Robinson, David Marcus (‘Markey’) (1918–99), painter, was born 7 February 1918 at 4 Arkwright St., Belfast, elder of two sons of David Robinson, house painter, and Hannah Robinson (née Hunt), stitcher. He attended Perth St. public elementary school, where his artistic talent was encouraged by his teacher; he undertook further study through borrowing art books from the local library, and learned much about colour from his grandfather, Thomas Robinson, a painter-decorator. On leaving school, aged 14, he worked briefly as an electric welder, served an eight-month apprenticeship as a coach painter, and worked for three years at Harkness Coach Works. From the age of 19 he worked on merchant ships as a steward, travelling to Canada, the US, and South America. In February 1938 he began (but never completed) a five-year apprenticeship as ship's welder with Harland and Wolff. During this period he occasionally fought as a featherweight boxer under the names ‘Boyo Marko’ and ‘Boy Markey’. On the outbreak of the second world war, he joined the casualty service of the Civil Defence, and started working seriously as a painter. In 1941 and 1942 he showed at the Ulster Academy of Arts, and in 1943 two of his paintings were selected for the Belfast Civil Defence art exhibition. Both were striking images of the Belfast blitz, and were the first to be sold, an early indicator of his popularity with the public. ‘Bomb crater in Eglinton St.’ was bought by the chairman of the Civil Defence authority and presented to the Ulster Museum. Both paintings were later among just eleven chosen to represent Northern Ireland in the UK Civil Defence exhibition in Bond St., London. In 1943 Robinson showed one work, ‘Painting’, at the first Irish Exhibition of Living Art in Dublin.
Robinson embodied the traditional image of the bohemian painter: poor, impassioned, eccentric, and largely self-taught, though he spent some time at the Belfast College of Art in the late 1940s. A familiar Belfast figure, he roamed the streets in his loping stride, stopping anyone he knew to harangue against the government for not supporting him. A member of the circle of artists and writers that gathered in Campbell's Coffee Café, including Rowel Friers (qv), Sam Hanna Bell (qv), William Conor (qv), John Hewitt (qv), and James Vitty (qv), he was known as turbulent, edgy, and quarrelsome. Though Hewitt promoted him assiduously, Robinson developed a dislike of the poet and produced a striking portrait in which Hewitt is shown as smaller than his wife, though in fact he was taller. Robinson's speech was peculiar, prone to malapropisms, spoonerisms, and other verbal distortions which sometimes seemed inspired – he called Rembrandt ‘Rememberant’ and Rodin ‘Rodent’, and was overheard to remark: ‘There's no contraception of education at Queens’ and ‘Those pictures have no life, very epidemic, very epidemic’. His character during this period was captured in F. L. Green's (qv) novel about Belfast revolutionaries and bohemians, Odd man out (1945), later made into a classic film by Carol Reed. Markey appears as the eccentric, driven painter Lukey Mulquin. Green bought one of Markey's most successful early pictures, entitle ‘Woman in white’ (Ulster Museum), which depicts the artist's wife, May Clarke, a stitcher, whom he married 25 December 1944.
The couple, together with their two daughters, lived in 14 Lyle St., close to Robinson's family – his parents lived at no. 7, and an uncle at no. 4. His studio, decorated with pieces of glass and mirror, was in the house. He achieved success rapidly, holding his first solo exhibition in 1947 in the Country Shop, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, and another one the following year in the Mansard Gallery, Tottenham Court Road, London. He showed frequently in Belfast, and critics were generally favourable. Commenting on an exhibition at Cottar's Kitchen, Belfast, in 1950, the Northern Whig found he captured the atmosphere of French country towns admirably. Many of his paintings depicted foreign scenes, particularly France. Short of money for travelling, he often persuaded merchant ships to take him on as steward and in other capacities. He was influenced by the work of artists he saw in Paris, particularly Matisse, and by the folk art that he saw on his travels. Primitive and expressionist, his work is generally innocent of perspective and stripped of detail, and is frequently compared to Utrillo's. Themes he explored to the end of his life included maritime subjects, clowns, and Ireland's landscapes and scenes of her peasant past, depicted mournfully and nostalgically. During the war he had painted on any medium to hand, including plywood, cardboard, and biscuit tins, and he continued this even after canvas became more available.
