ON HOME GROUND Sheelyn Browne is pictured in her print gallery located adjacent to her home at The Quay, Westport. Pic: Paul Mealey
IT is one of the earliest forms of illustration and was popular when her family forebear Grace O’Malley was sailing the high seas in the 16th century, so it is not surprising that Sheelyn Browne favours woodcutting as the process for the resonant art that fills her gallery at Westport Quay. Indeed, one of her evocative linocuts, Tête-à-Tête, portrays the juxtaposed heads of Granuaile and Queen Elizabeth during that famous visit, after the west of Ireland pirate queen sailed up the Thames in 1593.
Art started early for the eldest daughter of Jennifer and the late Jeremy Browne, whose historic home was built on the foundations of Granuaile’s castle. This was the backdrop to Sheelyn’s early muse when armed with her Brownie camera she captured the shapes and forms, souls and spirits of the flora and fauna of the gardens and grounds, as well as the many interesting people she met at her ancestral home.
The eldest of the five daughters of the late Jeremy Browne and his widow, Jennifer, Sheelyn was sent to boarding school from the age of eleven to Rathdown School in Glenageary, Co Dublin, where she stayed until her Inter –now Junior – Cert and a serious standoff with her parents.
“It was very strict and all-girls and I decided I wanted to quit school altogether and there was panic. So it was decided to send me to Newtown School in Co Waterford, which was co-ed and more relaxed, although it was a seven-hour train journey from Westport,” says Sheelyn.
After boarding school and a year in France as an au pair, Sheelyn studied a Foundation in Art course at the Regional Tech, now known as GMIT, in Galway.
“I really wanted to study Fine Art but Dad felt I’d never make any money and needed a more practical course, so I got into Graphic Design at NCAD. This involved designing logos and the layout of magazine articles but it wasn’t really what I ultimately wanted. I found myself in the college library a lot, drawn to Japanese art, or in the print studio where you wouldn’t find too many graphic designers,” she explains.
Throughout this time Sheelyn was moving towards print and the influences of fine art and for her degree show in 1987 ‘everything was based around print or linocut’.
As well as Japanese artists, German Expressionists like Heckel, Kirchner and Nolde continue to be hugely influential.
“I suppose I grew up surrounded by all these old art forms in Westport House,” she says.
For a time, after college, Sheelyn, helped to run the busy and growing seasonal tourism attraction that was Westport House and ran Gracy’s, in the farmyard buildings at one stage.
“I produced cards and designed and hand-painted all the signs. It was very much a family enterprise with all-hands on deck alongside our vibrant team.”
BY then, in her early 30s, Sheelyn and her partner Maeve (Moran), a nurse, decided to take time out and moved to San Francisco; they left Westport for a year but stayed for eight.
“In the States I worked as a house painter and did some of my woodcut art. It was a really good time in our lives and when we returned home we had two babies, Grace (now 17) and Eve (now 15). Eve was just three months when we returned home. We moved back into a flat in Westport House while our own place here at the Quay was being built.”
Within two years, Sheelyn and her sister, Karen, were immersed in the running of the house with Jeremy taking more of a back-seat role but still – ‘being Dad’ – full of ideas.
“I was mainly interested in Westport House itself and I’d be up late at night sorting out rooms – everything had to be in its proper place and looking like it was being set up for a photograph.”
Like her art work, composition was everything. Essentially, Sheelyn’s creativity was expressed in this milieu by telling the cross-century narrative of this historic house through the lovingly detailed placing and positioning of her family home’s fittings and furnishings, art and craft collection.
“In that way I was more like my grandfather, Denis, than Dad, who loved being out in the grounds.”
Ironically, it was life-changing moments in recent years – Jeremy’s sad death in 2014 and the sale of Westport House in 2017 – that brought Sheelyn back to her art work.
“Deep down I never thought I’d have the time to go back to my art but it has been my saving grace. Some people do yoga, others go to a counsellor, but I have my art to grab at the positives,” Sheelyn Browne says reflectively.