Obituary: Patrick Hickey

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The Independent Culture
PATRICK HICKEY had - through his work as an artist, a lecturer, an architect, a designer, and a founder of modern art graphics in Ireland - perhaps more influence on the direction of art and design in Ireland than any of his contemporaries.

Born in India in 1927, he graduated as an architect from University College, Dublin, and having spent time in Urbino in Italy returned to Ireland, fired up with enthusiasm for graphics, to found the Graphic Studio Dublin in 1962.

The original Graphic Studio was located down a flight of steps in the basement area of a fine Georgian terraced street. Now housing expensive offices, the building was then a rather seedy place of cheap flats and unpainted hallways. It was quite an unsuitable place for a thriving print studio since it was too small. The studio was in what had been the kitchens of the original house - and its stone floors were steady under the heavy printing presses.

It was very much the place to be in the 1960s and 1970s. Hickey presided, and when I first knew him in the late 1960s he was a big, vigorous, red- headed man, possessed of endless patience and the true teacher's ability to make one feel that there was merit in even the most awful scrawl. A stream of artists and would-be artists came and went: many now famous professional artists went through the "Graphic" and spent hours learning hand-printing of etchings and lithographs and the art of sitting on the high stools chatting and drinking cups of tea.

We even had a member of the staff of the British Embassy, a would-be artist or spy, who knows? He attended in the early 1970s and, when he was given 24 hours to leave the country by the IRA, he left.

Hickey dealt with all the different artists with tact and courtesy. There was one particular winter's afternoon when a petulant lady artist for whom he was printing demanded a colour pink. Not any pink; this pink she imagined she needed was a pink of pinks. The light in the studio was poor, the lady persisted in a high-pitched voice, and Hickey continued mixing and discarding pink ink. The print was for Hickey's beloved Christmas editions of hand- printed graphics "for our sponsors" and Hickey's patience held out and the print got finished.

Hickey ceased to be the prime mover in the studio in the early 1970s. The studio later split up and the new Graphic Studio Dublin moved to its present premises in Green Street East. It was when Hickey became an ordinary member of the studio rather than its head, however, that his finest work was made. He had always favoured a distilled stillness in his work, where the artist worked as in the Chinese axiom or almost becoming the object studied and then tried to recreate on paper with line and colour the being, the inner energy of that object.

When I knew him first he was very taken with William Scott, loving the cool blues and yellows of Scott's paintings. Then he fell in love with the landscape of Wicklow, and the brown mountains with pine plantations creeping up the ravines featured in a whole series of his works.

He always looked at things straight, trying to evade the easy lazy line and to see things as they are. He abandoned the horizon line, so beloved of European painting, and honed in on areas of the landscape - this is very common now but in the early 1970s it was revolutionary. In the 1970s art world that was totally given to abstraction, Hickey preserved his freedom to work within his own aesthetic.

He was one of the chief designers of the new Irish currency notes when Ireland joined the EEC in 1974. Irish notes have always been well designed, so this was a huge challenge for Hickey. He worked with Michael Biggs, the foremost letter designer of his day, and this team produced Ireland's finest note design this century. The designs were extraordinarily beautiful and have only recently been superseded, by functional new designs of no particular merit. Hickey and Biggs together used the geometry behind the old Celtic scripts to create a variety of letters of excellent design in the Celtic tradition.

We discovered later that, while Hickey worked upstairs at Green Street East, downstairs, in a lock-up store that was part of the same building, the minions of a far-left political party were busy printing counterfeit money, using fairly bad copies of Hickey's beautiful designs. (They were found out by the Gardai.)

It was during this time that Hickey did some of his most notable work. A series of 12 calendar prints - one for each month of the year - was particularly successful. He wrote the name of the month in Irish in the background using the same lovely lettering as on the money and then a foreground study of a flower, fruit, or foliage pertinent to that month. This was his metier, giving a huge decorative importance to quite insignificant things. He loved peonies but felt the Chinese had completely appropriated them in their designs, so he drew the first spikes of peony thrusting out of the ground in spring as his own vision.

In the mid-1980s the Graphic Studio organised an exhibition in An Spideal, an Irish-speaking area along the shores of Galway Bay. Hickey stayed in the area during the exhibition and became quite enamoured of the place, noting how the cool clear sunlight helped one to see so exactly the patterns in the uncompromising granite landscape. He loved also listening to Irish being spoken: he said, "It is so valuable: it must never be lost." He was the classic artist of the Irish parable, collecting things that others throw away or do not even notice.

He told his students in Architecture at University College, Dublin, and later at the National College of Art, where he was Professor of Painting from 1985 to 1990: "Look clearly at an object, draw it, and get it right the first time." A colleague from those days at the School of Architecture told me that his mantra was "Concentrate, be fully attentive and get it right". Anyone associated with Hickey knew that for him drawing was paramount. It was the way to appreciating, and creating line, form, geometry, and the basis of all visual art.

Towards the end of his life, when Parkinson's disease ensured he had only about four working hours in every day, Hickey gave us an example of courage and heroism in face of a terrible illness. Some of his best work was done in these hours when he could work only with the help of the pills - flowers, trees, moons, and quintessential landscapes.

Patrick Hickey, graphic artist, painter, printmaker and architect: born 22 April 1927; Professor of Painting, National College of Art and Design, Dublin 1985-90; married; died Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin 16 October 1998.