FIRM FRIENDS Camille Souter (centre) with fellow Dooagh people John 'Twin' and Mary McNamara.
Camille Souter mourned in Achill and beyond
The passing on Friday last of legendary artist Camille Souter has brought to an end one of the most outstanding and enduring Irish art careers.
For many years Souter had lived in Dooagh on Achill Island. The 93 year old was one of Ireland’s most accomplished and successful painters with a career than spanned seven decades.
An honorary member of the RHA, she was elected a Saoi of Aosdána, the state-supported association of Irish creative artists, in November 2009 in a ceremony that was presided over by then President Mary McAleese.
The title is awarded for life and held by at most seven people at a time. Commenting on Souter’s contribution to Irish art, President McAleese said: “Among artists she stands out, a towering figure in Irish painting, a good and noble human being. So very worthy of the title ‘Saoi’.”
Dooagh man John McHugh was a long-time friend and neighbour of Souter. He is the manager of the Custom House Studios and Gallery in Westport, the venue of Souter’s last major exhibition, in 2019.
“No other Irish painter has made such a sustained contribution to the visual arts in Ireland. She was an inspiration and an example to generations of Irish painters. She is also immensely popular with the public,” said McHugh.
England to Achill
Camille Souter was born Betty Holmes in Northampton, England, in 1929. Her family came to Dublin in 1932. She subsequently went to London to study nursing. After contracting tuberculosis, she spent nearly a year in a sanatorium.
After qualifying in nursing, she took up painting and immersed herself into the free-spirited 1950s Soho art world. She married the actor Gordon Souter.
In London, she self-studied painting in the National Gallery and mixed with other artists. Her lifetime work was informed by her time in London and her exposure to contemporary painting there, including postwar abstract expressionism.
She subsequently moved back to Dublin, marrying her first husband, sculptor Frank Morris. They lived in Wicklow with their five children. However, Frank died aged 40, following a short illness.
She first came to Achill in 1959, staying in the old Amethyst Hotel in Kee. In 1986, she moved full-time to Dooagh and built a new studio there. She was very much part of the community in Dooagh, enjoying a vibrant social life and participating in various community activities with her neighbours and friends.
Source of inspiration
Achill was a considerable source of inspiration for her work, John McHugh explained.
“Camille always found inspiration and source materials for her work in Dooagh, and enjoyed a creative and prolific period in the 1990s and 2000s – continuing to work into her later years.
“Subject matter like fish, landscape, the shark fishery, the coastline, as well as daily life, provided source material for paintings, such as: ‘Dead Basking Shark’ (1965) and ‘The Achill Wedding’ (1989),” he said.
McHugh added that Souter had an early awareness of environmental issues and problems in Achill, and that this also informed her art.
She participated in eleven group exhibitions as a member of the Achill Artists’ Group at the historic Abha Teangai in Dooagh, which is McHugh’s home.
“She was very supportive and encouraging of young artists in their work,” said McHugh.
Her last major exhibition, which included sculptures by her late husband Frank Morris, was held at Custom House Studios at Westport Quay, in October 2019, as part of Westival. It coincided with her 90th birthday.
The chairman of the Arts Council, Kevin Rafter, described Souther as ‘one of Ireland’s most enduring painters’.
“From early abstract expressionist pieces to more impressionistic figurative works, she sought to capture the raw, unfiltered beauty that she saw in everyday places and commonplace things with a singularly tenacious resolve.
“Her paintings were never solely ‘beautiful’ in a traditional sense, but she did not want them to be. Instead they are robust, challenging, imbued with a ‘statuesque elegance’ all her own.”
In a statement, he said her output had been ‘absolutely unique in the context of Irish art, and I am certain that her legacy will continue to inspire artists and audiences alike for generations to come’.
Maureen Kennelly, director of the Arts Council and registrar of Aosdána, hailed the artist’s ‘extraordinary body of work over the course of almost 70 years, much of it on her beloved Achill Island’.