Story by Anne Hodge.
Throughout 2020, BCL has been in collaboration with the National Gallery of Ireland to produce new content on George Wallace in celebration of their exhibition George Wallace: Reflections on Life, on display September 11 – December 13, 2020. Special thanks to Anne Hodge, Curator of Prints and Drawings, for providing new images and for all of her wonderful insights and hard work in writing this illuminating piece on Wallace’s life, career and influences.
George Burton Wallace was born on June 7, 1920 at 15 Albert Road, a small terraced house in Sandycove on the south coast of Dublin. In 1924 the family moved to a larger house on St George’s Avenue in Killiney. An only child, George amused himself by drawing. He was sent to boarding school at quite a young age, first to Aravon in Bray and later, aged 14 to St. Columba’s College in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains.
St Columba’s College had a strong religious ethos and George Wallace became a chapel prefect. Fellow student Kildare Dobbs wrote in his memoir Running the Rapids: A Writers Life: ‘George had been my senior at St Columba’s. He had already been an artist then, a serious boy who dyed his pants red and wanted to take Holy Orders.’ (p.145) He excelled in art, encouraged by a progressive teacher who introduced him to modern art. A watershed moment was the day the class was brought to the home of modernist painter May Guinness (1863-1955). Paintings by Matisse, Bonnard, Georges Braque and Rouault hung on the walls. In later life George remembered ‘the amazingly vivid paintings such as none of us fifteen-year-olds had ever seen before.’
George Wallace entered Trinity College in October 1939. He studied philosophy as a first step towards becoming an Anglican priest although his schoolboy vocation soon disappeared. While at college he painted and drew and carved small wooden sculptures inspired by Barbara Hepworth’s work. He met Margaret Howe at Trinity when they were both members of the Dublin Marionette Theatre and they married in 1946. On graduation in 1944, Wallace got a job as a teacher in Radley College, near Oxford.
At Radley, George met Paul Feiler (1918-2013), a painter of German descent who encouraged him to go to art school. Feiler, who was part of the St Ives group, was an influential figure. He was one of George‘s teachers at the West of England College of Art from 1946 – 49. The Sickert-inspired style of another teacher at the school, Bernard Dunstan (1920-2017) made an impression too, and gritty images of working people and ordinary life abound in his early work. He learned to etch at Bristol, attending part-time evening classes taught by a Mr Price, a competent but conservative printmaker who promoted the techniques and imagery of the Etching Revival. As sheet copper was in short supply, prints were made by grinding down old plates used by pre-war students. Wallace remembered looking in the bin for ‘small plates that had been lightly etched.’ (George Wallace: a note on printmaking‘, NGI Dossier File NGI 2016.37-53)
Towards the end of 1949 he got a teaching job at Falmouth School of Art. He and Margaret settled in the Cornish seaside town with their first child Christopher (Kit), born in 1947. Their other two children Julia and Mark were born in Falmouth. Wallace taught painting, drawing and printmaking in Falmouth and spent much time on his own work, in particular experimenting with etching methods. The reminiscences of former Falmouth student Malcolm Ross-Macdonald, who later became a friend, give some insight into George Wallace as a teacher. He remembered Wallace’s Sickert-oriented style, his life-drawing classes and his dry sense of humour. Wallace claimed he had an illuminated text hanging over his bed which read: ‘There is only one thing to do with art students – discourage them’. A, polymath, his lectures on the history of European painting were also tutorials in philosophy and literature. (E-mail correspondence, 22 August 2017)
Around 1955 he became interested in welded metal sculpture, particularly the work of Reg Butler (1913-81). Butler‘s spiky iron sculptures evoke ‘the art of trauma’, a central theme for many European artists after the war. Around this time Wallace began attending classes at the local polytechnic college to learn how to weld. Large-scale welded sculpture became an important part of his work when he moved to Canada.
St Austell Claypits
As a boy Wallace had spent family holidays in Avoca, Co. Wicklow where he had enjoyed exploring disused copper mines. His students at Falmouth School of Art, aware of his interest in quarries and mines, suggested that he should visit St Austell, an area famous for its claypits and easily reachable by train. This ravaged yet beautiful industrial landscape of St Austell provided much inspiration for Wallace, who first visited around 1954, and resulted in a large body of abstract work in a variety of media. Years later he wrote about the claypits: ‘huge in scale, sometimes dramatically coloured and almost always richly textured. It was an environment which might be viewed from above as a series of very large precipitously walled excavations that dwarfed the men working in them or which also might be viewed from within and below, where they become great amphitheatres … It was a vast eroded scene; at times sinister but entrancingly varied.’ (The St Austell Landscapes, unpublished text by George Wallace Dossier File NGI 2016.37-53)
Development as an artist
Throughout the 1950s, he exhibited work in Bristol, London and Dublin. The Irish Exhibition of Living Art, set up in 1943 by modernist artists Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone showed his abstract paintings. His work was also selected for major touring shows of contemporary Irish art in North America and Germany. He was represented by Victor Waddington, the foremost gallerist operating in Dublin at that time. In 1957 he emigrated with his family to Canada. He became a renowned professor of Art at McMaster University and continued making prints and sculpture. This part of his life has been discussed by Alvin Lee.
National Gallery of Ireland
Some six years after his father’s death, in September 2015, Kit Wallace visited the National Gallery of Ireland. He brought some examples of George Wallace’s prints with him as the Wallace family were thinking of gifting a representative selection of his work to a public collection in Ireland. As I viewed the sheets, I was immediately impressed by their high level of technical skill, artistry and imagination and moved by the raw depictions of vulnerable humanity. In 2016 the Gallery Board accepted the Wallace family’s generous gift of some 250 etchings, woodcuts, monotypes and drawings by George Wallace. I am delighted that the National Gallery of Ireland will showcase this collection in a historic exhibition: George Wallace, Reflections on Life, (September 11 – December 13, 2020), the first time in 50 years that his work will be shown in Ireland.
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