Conolly, Thurloe (1918–2016), artist, was born in Cork city on 21 July 1918, the younger of two sons to William Joseph Conolly, a structural engineer, and his wife Constance Elizabeth Conolly (née Jeffares). According to family lore, the Conollys were descended from the eighteenth-century MP and speaker of the House of Commons, William Conolly (qv), who built Castletown House, Celbridge, Co. Kildare. Conolly remembered being taken as a young child to meet an elderly relative residing there, thus cementing the family history in his mind (Murray, 2007, 96). He believed that the prevalence of the name ‘Owen’ in his family through the generations derived from the Conollys of Castletown’s origins in Inishowen. He also maintained that the name ‘Thurloe’ dated back to 1550 and that the spelling of the family name ‘Conolly’, rather than the more usual ‘Connolly’, preserved the old Irish form ‘Conghaile’.
EDUCATION AND EARLY YEARS
Conolly’s early years were quite unsettled. For the first year of his life, the family lived at 6 Egerton Villas, off Military Hill near the centre of Cork, but in 1919 or early 1920 they moved to Zion Road in Rathgar, Dublin, where their next-door neighbours were Albert and Sybil le Brocquy, friends of Constance Conolly and her brother Cecil from years before. Two years later the Conollys again moved, first to Newbridge, Co. Kildare, and then to Limerick where the young Conolly attended Miss Fitt’s school at 20 Barrington Street. According to Conolly, Miss Fitt taught children of the ‘protestant gentry’ because ‘there was nowhere else for them to be taught. It was either there or at home’ (Murray, 2007, 98). She was, according to Conolly, the most brilliant teacher of his school days and he was still attending her school in 1929. Having spent six years in Limerick, the family then returned to Cork where Conolly attended Cork Grammar School (now Ashton School) in Sydney Place. During holidays they stayed in a house called ‘Inglenook’ near Crosshaven and Conolly remembers the windows of the house being left open so they would not break during gunnery practice at nearby Fort Templebreedy. By this time, however, Conolly’s father had become unwell, and the family returned to Dublin to live at 35 Victoria Road, Rathgar. Conolly attended the High School on Zion Road but William's death in 1932 left the family in financial difficulties, and two years later at the age of sixteen Conolly left school to take up work. From an early age William had introduced his young son to the drawing techniques used in engineering and architecture, allowing Conolly to work as an assistant to Harold Leask (qv), Ireland’s first inspector of national monuments. He then worked in the construction industry, calculating loads for reinforced concrete structures.
In his spare time Conolly engaged in his two loves – writing and painting – and his circle of friends included notable artists of the time such as Anne Yeats (qv), Elizabeth Rivers (qv), Evie Hone (qv) and Ralph Cusack (qv). At the outbreak of the second world war, Conolly found himself unemployed, and these friends encouraged him to take up painting full time. They also brought him into contact with two artists who had recently arrived in Ireland to escape the war in Europe, Basil Rákóczi (qv) and Kenneth Hall (1913–46), founders of the White Stag group. Obsessed with psychology and painting, in 1935 Rákóczi had founded the Society for Creative Psychology, through which he met Hall, a kindred spirit. Taking the name ‘White Stag’ from the Hungarian emblem for creativity, the group sought to introduce ‘notions of subjectivity and psychoanalysis in art’, and to draw upon dreams for subject matter (Kissane, 487). The White Stag’s first Dublin exhibition took place in April 1940 at 34 Lower Baggot Street and featured ten artists who were praised by the Irish Times for their originality; a second show in December included works on loan from Walter Sickert (1860–42), Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Frances Hodgkins (1869–1947).
It was not until 1942, however, that Conolly became associated with the group. During that year he came into contact with Herbrand Ingouville-Williams (1869–1945), co-founder of the Society for Creative Psychology, when he took part in a poetry reading on 17 April. He was one of a number of artists, including Ralph Cusack and Anne Yeats, who painted sets for ‘The house of cards’, a satirical comedy inspired by Dublin’s bohemian artistic life which was written by Frank Carney (1902–1978) and produced by Shelah Richards (qv). Brian Boydell (qv), brother of Conolly’s future wife Yvonne, wrote the music. The play was not a success, but nonetheless proved useful to Conolly – as well as cementing his artistic connections, he was also able to recycle the set’s canvas backdrops for his paintings as the war had brought shortages to all aspects of life. They were, however, difficult to work with. Conolly dried the mounted and primed canvas in front of a fire where they temporarily became tight as a drum, but away from the heat the canvas soon sagged. Louis le Brocquy (qv), son of his childhood neighbours Sybil and Albert, advised him to use panels of Masonite made from compressed wood pulp and primed with gesso (a combination of chalk, pigment and glue); from that point onwards Conolly never used anything else.
