Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Tarquin Landseer - To the Canvas Born

Photographs by James Fennell.

While the rest of England was fretting about how to defeat the German football team in June 1966, Tarquin Landseer was patiently awaiting his birth. He arrived in the English town of Chichester on the 25th of the month, a Cancerian, the second born child of arts and fashion journalist Gabrielle Landseer and her Czech husband, the English film director-producer, Misha Williams. The child was named for the ancient Tarquinian monarchs of Tuscany where Misha and Gabrielle had met. That he would develop a passion for the arts would probably not have surprised either of them. He was, after all, a direct descendent of the great Sir Edwin Landseer, Queen Victoria's favourite artist, whose animal paintings so poignantly symbolised the virtues of 19th century England. It wouldn't be long before young Tarquin would behold his ancestor's works hanging on the walls of the Tate, the V&A and numerous other high brow galleries scattered across the British Isles. And then there would be the genes he'd have inherited from his free-spirited maternal grandmother, the beautiful Moravian actress Sylva Langova-Williams whom contemporaries hailed as Eastern Europe's answer to Marilyn Monroe. Her father, General Lang, had been high in the Czech resistance during the Nazi invasion of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939. She would surely be encouraging her new grandson to live a full and adventurous life.

Which is why it's so amusing to listen to Landseer recount his life story while supping pots of tea in his charming Georgian home-cum-studio just off Dublin City's Hamilton Street. Landseer's apartment is part of a residential block erected in the late 19th century for Andrew Hamilton, then sexton of the nearby St. Catherine's Church. The building has hosted several charismatic occupants including the leading Irish language poet Michael Davitt and American mystery writer Douglas Kennedy. And today, it reflects the character of its present owner - both his heritage and calling. Huge high-ceilinged rooms, boasting original floors, fireplaces and windows, are awash with sturdy wooden antiques and inherited heirlooms. The look is highly traditional, gracious and steeped in nostalgia, but it is also specific to the young artist himself. Walls daubed in brilliant shades of yellow, red even black update the old world look and reveal Landseer's eye for colour and drama.

Scattered throughout the house are treasures, which Landseer has collected on his travels: Moorish lampshades, Turkish rugs, oriental tapestries and gorgeous Guatemalan bed spreads. But more than anything, the house is a working studio. As Landseer says, "It's really a picture house gallery of my works."

Landseer seems happily aware that there was absolutely nothing he could have done to have avoided heading into the broad vale of the modern artist. He was, as they say, genetically doomed, a child destined for imaginational explosions from the very outset. The only thing that could have prevented this occurrence would have been his death. And Landseer has come face to face with the Grim Reaper more times than your average alley cat. In no particular order, he's been kidnapped by Guatemalan banditos masquerading as policemen, nearly evaporated on a Bolivian salt plain, sidestepped a cut-throat courtesy of a dreadlocked maniac in Marrakesh, sweated through a severe dose of Dengue Fever and - as a curly-headed 12 year old devotee of Gerald Durrell's Animal Club - endured an attack by a disgruntled mother baboon in Windsor Safari Park. "I would say I have learned a good deal about my own mortality", he muses. "But I've also learnt that I can't take the same risks as I once did because I've used up so many of my lives already".

Along the walls above us hangs a series of striking paintings assembled from his trips to Peru between 1992 and 1998. They are concerned with the plight of the native Indians, taken captive by Spanish Conquistadors in the 17th century and still clinging to the lowest rung of the Latin American hierarchy to this day. Many of them found work in the Potosi Silvermines in Bolivia, once the largest such mines in the world. When Landseer first visited these mines, he was profoundly struck by the inner tranquility of those who worked them. His depictions of the men, women and children he saw are very striking. He has mastered the art of hypnotic eyes. It is almost impossible to look at any of his characters and not find oneself drawn completely into their gaze. The expressions are almost unanimously melancholy yet there is still an overall aura of defiant integrity that would greatly please his virtue-happy forbear, Sir Edwin.

"The [Latin American] countries are extremely stimulating. It's an assault on the senses, a complete cacophony of noise and activity, of aromas and strange languages, a kaleidoscope of colourful imagery and costumes … for an artist it's exceptional. You're always slightly off-balance, trying to absorb this myriad of possibilities. At the beginning it's just a jumble of fragments and ideas but somehow one has to try and put it together as a coherent whole and that's very much part in parcel of the work I do".

Landseer was born in England but moved to County Wicklow as a child and was educated at St. Columba's College in Rathfarnham. He then studied at the DIT and NCAD before embarking on his own. Perhaps it is the sheer inevitability of his decision to become an artist that has enabled him to treat his subject matter with such confident lucidity. When inspiration threatens to abscond, he is prepared to turn everything upside down and back to front. His Latin American painting sold exceptionally well. His latest series is likely do even better. Landseer now finds himself working within a more abstract world, dominated by images of Gaia, Mother Earth, a classical landscape overladen with cheeky symbolism - virginal lilys (the Landseer signature), Cancerian full moons (his star sign), fertile frogs, succulent vines, ripe fruits and hallucinogenic butterflies. "It's an Otherworld", explains Landseer. "A dream sequence, an intangible existence. It offers us the chance to see ourselves from beyond ourselves".

There is a refreshing positivity about both Landseer and his work. One senses he will always be on the move, ever changing, shifting direction, simultaneously free-falling and cart-wheeling around an eternity of Otherworlds. But if you've been beaten up by a baboon and you're name's Tarquin Landseer, what else can you do?

This article appeared in Irish Tatler in 2002.