Breon O'Casey: Artist who assisted Barbara Hepworth before becoming a member of the St Ives scene

Breon O'Casey was a versatile craftsman who eventually made his mark as a fully-fledged St Ives artist. A painter, printmaker, weaver,jewellery-maker and, latterly, sculptor,O'Casey enjoyed a long and successful career that epitomised the thindividing line between the fine and applied arts in South-west Cornwall. In this historically significant regional art centre, craftsmanship proved as important as purely conceptual and stylistic factors.

O'Casey was born in London in 1928, son of the celebrated Irish playwright Sean O'Casey. In spite of his literary background, the young Breon – who moved with his parents to Dartington Hall near Totnes in Devon in 1937 – developed an early interest in the visual arts. He spent the war years at Dartington, an eminently sympathetic environment whose legacy he later described as teaching him to "think with my hands as well as my head".

After the war O'Casey left for London and studied at the Anglo-French Art Centre. The 1950s proved a dark, uncertain time. He found his feet only towards the end of the decade by discovering the vibrant art colony of St Ives. Through the popular sculptor Denis Mitchell, O'Casey met the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, in whose studio he worked for two days a week between 1959 and 1963.

What he described as "a toughapprenticeship" in Hepworth's workshop proved to be his real artistic education. The Irish critic Brian Fallon, author of a 1999 monograph on O'Casey's many-faceted enterprise, pinpointed a "care and patience for materials... and an organic unfussy quality" as the essential qualities learnt by working at Trewyn studios.

During O'Casey's time there, 1950s assistants such as Mitchell, John Milne, Keith Leonard, Roger Leigh and Brian Wall were being replaced by a younger team who were skilled craftsmen in an artisanal, rather than creative, sense. Hepworth ensured that henceforth her "boys" would not confuse their own artistic ambitions with the often more mundane and perfunctory rigours of her imperatives. Perhaps for this reason, O'Casey branched out on his own, and by the mid-1960s had found alternative employment as a schoolteacher in Camborne. He continued, however, to cross paths with his former employer; she respected his determination, skill and endeavour and as well as acquiring a painting of his, commissioned him to make a gold cross which she mounted on a plastic stand and kept on her mantelpiece.

In the early 1960s O'Casey was at the heart of the local exhibition scene as a vice-chairman of the Penwith Society, during one of its most active phases, but it was, in London that O'Casey's work made its most effective inroads. Following a 1966 exhibition at the Signals Gallery, he enjoyed two solo shows with the Marjorie Parr Gallery, Chelsea, in 1967 and 1969. The first exhibition was shared with his St Ives mentor and friend Denis Mitchell; the second had an accompanying catalogue in which Mitchell alluded to the "depth and lyrical qualities" of O'Casey's paintings.

O'Casey's sombre, smouldering palette complemented his simplebut profound symbols, full of themysterious intensity of ancient Celtic hieroglyphics and pagan stone markings. The bronze Relief (1996) used rudimentary shapes which proved that linear incisions on a flat surface could be as effective for sculpture as for a painted composition.

In the creative hierarchy of O'Casey's manifold activities it was perhaps the intensity of the paintings that proved most significant. The osmosis between painting and weaving, which shared a boldness of design and vividness of colour, characterised the equally symbiotic relationship between the painted and graphic oeuvre. In his printmaking, O'Casey utilised his keen feeling for the scratched or inscribed patterns of ancient and primitive art. O'Casey's graphics embraced lithography, linocut and etching, and display his love of French art in general, and Braque, Picasso and Matisse in particular.

In 1996 O'Casey held the axiomatically titled exhibition "The Last Jewellery Show" in Oxford, and after that relinquished the making of brooches, earrings and necklaces – the latter notable for their sophisticated use of variegated stones and metals tightly threaded together like ancient dry stone walls – in favour of sculpture. His sculptures divide into solid bronzes and trinket-like silver objects such as Figure (1996). The latter are light and whimsical in quality and use the flat or conic shapes of the jewellery. The dangling, gently floating mobiles of Alexander Calder were an inspiration for O'Casey's earrings. But in spite of their small scale and use of light materials O'Casey's free-standing sculpted figures are resolutely earth-bound, frontal and static. In this they speak with the tongue of primitive and ethnic art and therefore fulfil O'Casey's desire to produce work with a directness of conception, ease of execution and unaffected power of expression.

O'Casey was a modest man of quiet dignity, temperamentally suited to the slow, patient, painstaking endeavour of the creative craftsman. Despite its struggles O'Casey's career slowly gained the successes it deserved. The association with Marjorie Parr, a dealer whose own roots lay in the glass and furniture trade, proved suitable and congenial – especially after Parr extended her Chelsea base by opening a gallery branch in St Ives in 1969. During the late 1990s his worked was represented by the blue-chip Berkeley Square Gallery, a situation that underlined the growing appeal of his work in a wide variety of guises.

He is survived by his wife Doreen, daughters Duibhne and Oona and son Brendan.

Peter Davies

Breon O'Casey, artist and craftsman: born London 30 April 1928; married 1961 Doreen Corscadden (one son, two daughters); died Penzance 22 May 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen