “A haven,”
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

In 1984, King produced four paintings for Four Poems by Micheal O’Siadhail, who lived in Booterstown and was married to my late aunt Bríd. Coincidentally, Seamus Heaney attended Bríd’s funeral a few short months before he died. Now living in New York and married to Christina Weltz, in 2018 O’Siadhail featured in The Tablet magazine’s ′Fifty Minds That Matter′ – listing fifty men and women who are ″adding some Catholic salt to the contemporary cultural soup″, including Pope Francis, Toni Morrison, Martin Scorsese and Bruce Springsteen.

King has been the subject of three major retrospectives. The Hugh Lane hosted his first in 1981 while he was alive, and IMMA staged a posthumous show in 2008. Cecil King: Present in Time Future has just opened in the Hugh Lane. His work also features in the collections of the ESB, Office of Public Works, Ulster Museum, Leeds University, Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Tate, London, amongst many others.

In the 1981 catalogue for the Hugh Lane retrospective, the late, great American curator and collector, James Johnson Sweeney, a former director at the Guggenheim, writes movingly about Cecil King.

“Elegance, meticulousness, conviction are the essence of Cecil King’s art,” Sweeney enthused. These qualities combined with a knowledgeable and scrupulous craftmanship have steadily brought him the widening international recognition he has come to enjoy today. His signature is a combination of sensibility and intensity with that modesty which is the personal expression of the artist himself.”

Cecil King photographed for Retrospective Exhibition at The Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 1981

Cecil King: Present in Time Future runs at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin until November 28, 2021.

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