After one of his paintings was included in a 1951 exhibition sent to Scotland to showcase Northern Ireland artists, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) organised a one-man show of thirty-four paintings in Donegall Place in 1952. The Belfast papers responded by calling him a genius. The exhibition moved to the Country Shop, Dublin, later that year, and the Irish Times wrote of Robinson's artless art. Three years later he had two pieces in the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, and the Revue Moderne commended his boldness, sureness, and colour sense. He showed again in Paris (1957, 1958, 1959) and was promoted by the weekly Arts, Lettres, Spectacles.
Though Robinson was professionally successful, his personal life suffered since he was edgy, egotistical, and became impossible to live with. His family believed he needed psychiatric help, which he never received. In 1964 his elder daughter moved to the US, and three years later his wife and younger daughter joined her; both girls became Mormons. His wife took up work as a domestic servant in Pennsylvania and was granted a divorce in 1974. Finding life in Belfast without his family lonely and difficult, Robinson made increasingly long visits to Spain and Dublin. His paintings were originally hung on the railings of St Stephen's Green, but in 1973 he was taken up by the Oriel Gallery in Clare St. and became their favorite artist. About 1975 he moved permanently to Dublin, where he lived for the next eighteen years. Identifying him as highly saleable and especially attractive to first-time buyers, the Oriel held one-man exhibitions almost annually from 1976 until 1993, and did much to promote his work abroad. His 1978 exhibition was the most successful ever held in the gallery, and in 1980 paintings began to sell before they could be hung. Three years later he had a show at the residence of the Irish ambassador in Washington. Other galleries, including the Apollo, followed the Oriel, and in 1988 the George Gallery in Lower Baggot St. staged a Markey retrospective, and claimed that the Oriel had concentrated on the commercially profitable landscapes and peasant scenes, to the exclusion of his clown paintings, nudes, and still-lives. In 1992 Patrick Gallagher in the Sunday Independent called Robinson, with Louis le Brocquy, the most popular artist in Ireland, but this was not matched by critical acclaim. Early in his Dublin career, critics were impressed with the freshness of his work and intrigued by his personality, but they subsequently refused to attend his openings, dismissing him as facile, over-prolific, and populist. After his death Peter Murray of the Crawford Gallery in Cork summed up his career: ‘[His] early works reveal a light, spirited artist, inspired by Picasso . . . and open to experimentation. However, the insatiable appetite among Dublin solicitors for pictures of shawled women in front of white cottages, bled Markey dry of creative originality; his later works are risible’ (Dubliner, Apr. 2003, p. 34).
Ever eccentric, he lived and worked in a room above the Oriel, and wandered the city, dressed like a tramp, searching skips and rubbish tips for materials, which he loaded into a shopping trolley that he brought with him everywhere. His pockets were filled with large amounts of cash and he was frequently robbed. He was, however, a canny self-promoter and sent work to well-known figures such as Princess Margaret of England, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Lord Erskine at Government House, Hillsborough. Cryptic in conversation, he became clear and decisive when speaking of his own work.
About 1994 he returned to Belfast and bought a house in 33 Tudor Place, Crumlin Road, a few hundred yards from Lyle St. He perhaps hoped to reconcile with his wife, who had returned to Northern Ireland with one daughter and was living near Derry. In 1998 the Eakin Gallery, Belfast, staged a large exhibition to mark his eightieth birthday. He died 28 January 1999 at home in Belfast, and was buried at Ballylesson Graveyard, Co. Down. Packets of money were found in his house, and solicitors traced eleven deposit accounts in banks in both jurisdictions. Lurid press articles speculated that he had left enormous sums; the actual amounts were stg£114,248 and IR£63,684. His work increased in value after his death and he continued to be assiduously collected and promoted by galleries.