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Facing the past: artist ‘honoured’ to have Adams portrait hung in London gallery

Conrad Atkinson reflects on his experience of visiting Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the peace process, and how his painting of the Sinn Féin leader will soon hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Gerry Adams (2007, Conrad Atkinson). Acrylics, watercolour, oil pastel. Image courtesy of the artist.

LONDON’S NATIONAL PORTRAIT Gallery has purchased a portrait of Gerry Adams, meaning the Sinn Féin leader will soon – somewhat controversially – share gallery space with the likes of Margaret Thatcher.

The portrait by Cumbrian artist Conrad Atkinson was created during the artist’s trip to Northern Ireland in 2007 and 2008, when he met several figures involved in the peace process, including Adams, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley.

Those trips marked the second, more positive, experience Atkinson had in the region, he told TheJournal.ie.

Atkinson’s first trip to Northern Ireland was during the 1970s, during the height of the Troubles, when he exhibited his painting ‘Silver Liberties’ – the subject matter of which focused on Bloody Sunday.

When the arrived at the Ulster Museum in 1978, staff refused to handle or display it.

Atkinson recalls that, when he was commissioned to do the piece, he said: “Fine – but they’ll be trouble”. He didn’t anticipate how just how much trouble there would be: “I had to be escorted on the streets,” he says.

The portrait of Adams, made with acrylics, watercolours and oil pastel, includes words written in the Irish language by hunger striker Bobby Sands about birds singing – and also features a bird in the top left corner.

“In my recent visits to Northern Ireland, the most radical thing I have noticed is the spread of the Irish language – you now see signs in English and Irish,” Atkinson said.

‘A culture that’s rich and beautiful’

Although recalling the 1970s in Northern Ireland as “a nightmare”, Atkinson also points out that the region is too often viewed solely in terms of its tragic and violent past – rather than appreciated for what else it has to offer.

“That’s what this portrait represents – in its use of Irish language and the imagery. This place, Northern Ireland, which isn’t any bigger than Lewisham but has this continental culture that’s rich and beautiful.”

Atkinson described the move by the National Portrait Gallery to purchase the painting as “courageous” and said he was “honoured” to have a piece of his work displayed at the widely-respected institution – despite his work being featured in many top international galleries. “This is kind of special – it’s more naked, more visible,” he said.

Nevertheless, he notes the decision has attracted negativity, with some critics writing to ask the National Portrait Gallery if paintings of Hitler or Osama bin Laden would also be featured.

Atkinson himself rejected any suggestion that the painting glorified terrorism, saying that Adams – along with other leaders – made an important contribution to history: “Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley are all part of the peace process,” he said.

Martin McGuinness (2007, Conrad Atkinson). Acrylics, watercolour, oil pastel. Image courtesy of the artist.

Ian Paisley (2007 Conrad Atkinson). Acrylics, watercolour, oil pastel. Image courtesy of the artist.

Wallpaper, feat Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley (2007 Conrad Atkinson). Acrylics, watercolour, oil pastel. Image courtesy of the artist.

Read: Childhood portrait of Sinead O’Connor fetches €8,500 for charity

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