We explore British artist Breon O’Casey’s life, work and legacy whose outstanding talent shone through all of his creative outputs.
Born in London in 1928 to parents Sean O’Casey, the Irish playwright, and Eileen O’Casey, an actress, Breon moved to Totnes, Devon with his family in 1937.
After moving to St Ives, Cornwall, he found his footing with the arts and started painting with earnest. Breon spent his time with a group of people who were all hoping to make a living from their art, he said at the time there was a ‘strong antagonism to modern art then, and the nervous energy used up resisting it.’ O’Casey had a ramshackle studio in Cornwall overlooking the beach. He slept in a curtained-off area on one end and in the winter ‘the thud of the great waves would shake the whole crazy structure like a dog shaking a rat’.
Breon worked with English artists and sculptors Denis Mitchell and Dame Barbara Hepworth, learning from them how to combine the practical world of the market place with the ideal world of the artist. He says of his time with Denis Mitchell that the days were often spent searching for misplaced tools. O’Casey’s contribution to this was fixing a note to the wall saying: ‘Don’t put it down, put it back’, but this didn’t seem to make much difference! The closest Breon ever got to having a full time job was working for Barbara Hepworth, three days a week for £2 a day.
O’Casey is an artist of many mediums including painting, jewellery, weaving and sculpture. We have a wonderful sculpture called ‘Aphrodite’ by O’Casey that is the focal point of the Drawing Room at The Soho Hotel. Hear from Kit and Willow Kemp in this video from ‘The Firmdale Art Collection’ about this strong and steadfast piece.
“I think Breon’s work was almost lost during his lifetime. He’s an artist that has never really been given the accolades. But still, Aphrodite presides over the room and is very much, I think, the character of the room.” Kit Kemp
O’Casey describes himself as more of a still life painter than a landscape painter and finds the unending landscape too difficult to translate onto paper. Instead he prefers to be in a studio with no windows, surrounded by a collection of pots and pans, apples and oranges.
In his biography O’Casey says, ‘I was intrigued to read that Bonnard, when he painted flowers, had the flowers in the room next door, and would walk in and out to look at them: to have them in the same room would be too overpowering. I don’t know whether this is true but it is the way I work. The world is outside the studio, observed, but once in the studio with the door shut, a painting is a painting, not a copy of a bit of that world.’
Breon also worked closely with Hugh Stoneman experimenting with linocut, etching and carborundum.
This enjoyable note titled ‘Speeches I Never Made’ is from Breon O’Casey’s biography. He tells us to celebrate what society considers a failure and the power of loving what you do:
You see before you, in these magnificent robes, a failure. A failure in the sense that I was seventy before I was able to give up all other means of earning a living and devote myself entirely to painting and sculpture. And I am not the only one. Ben Nicholson, no less, was sixty-four before he could afford anything but a second- hand car – and he was very fond of cars. You may be a Damian Hirst (you may win the lottery), but I am afraid you are far more likely to end up like me – having to find other ways of earning a living for most of your lives. You are destined, particularly if you are good, to end up as big a failure as me. Good luck!
Breon was one of the best all-round artists and sculptors who understood colour and abstraction. We admire his work enormously. Pangolin London will be showing a retrospective of Breon O’Casey’s life and work at the end of March. Watch this space.