Camille Souter: The Mirror in the Sea, by Garrett Cormican, Whyte’s, 337pp (illustrated), €60.00, ISBN: 978-0950641539
Camille Souter has been painting for over 50 years. When she embarked on her career the dominant mode of practice in Ireland was characterised by the academicism of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), which preoccupied itself with landscape, portraiture and to a lesser degree still life. The RHA, founded in 1943, espoused traditional, strictly representational values and held sway in the National College of Art. The Irish Exhibition of Living Art (ILEA), by contrast, was founded in 1943 to allow for a strong Modernist voice that was essentially non-academic. The Independent Artists emerged in the 1960s as champions of romantic modernism and critics of the established Irish art-world order – particularly the Arts Council. Souter did not involve herself in art politics, but happily exhibited with all three groups, two of which – the Independents and the ILEA – no longer exist.
Making a living as an artist was not easy in the 1950s and 1960s, and only a handful of artists could devote themselves full-time to art. Patrick Scott, for example, practised as an architect for many years, while the sculptor Deborah Brown worked as an estate agent. Michael Kane was a night telephonist, Patrick Graham was in advertising and Jonathan Wade worked as a labourer as well as painting “pot-boilers” under the pseudonym Lucas Kingsley. Many artists turned to teaching in order to keep the wolf from the door.
Some Dublin-based artists frequented McDaid’s and the “Catacombs”, living the kind of life described in Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. Most however did not, and led exemplary lives of suburban sobriety. Souter preferred rural life, and though shy, is sociable and enjoys a drink. She never experienced chronic poverty but for long periods struggled to make ends meet. Membership of Aosdána helped to ease the financial burden.
Effectively self-taught, she was from the outset regarded as an exceptionally mature painter. Her work is small and intimate, and she mainly concentrates on landscape and everyday objects. She has also produced some major series, the subject matter of which includes the circus, meat, fish and aviation; others focus on wounded airmen and the first Gulf War. Her influences are mainly European, as noted by Anne Crookshank in the catalogue of Souter’s 1980 retrospective at the Douglas Hyde Gallery.
Artists like Dubuffet and Tapies may well have been known to her as well as Klee, who has clearly been an inspiration especially in her early work. These were the artists who emphasised the beauties of walls, children’s scribbles, urban rubbish and grafitti, all subjects used by Camille, though she has always been more interested in the countryside and rural scene than the big city scene. These influences might suggest that texture was the all important feature of her work, but this is not so. She has always had an underlying feeling for shapes.
Describing some of Souter’s still lives as “extraordinarily “Bonnardish”, Crookshank was struck by a “stillness” in the artist’s work
The calm stillness and diffused light of indoor paintings is particularly suited to Camille’s art and it is not surprising that her ‘fish’ series should be so very fine. Even her landscapes, because they often portray a very unobtrusive feature and never a picturesque view, link closely with still life painting. They are incidentally always scenes in which there is practically no movement. The wind does not blow her trees and she does not see Achill in a storm. Still sunshine, quiet rain, mist or the silence of winter cold are her chosen subjects.
Souter belongs to no formal “school” or group, but her semi-abstract lyrical approach is close to that of artists such as Patrick Collins, Barrie Cooke, Sean McSweeney, Tony O’Malley and Nano Reid. She has enjoyed favourable reviews from the start, is held in high esteem by her peers and her work is much sought after by collectors. She prefers to work on paper – pages of newspapers, brown wrapping paper, tissue paper as well as “art” paper – and uses aluminium and bicycle paints in addition to conventional artists’ colours. Paintings that fail to meet her high standards are destroyed, and she is known to have retrieved work from buyers in order to destroy and replace it.
Garrett Cormican’s first exposure to Souter’s work was when, as a final year art history student at Trinity College Dublin, he decided to write his dissertation on her. On seeing a reproduction of one of her paintings it immediately struck him that she was an “artist of the highest calibre”. He decided to follow his dissertation with a substantial publication, and “the book was partly conceived to make Souter’s paintings more accessible, if only through reproductions”. This was one reason why the artist allowed it to go ahead despite her dislike for any kind of publicity.
Souter was born Betty Pamela Holmes in Northampton in 1929. Her father, the managing director of a shoe-manufacturing company, took over the firm’s Dublin office in 1932 and the family settled in Sandycove. At Glengara Park School she did not shine academically, although she won prizes for drawing and painting; she also played hockey, winning inter-provincial honours with Leinster.
In 1948 she enrolled as a trainee nurse at Guy’s Hospital, London. There she drew satirical cartoons, some of which survive, based on the hospital regime. London was the “most wonderful education” she ever had, and she availed of complimentary passes to concerts in the Wigmore Hall and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She also paid regular visits to art galleries and exhibitions.
Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1950, she spent a year in hospital on the Isle of Wight, attending art classes as part of her occupational therapy. Continuing her convalescence in Bray, Co Wicklow, where her parents now lived, she learned the rudiments of sculpture at classes given by the émigré Breton nationalist Yann Renard-Goulet. Following her return to London she qualified as a nurse in 1952, and went into private nursing, which she disliked. In her spare time she made clay models but, dissatisfied with the results, destroyed them. She began painting.
She socialised in Soho, where she met Dylan Thomas – “always drunk” – and the painter John Minton. In December 1953 she married the Old Vic actor Gordon Souter, who claimed to have given her the name Camille. Her first child, Natasha, was born in 1955; that year also she and her husband separated, and in September she travelled to Italy with Ralph Rumney. (A founder of the Situationist International, Rumney was expelled and subsequently married Pegeen, daughter of Peggy Guggenheim.) She “starved” in Trieste, but found hunger a spur to painting. At around the time she and Rumney parted she made her first sales, when the Argentinian-born painter Lucio Fontana bought two of her paintings. The earliest surviving works by Souter date from her Italian sojourn. Returning to Ireland, she met Frank Morris, who had abandoned his architectural studies to become a sculptor, and in 1956 she gave birth to her daughter Michèle. The family lived frugally at various addresses in Dublin.
Her first solo exhibition was held at the El Habano restaurant, Grafton Street, in December 1956. It was a resounding success and most of the 37 paintings on show were sold. The following year she exhibited for the first time with the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. All four of her paintings were sold, and the work was praised in the Irish Press. She, however, saw her early work as “too abstracted”, too far removed from “subject matter”. Nevertheless, reviews of her second solo exhibition, held in 1957, refer to her “taste, ability and discrimination”, and describe her as a “brilliant exponent of modernism”
In 1958 she exhibited at the avant garde New Vision Art Centre Gallery in London, where Morris was working as an assistant to John Skeaping, the sculptor and equine painter. Later that year she travelled to Italy on an Italian government scholarship; thereafter she visited the country at least once every two years.
In 1959 she settled in Achill, Co Mayo, where she later established a studio. The following year the first annual Independent Artists’ exhibition was held, and she was one of three artists invited to exhibit ten paintings. Her reputation was growing and buyers of her work included influential figures in the Irish art world, among them the architects Michael Scott and Ronald Tallon, and Sir Basil Goulding, who became the biggest collector of her paintings.
Souter married Frank Morris in 1960 and moved to Wicklow, living first in Enniskerry and later at Calary Bog. Goulding provided her with premises for a studio in Enniskerry. He also helped in other ways. He was the founder of the Contemporary Irish Art Society, which purchased her work for the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Art. He also sought to promote her work internationally, but she did not share his ambitions on her behalf. This stemmed from her belief that paintings are best seen in the country they were painted in, and her wish that the paintings she has sold should remain close to hand.
She was honoured in 1961 when she was chosen to represent Ireland at the Paris Biennale. Her work was much in demand, and institutional buyers included the Arts Council, Trinity College Dublin and the Bank of Ireland. The well-known collector Gordon Lambert also bought her work. In 1965 the critic Brian Fallon noted her emergence as a fine and sensitive landscapist on a small scale. She had, he observed, “gradually developed a sure sense of form and kept her spontaneity”.
Frank Morris died in 1970. In 1971 Souter held a joint retrospective with Barrie Cooke in Dublin. Since then she has exhibited extensively in Ireland, Britain and on the continent, and her career has gone from strength to strength. In the early 1980s she learned to fly in order to advance her series of paintings on flight and flying. She is still going strong and rebuilt her studio in Achill in 2006.
Her early work was mainly abstract and gestural, but she has since developed her own unique vision. Her later work is noteworthy for its painterly and poetic qualities. Her achievement is that 50 years and more of ploughing her own furrow have yielded, as Aidan Dunne states, “one of the best, most distinctive bodies of work ever produced by an Irish artist”.
Cormican unfortunately tends to overstate the case in favour of Souter’s work, describing her, for example, as “arguably, Ireland’s greatest living painter”. This is a rather pointless statement that simply raises equally futile questions as to who might be Ireland’s second greatest living painter, third greatest and so on? However, in what is clearly a labour of love, he does justice to his subject, an artist who has quietly made her mark – and reared five children in the process. He recounts in detail the life of “a restless nomad with an all-seeing eye”, omitting reference to some personal matters at the artist’s request. The catalogue he has compiled lists 480 works, representing the most comprehensive survey of Souter’s oeuvre to date – an impressive piece of research by any standards. The colour plates are excellent, and are complemented by clean design and a clear typeface. Overall, a book of earnest scholarship attractively presented.
Paddy Gillan is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design and has worked as a journalist and graphic designer.