Melon on Terrace Table

Norah McGuinness

Melon on Terrace Table (1950)

Oil on canvas, 55.5 x 89cm (21¾ x 35''), The O’Brien Collection



Derry-born artist Norah McGuinness ( HRHA, 1901-1980) won a three-year scholarship to study at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin at the age of 18. There she was taught by Harry Clarke, Patrick Tuohy, and Oswald Reeves before moving to London to study at the Chelsea School of Art. In 1923 she won an RDS medal and the following year exhibited for the first time at the RHA. During these years McGuinness supported herself by designing set and costumes for the Abbey and Peacock theatres and illustrated books. Under the advice of Mainie Jellett, she travelled to Paris to study for a period under Andre Lhote. 

In 1957, she was elected an Honorary member of the RHA but resigned in 1969. A founding member of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, she served as president from 1944 to 1971. McGuinness exhibited regularly at the Victor Waddington, Dawson, and Taylor Galleries in Dublin as well as in Leicester and Mercury Galleries in London, Paris, and New York. She also represented Ireland at the 1950 Venice Biennale with Nano Reid. A retrospective of her work was held in 1968 at Trinity College Dublin, where she was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1973. Her work can be found in the National Gallery of Ireland, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Hugh Lane Gallery, the Ulster Museum and the Crawford Gallery.    

 The painting

 In the early 20th century, Irish art was steeped in tradition. The formation of the Free State in 1922 saw a nation scrambling to recapture its identity, focusing on academic depictions of rural life to separate them from an ever-more-modern Britain.

For those artists who wished to escape this insularity, continental Europe provided the perfect opportunity. Like many Irish artists before her, Norah McGuinness travelled to Paris in 1929 to study under André Lhote and was immersed in the excitement of the European art scene. Under Lhote, McGuinness learned Cubism but, within her circles, she would have been exposed to Fauvism, Impressionism, Futurism and a myriad of ideologies in between.

Leaving Paris, McGuinness took what she had learned and went to London, where she briefly settled until WWII convinced her that it was time to return to Ireland. Arriving in Dublin alongside many fellow artists in the same position, McGuinness found a country devoid of new thought.

Art remained in the clutches of academia, with the RHA acting as the sole exhibition space for contemporary artists. Dissatisfied, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art ( IELA ) was established in 1943, with McGuinness among its founding members. A year later, McGuinness succeeded Mainie Jellett as president of the foundation and she continued to head it for over twenty years, encouraging and promoting modern art in Ireland.

The IELA served as a platform for non-academic artists to show their works and, following the end of the War, continental artists were invited to exhibit their pieces also, creating an influx of modern ideals to the country. Suddenly, pieces by Hockney, Picasso, Manet, and Miro were all accessible from Dublin. The artistic revolution was well underway. A pioneer for the modern art movement, Norah McGuinness was selected, alongside Nano Reid, to represent Ireland at the 1950 Venice Biennale. This was the first time that Ireland had entered the exhibition and it was therefore paramount that they put their best work forward. Believing that the unique styles of Reid and McGuinness could proudly hold their own against paintings by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, they were sent off with twelve works each. The exhibition was a success, with the Italian president even purchasing one of McGuinness' works. In the same year, McGuinness painted Melon on Terrace Table.

A joyful and eclectic mix of different styles, this work oozes continental charm and demonstrates McGuinness as someone who is acutely aware of the progress ravaging the art world. The neon yellow table tips its hat to the Fauves, whilst the flattened subject matter and distorted perspective shows Lhote's Cubist legacy. Furthermore, the swift, loose treatment of the spoon and cloth belie the influence of early 20th century Impressionism, yet the image is distinctly McGuinness.

The bold lines remember her time as an illustrator and the carefully placed items are reminiscent of her days in set design. A beautiful piece, Melon on Terrace Table is representative of mid-20th century Irish art in that, rather than following a specific and doctored method of painting, it is all-inclusive, allowing the scene's energy to dictate the style.  

Above info.


Guest Curators for the following: Liz Carroll and Aileen Dillane


Poetic Response: (Aileen Dillane)


by Pablo Neruda 


…the round, magnificent,
star-filled watermelon.
It’s a fruit from the thirst-tree.
It’s the green whale of the summer.
The dry universe
all at once
given dark stars
by this firmament of coolness
lets the swelling
come down:
its hemispheres open
showing a flag
green, white, red,
that dissolves into
wild rivers, sugar,
Jewel box of water, phlegmatic
of the fruitshops,
of profundity, moon
on earth!
You are pure,
rubies fall apart
in your abundance,
and we
to bite into you,
to bury our
in you, and
our hair, and
the soul!
When we’re thirsty
we glimpse you
a mine or a mountain
of fantastic food,
among our longings and our teeth
you change
into cool light
that slips in turn into
spring water
that touched us once
And that is why
you don’t weigh us down
in the siesta hour
that’s like an oven,
you don’t weigh us down,
you just
go by
and your heart, some cold ember,
turned itself into a single
drop of water.


(Translated by Robert Bly)



Satirical response: (Liz Carroll)



“It is the chief of this world's luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took; we know it because she repented.”

Pudd'n Head Wilson by Mark Twain (1894)

In a speech on the value of HONESTY, Mark Twain once told this story:

“When I was a boy, I was walking along a street and happened to spy a cart full of watermelons. I was fond of watermelon, so I sneaked quietly on the cart and snitched one. Then I ran into a nearby alley and sank my teeth into the melon. No sooner had I done so, however, than a strange feeling came over me. Without a moment’s hesitation, I made my decision. I walked back to the cart, replaced the melon— and took a ripe one.”


 Musical Response (Liz Carroll): 


The Littlest Doyle, by Andrew Finn Magill  [From his recording, Drive and Lift, (Track 10), 2005]