Fr Kevin Hegarty
In 1943 the poet, John Betjeman, who served as an attaché in the British Embassy in Dublin during the Second World War, gave a lecture to the Church of Ireland clergy on ‘Fabrics of the Church of Ireland’.
He made the point that the ‘fabric of the church is very much concerned with worship. The decoration of a church can lead the eye to God or away from Him’.
This year marks the 80th birthday of Imogen Stuart, a sculptor whose work adorns many Catholic and Protestant churches in Ireland.
In an interview with Brian Fallon, some years ago, Imogen told the story of her life. She was born in Berlin in 1927 to Bruno and Katherine Werner. Her father was an art critic and the editor of a cultural journal. She evokes a happy, almost fairytale-like childhood, though from the mid 1930s the menacing shadow of Nazism hung over it.
When the Second World War broke out she was shopping in Grinfelds, a big elegant Berlin store. As the hostilities intensified she, with her mother and sister, were evacuated first to Bavaria and, later, to Vienna for safety. Her father, who was half-Jewish, had to go underground eventually, to avoid capture by the Nazis.
From her teenage years Imogen was interested in sculpture. When the war ended her father arranged with Otto Hitzberger, an acclaimed sculptor, to take her as a pupil. She spent five ‘heavenly’ years with him. From him she learnt the grammar of her sculpture; a basis of firm draughtsmanship combined with a degree of expressionist freedom; a love of sculptor’s tools and materials. Here she developed the skills that enabled her to work in a variety of media - wood, bronze, stone, stained glass, etching and terracotta.
In 1948 a young Irishman, Ian Stuart, joined her as a pupil. they fell in love and married in 1951. Through her marriage she became part of an Irish family in whom many political, literary and artistic streams converged. Ian’s father was the novelist, Francis Stuart, and his mother, Iseult, was daughter of Maud Gonne.
After her marriage she came to live in Dublin. She and Ian separated in 1970. In 1988 she suffered further personal tragedy when her daughter Siobhán died as a result of a car accident.
Imogen Stuart’s work as a sculptor embodies many influences; traces of German Expressionism which stressed strong colours and emphatic rather accurate representations; Bavarian Rococo churches which are full of paintings, sculptures and polychrome work; Egyptian sculpture and primitive art; and old Irish stone-carving and metalwork. All of these influences mesh to create an art that is uniquely her own.
She has produced a significant body of religious art. Economic circumstances helped shape this direction. In the economically depressed 1950s, clergy, who were building or renovating churches, were among the few who had money to spend on art. She got on well with priests though she had a confrontation with the redoubtable Bishop Michael Browne of Galway over the bronze doors she created for the new cathedral.
Among her major works are Stations of the Cross at Muckross, Ballintuber Abbey and Firhouse, Tallaght; the bronze reliefs in Galway Cathedral; the Madonna in the Lady’s Chapel of Christ Church Cathedral; the Lough Derg Crucifixion scene.
I like, particularly, her Station of the Cross at Firhouse, Tallaght. Here she produces part images which tell the story of the way of the cross through the selection of significant details, eg, a hand - nailed and roped - standing for Christ nailed to the cross; two hands in a bowl for Pilate washing his hands.
Imogen Stuart’s secular sculptures are equally impressive. Take, for example, the striking Arch of Peace in Cavan town, or her three small, yet life-like school going children at Tyrellspass, Co Westmeath. This sculpture is a memorial to the old IRA veterans of the area who had fought in the War of Independence. She persuaded the organising committee to sponsor a statue of children, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the fight for freedom, rather than another statue of a soldier. Youth, innocence and joy are even more exuberantly expressed in her Fiddler of Dooney sequence in the Stillorgan Shopping Centre.
As Peter Harbison has written, ‘what a volume of lovely work’.