My Favourite Room
Conor Walton is into old masters rather than old tunes,
Conor Walton must be absolutely sick of it. Every time his name is mentioned to people over the age of 35, they can’t resist the temptation. “If you feel like singing, do sing an Irish song,” they warble, recalling the catchphrase of the once famous radio programme sponsored by Walton’s music store - and of course they’re convinced they’re the first to come out with it. “The variation on that is, ‘If you must sing, do sing an Irish song,” Conor laughs.
And, of course, they’re right. He is one of the Waltons; his grandfather founded the business, his father built it up and now it’s run by two of his six siblings, but Conor himself had no interest. He never even listens to Irish music; the massive collection of CDs in his favourite room is broadly classical. “I’m not a very good Irishman, really. Both of my grandfathers fought in 1916 but I don’t listen to Irish music, I don’t speak Irish. I think I’m more European in culture than Irish.”
For Conor, a painter, it’s Europe with a particular emphasis on Italy. His first brush with art was a book of drawings by the great Italian painter Michelangelo. “It belonged to my sister Eorna, who’s also a painter. I used to lie on the floor and copy the figures in the book, only making the look like space invaders.” And when Conor got an opportunity to study abroad, he chose Italy. It was in an atelier in Florence that he honed the techniques which inform his particular style of painting.
Just as Conor appears to have rebelled somewhat against the family traditions, so too has he proved to be a bit of an outsider in the world of painting. He first realised this himself when he became a student at the National College of Art and Design. There, where the students experiment with all the latest movements in art, where abstraction and expressionism are the kings of the medium, not too many were interested in his work which is strictly figurative. “In the final year, most people painted three pictures a week; I painted three in the whole year. One had 18 people in it and was four metres long. It took me so long because it was very complex. I was considered a die-hard reactionary. Some lecturers liked what I did and defended it but some hated it. In the end, I think I gained respect for persevering.”
There are those who would say that with the technological advances in photography, graphics and film, there’s no point in figurative painting, but Conor absolutely disagrees. “One medium can’t replace another. Just because people watch TV doesn’t mean they don’t read. Just because people speak doesn’t mean they can’t use body language. Painting is freer than photography. I often paint what I’ve never seen. It’s an imaginative affair.”
Conor is well able to defend his point of view and, in fact, is regarded as a tough nut. Anyway, being popular with NCAD tutors and students isn’t the be-all and end-all, and he has found acclaim since he left college. He’s had several solo exhibitions with the Jorgensen gallery in Molesworth Street and is working towards another in March 1999. And even though he’s not yet 28, he’s already been presented with several awards for his work, including the Keating McLoughlin Medal and the Don Niccolo D’Ardia Caracciolo RHA Medal. The latter is particularly appropriate, given that it’s awarded in honour of an Italian painter who lived in Ireland.
Indeed, Conor considers Italy his second home. He first went there in October 1995 after he did an MA in England. He spent six months researching old master techniques, all the time living in an attic of a convent just outside of Florence, which was run by Irish nuns. “Some were very old. I wouldn’t say it was fun - nuns don’t come under that category - but they had some great stories about protecting Jews from the Nazis during the war. Since my time there, the Italian government closed it down - it was felt they were really running a hotel!”
When Conor came back to Ireland in 1996, he started to teach art history part-time in UCD, but he knew he wanted to make painting his career. To get a large studio such as the one he had grown used to working in was the problem. A flat in a Georgian house on Mountjoy Square was the perfect solution.
As the flat comprised two enormous rooms, Conor decided to make a living room/bedroom/kitchen/bathroom out of one of them. At one end is the cooker while behind the doors is a shower room. There’s also room for a large blue sofa, shelves of CDs and a wonderful set of bookshelves full of art books and books on philosophy. “I love reading philosophy,” he says. I rarely believe what I read,, but now I take less for granted about what’s true and what isn’t, what’s real and what isn’t. It broadens your mind to entertain concepts that aren’t necessarily common sense.”
Behind an orange curtain hides Conor’s bed and, above it, there’s even a bed for guests. Despite having only one room where one would normally have four, there’s never a sense of being cramped in Conor’s flat, but then that’s the beauty of the large sash windows, high ceilings and original mouldings of the Georgian era - they create a sense of space and graciousness.
The living quarters are linked to the second room by means of an arch and a pair of large double doors, and Conor uses this room purely as a studio.. It’s also a huge room, and at the beginning he found its size daunting. “I had no work when I took it on and it seemed very intimidating so I got another painter, Geraldine O’Neill, to share the space. She was very productive and took over her half in no time. We were like the odd couple: she’s very spontaneous and messy, I’m very clean and careful, and I used to tear after her with a sponge, cleaning paint off the phone and the door-knobs., but now I have so much work I’ve no space for anyone else.”
Despite the fact that the studio is so crowded with his paintings, it’s still very tidy. On the easel sits a work in progress - a portrait of Bishop Francis McKiernan of Cavan; Conor does portraits on commission and the Bishop has sat five times for this painting. One wall is lined with shelves of potions and paints; tools and brushes hang neatly, too. Another wall is like that of a gallery - here Conor has hung a whole series of his paintings, each of them a still life. And next to his gallery, a still life is set up and ready to be painted. Setting up the still life can take a day or two,” he says. His pictures are painted in intense, almost startling colours, incredible blues and reds and golds. They feature books and flowers, vegetables and old sculptures, and all sorts of other things, but most also depict a life-mask, something which takes from the prettiness of the other objects, and makes them disconcerting, even threatening. “I use life-masks a lot. I think it’s because I’m fascinated by the realm of illusion.”
To add another dimension, the masks are those of Conor’s friends and family, who often call on spec and find themselves covered with Vaseline and plaster of Paris. “The only worry is you might lose a bit of hair or an eyebrow. You can’t do anyone with beards,” says the bearded artist., adding, “I did myself once. My girlfriend of the time hated the beard - found it scratchy - so as a Valentine’s Day surprise I shaved it off. While it was gone I did a mask of my own face. I did everyone for a while, so now I’ve enough to be going on with.”
Which must come as a relief to Conor’s nearest and dearest. Still, given the quality of his work, people may in the not-too-distant future want to boast that their life-mask is in a particular Walton painting. Who knows, Walton’s paintings may yet prove more famous than Walton’s Irish songs.