Sheila McClean: The Catalogue Reviewed

Sheila McClean Studio Sale: The Catalogue Reviewed

Sheila McClean’s work will be a fascinating rediscovery for many and a discovery for some. Born in 1932, an exact contemporary of Basil Blackshaw, she belongs in that generation of Ulster artists for whom painting the landscape was clearly inspired by emotional engagement as well as creative experiment. The remarkable dynamism and energy of Sheila McClean’s work places her within the late twentieth century landscape tradition carried on by her contemporaries at Belfast College of Art, such as Blackshaw and T. P. Flanagan, which followed on from the pioneering work of one of her teachers there, Colin Middleton.

Her landscapes avoid the picturesque, but are often irresistibly engaging. The windswept roadside trees and vegetation of Going to Grianan, Inishowen, (Lot 32) or the rain dissolving the view of houses on a hillside in Derrybeg (Lot 40) are as much about the artist’s lived experience of landscapes that she knew well, as they are about the visual appearance of a certain place, although she often seizes upon the striking visual effect of a moment of particular light or weather. The Ditch (Lot 65) is a luminous glimpse that transcends an everyday subject, much as House & Shed (Lot 108) recalls some Blackshaw paintings of the early 1950s, in which farmhouses and outbuildings and the bare landscape around, take on an ambiguous mood, with a suggestion of deeper significance.

Sheila McClean’s paintings capture emotion expressively but never with excess. While her style is distinctive there is never a sense that she fell into habits or any formula in her painting. Her skies are full of movement and reflect the equally vivid and active description of the landscape beneath, providing unity of handling across the composition. Sometimes she adopts an aerial perspective, setting up repeated patterns that can also be related to the more abstract works included in this group, which break down the landscape with a more rigorous pictorial approach. 

Her work demonstrates an instinctive compositional sense, whether taking on a sweeping view through an extensive Donegal landscape, or a more specific motif such as boats in harbour. Sheila McClean’s own insistence on remaining aware of ‘the integrity of the paint itself’, and the intense involvement in a moment that she can achieve, recalls another celebrated painter of Donegal, Melita Denaro.

Sheila McClean’s intuitive response to the mood of a place and her own experience of a landscape she knew well, make her work continually absorbing and stimulating.
Dickon Hall, November 2023
Sheila McClean: The Catalogue Reviewed