FINDING HIS ARTISTIC VOICE
At this stage in his career Conolly was still searching for his artistic voice. Looking back at his early efforts he noted that: ‘My first attempts to paint seriously tried too hard to achieve what I thought I should do. In time I realised that I should have to learn how it should be done, so I made landscapes echoing my delight at the poetical way [artist] Christopher Wood handled his subjects’ (Murray, 2007, 99). He was also inspired by John Piper (1903–92), an official war artist during the second world war, whose depictions of bomb-damaged churches and landmarks encouraged Conolly to include buildings in his landscapes. In addition to painting, he collaborated with Brian Boydell on a short song cycle, ‘The feather of death’, which premiered on 30 January 1944 at the Shelbourne Hotel. It was a formative stage in his career, one where the White Stag group became central to his artistic life: ‘Meeting and seeing what Basil Rákóczi [et al.] were doing brought me back to something I originally thought I should like to do, which was … “to paint things invisible to see”’ (Murray, 2007, 100). In January 1944 Conolly was part of the White Stag’s transformative ‘Exhibition of subjective art’, held at 6 Lower Baggot Street, and featuring fifty-six works by thirteen artists, including Ralph Cusack, Nick Nicholls, Brian Boydell and newcomer Patrick Scott (qv). The illustrated catalogue was introduced by eminent art critic Herbert Read and, in keeping with the White Stag philosophy, the emphasis was on personal expression. The exhibition received a mixed response: the Irish Times and Evening Mail were enthusiastic, the Irish Press and Irish Independent less so; the latter described it as ‘The periodic outpouring under a new name of the fantastic and the grotesque’ (Irish Independent, 5 Jan. 1944).
In 1945 Conolly had his first solo show at the Dublin Painters’ Gallery on St Stephen’s Green. It included works such as ‘Spawell House, Templeogue’ and ‘Hall’s barn and dovecote at Rathfarnham’. He was fortunate to be one of the young modernist artists patronised by gallery owner Victor Waddington (qv), who ensured this first show was a sell-out. In 1949 Waddington’s gallery hosted another of Conolly’s solo shows and he acted as both agent and friend, bringing Conolly’s paintings to shows in Boston, Chicago, Rhode Island and New York. Between 1947 and 1953 (with the exception of 1948) Conolly exhibited every year at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, an exhibition started by Mainie Jellett (qv) and others in 1943, which became the leading showcase for contemporary Irish art. In 1947 he was highly commended along with artists Patrick Scott, Patrick Pye (1929–2018) and Anne Yeats when the Mainie Jellett Memorial Travel scholarship was awarded to sculptor Hilary Heron (qv) (it was the only year that it was awarded). He also exhibited with Scott, Ralph Cusack and Phyllis Hayward (1903–85) at the Dublin Painters’ Gallery in 1947 and 1948, and at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, alongside works by Gerard Dillon (qv), Daniel O’Neill (qv), Louis le Brocquy and Colin Middleton (qv).
Able to make a living as an artist, Conolly also started a family, marrying Yvonne Boydell in 1946; they had two sons. In 1953 Herbert Read, with the support of the Irish Arts Council, asked Conolly to set up a ‘Design Unit for Ireland’ (DUI) in Dublin, based on the Design Research Unit (DRU) that Read had helped establish in London. The DRU had been envisaged as a consultancy service to advise on all problems of design relating to architecture, graphics and industry, and it was hoped that Conolly and the DUI would repeat its successes. However, Conolly found it hard to convince Irish industrialists to invest in new and innovative designs and after several years he relocated to London to work in the DRU central office. When the work took him to France for a period of time, Conolly made a decisive break from Ireland and Britain, and in 1967 established his own design and architectural practice there, initially near Duravel in the Lot department of south-western France, eventually moving to Soturac on the banks of the River Lot.
LIFE IN FRANCE AND FINAL YEARS
After his move to France, Conolly’s work was seldom shown in Ireland and he faded from public memory. For a period of time he concentrated on his architectural design practice, which included the restoration of numerous historic buildings, but in the 1980s he resumed painting (alongside running his business). When he finally retired in his eighties, it was to concentrate full time on painting and drawing: according to his family he found drawing more practical than painting during the winter months as he could work at a smaller scale in the warmth of the house, rather than in the cold out-building that functioned as his studio. In February–March 1993 the European Modern Art Gallery on Clare Street, Dublin, held a joint exhibition of Conolly’s early paintings alongside his former wife Yvonne Boydell’s ceramic art pieces, and a short catalogue essay written for the exhibition by art critic Bruce Arnold pointed out the quality of Conolly’s paintings. He truly re-emerged into public consciousness, however, when the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) held a White Stag retrospective exhibition in 2005. The exhibition, comprising some eighty works, set out to demonstrate the ‘youthful dynamism and energy’ which artists such as Rákóczi, Hall, Conolly and others had brought to the Irish art scene in the 1940s and 1950s. To coincide with the opening of the exhibition in IMMA, his son Simon Conolly approached John Daly of the Hillsboro Fine Art gallery to organise an exhibition of Conolly’s new and older works, which the gallery entitled ‘Celebration’. The two exhibitions opened on 6 July and Conolly travelled from France to attend both. The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork city later hosted an exhibition of paintings by Conolly and Brian Boydell under the title ‘The language of dreams’, while the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) Wandesford Quay gallery simultaneously ran an exhibition of Conolly’s newer works. Both exhibitions opened on 1 October 2015. A further exhibition of Conolly’s work took place in June 2016 at the Blue House Gallery, Schull, just weeks after the artist’s death.
Conolly died on 12 April 2016 in France and was cremated. He was survived by his third wife Jacqueline (née Faugère), having been predeceased by his first wife Yvonne and his second wife Marie (née Young). He was also survived by his sons Simon and Berris, daughters Louisa and Kira, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren. When he died, the Irish Times called him ‘the last of the living links between the art world of today and the pioneering years of the White Stag group’ (Irish Times, 30 Apr. 2016). But perhaps the catalogue for Wandesford Quay gallery exhibition summarised his journey in art best: ‘For him, paintings express in paint what cannot be expressed in words, and they chart a spiritual journey … Thurloe Conolly is concerned with “things invisible to see”’ (CIT Wandesford Quay gallery, 2015).