Conor Fallon

Sculptor 'cursed' with perfectionism
Click to follow

Conor Hubert Fallon, sculptor and painter: born 30 January 1939; married 1966 Nancy Wynne-Jones (died 2006; one son, one daughter); died Ballinaclash, Co Wicklow 3 October 2007.

Conor Fallon was one of the pre-eminent Irish sculptors of the last century, his steel birds and animals capturing their essence with a spare beauty and elegance. He considered that Cubism was "the development in the art of the 20th century" and his own sculpture absorbed its influence, but he was also greatly affected by the work of the early Greeks and the carved figures of ancient Egypt.

Although Fallon was initially known for fairly small sculptures, and was "unable to see how I could do public sculptures of birds without them being distortions", he eventually became noted for some fine large open-air pieces. His Chanticleer (1991), at University College Dublin student residences, Winged Horse (1992), in Athenry, Co Galway, and Horse (1994), also at UCD, are sizeable works by an artistic perfectionist that daily delight the passer-by.

Fallon was born in Dublin in 1939, the third of six sons of the poet Pádraic Fallon and his wife Dorothea, known as Don, derived from Pádraic's name for her, Madonna. The Fallons moved to Wexford after Conor was born and there he mixed with country folk, and also with his parents' intellectual and artistic friends, such as the poet Austin Clarke, the painter Tony O'Malley and the composer Freddie May.

His brother Brian Fallon became a noted art critic. Conor referred to him as "my spiritual mentor", who introduced him to Homer's Odyssey by telling him it was a serial story when he was still a small boy, and sharing with him the collecting of reproductions of paintings. Conor's father was a civil servant, like other creative Irish people who needed a day job. Although he had always drawn and painted, Conor entered Trinity College in Dublin to study natural science, but left after two years when his botany professor suggested that he should be an artist.

He began as a self-taught painter in 1957, during the day working as an accountant. Fallon learned the handling of paint in the studio of Richard Kingston, to whom he had been introduced by O'Malley. He met other important artists including George Campbell and Gerard Dillon.

In 1964 Fallon went to Cornwall to visit O'Malley, who had moved there after a heart attack. Fallon was poised to meet the painter Peter Lanyon, but Lanyon died in a glider crash before the meeting took place. The St Ives artistic community was shattered by the event, particularly Lanyon's student Nancy Wynne-Jones. Fallon married her in 1966 after, in 1965, settling in Cornwall.

He continued to paint while working as an accountant, then bought a derelict farm with a neighbour. Although he was elected a member of the Newlyn Society of Artists in 1966, creating a dairy farm took more and more of his time and his painting diminished – he later destroyed most of his Jack Yeats-influenced pictures. He then turned towards sculpture.

Lanyon, the Russian Constructivist Naum Gabo, who had spent time in Cornwall before Fallon's arrival, and the local sculptor Denis Mitchell were formative influences. The austere Mitchell taught Fallon the essentials of his craft, although Fallon never followed him into pure abstraction. When, around 1969, Fallon created an owl in aluminium, Mitchell told him: "You'll never paint again. You're a born sculptor."

"From him I had the attitude that the last hundredth of an inch is the most important", Fallon recalled in a monograph published for his 1996 exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallagher Gallery in Dublin. Of Mitchell's striving for perfectionism, he said, "He has cursed me with it."

After he and Nancy moved back to Ireland in 1972 – the year of his first solo show of paintings and sculptures at Newlyn Orion Gallery – Fallon continued to send Mitchell photographs of everything he made. The Fallons settled in Kinsale, Co Cork in artistic isolation as he refined his sculptures. Fallon was a hands-on sculptor, proud of the fact that he had been "offered a job as a skilled metal worker, which I take as a great compliment".

He became known especially for his birds, horses and fish at many solo and mixed exhibitions, with a series at Taylor Gallery, Dublin, from 1984, and Theo Waddington, London, 1997. Among the fine heads those of his father (1987) – in the Irish Arts Council collection – and James Joyce (1990) are notable.

Fallon was awarded the Oireachtas (Parliament) Gold Medal for sculpture in 1980 and was made a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1989. His work is in many public collections in Ireland.

David Buckman