Reid, Nano (1900–81), painter, was born Anne Margaret Reid on 1 March 1900 in Drogheda, Co. Louth, eldest among four children of Thomas Reid, publican, and Anne Reid (née Downey). The family lived above their pub on the corner of Peter St. and Fair St., and enjoyed a prosperous business; they also owned properties in West St., Drogheda, and Rathgar, Dublin. Nano was educated at Siena Convent, Drogheda, where she was a talented pianist. On leaving school she enrolled briefly at the Mater Hospital, Dublin, as a trainee nurse, but left within two months. Her parish priest, Fr Segrave, persuaded her parents to send her to the Metropolitan School of Art, Kildare St., Dublin, where she came under the influence of Harry Clarke (qv) and was then described by a fellow student as a ‘fierce red-head . . . with keen green eyes behind spectacles. She was uncompromising, blunt, and desperately looking for truth’ (Mallon, 22). This description was echoed by others throughout her life; though shy, plain, and timid, she had a steely integrity and a biting tongue that commanded respect. In 1923 she taught for a time at a boys' school and at her old school in Drogheda, and in 1925 exhibited for the first time in the Royal Hibernian Academy, showing three illustrations of poems. She continued to show intermittently at the RHA until 1968 but was never an academic painter. About 1927 she went, like most Irish painters of her generation, to Paris. However, she remained only a few months at l'Académie de la Grande Chaumière and, though she enjoyed herself, it had no discernible effect on her style. Her next study trip abroad was less happy: she was miserable at the Chelsea Polytechnic in London, where she stayed one year (1929–30) and afterwards confined herself to Ireland.
Like Paul Henry (qv) she turned to the west for inspiration, and her early work of desolate landscapes and peasants and fishermen is reminiscent of his. She held her first one-person show with the Dublin Painters Society at Stephen's Green in 1934. Two years later her second solo show at the Daniel Egan Gallery, Dublin, showed fifty-three watercolours and twenty-three oils, and was rehung in Drogheda, at the request of the mayor. This was a rare endorsement of her work by her home county, where she generally felt unappreciated. Her sister had taken over the family pub and Nano was a regular visitor, but lived mostly in Dublin, where she shared a house with her friend Patricia Hutchins, first in Newtown Park Avenue, Blackrock, and then in Pembroke Road. Gossip circulated about the women's relationship but was unfounded; Hutchins subsequently married. Reid may have had relations with men, but was inhibited and unconfident. After the war she moved to Fitzwilliam Square, took in young men as lodgers, and soon had a coterie of talented young poets, including Pearse Hutchinson and Sam Harrison, to whom she was an inspirational figure because of her integrity.
Her reputation grew slowly but firmly. Liam O'Flaherty (qv) opened an exhibition for her in 1939, and the influential Thomas MacGreevy (qv) called her ‘a born painter and born stylist . . . the young painter from Drogheda has to be hailed as a genius’ (Ir. Times, 27 Nov. 1942). This was deliberate hyperbole, a clarion call for modernism in a city which the cosmopolitan MacGreevy saw as parochial and conservative. Two years later a less radical critic was condemning ‘her murky colours, her graceless lumpy forms, the confused obscurity of her pictures' content’ (Ir. Times, 20 Apr. 1944). Reid was by this stage among Ireland's foremost modernists and was connected with the radical White Stag group, formed by Basil Rákócsi (qv) and Kenneth Hall (1914–46). An exhibitor at the first, ground-breaking Irish Exhibition of Living Art (1943), she continued to show with them up until 1971. A fine draughtsman, known for her boldness and economy of line, she became increasingly expressionist from the late 1940s on, and developed her characteristic ‘bird's eye view’ which gives her pictures a pictographic effect. By 1950 she was critically acclaimed enough to be represented by two oils in the ‘Contemporary Irish painting’ exhibition, which toured North America; and more importantly, to be chosen, with Norah McGuinness (qv), to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale, where Italian critics were amazed to learn that she was an Irish woman artist, such was the ‘masculine’ vigour of her brushwork.
During the 1950s she showed in New York, England, and Italy; but though admired, she did not build up an international reputation, possibly due to her shyness, reticence, and wariness of self-promotion. These may also have contributed to her lack of wider appeal in Ireland, where critical acclaim did not trickle down to popularity with the public, even though her 1950s work showed a new joyful Chagallian exuberance and humour. In person, she remained prickly and uncompromising. A fond mother, bringing her daughter's work to Reid, was advised to break the girl's thumbs.
In 1962 she returned to Drogheda to live with her two unmarried sisters above the pub, which she decorated with murals. Tactless and eccentric, she was a noted Drogheda character and a determined defender of the town's heritage. She loved medieval history – a theme that informed her art work – and in 1958 led a failed campaign to prevent the demolition of the thirteenth-century Butter Gate. A major retrospective exhibition by the two arts councils of Ireland, in Belfast and Dublin (1974), confirmed her as a leading Irish artist. Her later work came close to abstract expressionism; she was what the critic Brian Fallon has called an instinctive artist, and worked on intuition. She herself remarked that she was never clear in her ideas when she started a painting. Patricia Hutchins thought her increasing short-sightedness had much to do with the abstract intensity of her work. During the 1970s the sisters sold the pub and retired to a house on an estate, Sunnyside Villas, in Drogheda. Reid last exhibited for the Oireachtas in 1977; after this date her health worsened and she could work no more. She died at Drogheda Cottage Hospital on 17 November 1981.
Since her death she has been the subject of at least three retrospectives, and her place in Irish art history seems secure. Brian Fallon, an early champion, has written that the best of her work looks better with time. This is echoed by S. B. Kennedy and Dorothy Walker (qv); general critical consensus places her among the best Irish artists of her generation. However, rather surprisingly, twenty years after her death this acclaim had yet to have much impact on her popularity. In 2000 her oil paintings went, on average, for £5,000 each. This compares unfavourably with her contemporaries Norah McGuinness and Mainie Jellett (qv), whose oils went for at least twice and up to eight times this amount in the same period.