Counterpane 1987–8 is a large square painting by the British artist Rita Donagh. The central subject of the work is the figure of a military bandsman who floats horizontally in a surreal manner above a landscape of mountains, rocks and water. The figure lies face down with his left arm limp at his side and his left hand turned upward, and with his head positioned in the left portion of the composition. The starred epaulette of the bandsman’s uniform is detached from his shoulder and falls onto his face, while his eyes stare blankly downward. Draped over the bandsman’s body is a patchwork counterpane or quilt, which is being held in place by a pale, slender hand that reaches into the composition from the upper left corner. It is unclear whether the hand is in the process of removing the quilt from the bandsman’s body or laying it across the prostrate form, especially given the lack of definition in the upper part of the image and the hazy whiteness of the canvas’s overall surface.
Counterpane is one of a series of eight works produced by the artist in which she took as her starting point a newspaper photograph of a British military bandsman killed by an IRA bomb in Regent’s Park, London, in July 1982 (photograph reproduced in Maharaj 1994, p.14). To create Counterpane, Donagh began by making a number of pencil and watercolour studies that would eventually form elements of the painting’s final composition (see, for example, Head 1987, Hand 1987, Epaulette 1988 and Bandsman 1988, Tate T11906, all reproduced in Watkins 2005, pp.80–5). By projecting a version of the original photograph onto the wall of her Oxfordshire studio, Donagh was able to enlarge specific aspects of the image and render them in great detail. The artist also created her own life-sized model of the figure using a duffel coat stuffed with pillows covered in a worn-out patchwork quilt that she had discovered in her uncle’s house in Ireland some years previously (reproduced in Watkins 2005, p.16). Counterpane was executed using extremely light washes of oil paint that are applied so thinly that they resemble watercolour, and the layering of felt-tipped pen and graphite pencil create depth and perspectival complexity in the painting.
Donagh was born in 1939 to an Irish mother and Anglo-Irish father and grew up in the Black Country in the West Midlands, UK. As a result of her upbringing as part of a minority Catholic working class community existing in a predominantly Protestant country, Donagh identified closely with the sectarian conflict occurring in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s (known as ‘The Troubles’). Responding to the pervasive imagery of systemic violence that she encountered repeatedly in print media, Donagh’s work became increasingly conceptual and political during the 1960s and 1970s, but as the art historian Jonathan Watkins has noted, it was not until the 1980s, when Counterpane and its related works were made, that this became the central preoccupation of her work (see Watkins 2005, p.17).
Experimenting with a variety of different artistic materials and techniques, including photography, graph paper, silver foil, oil paint, cartography, collage and sculpture, in the 1980s Donagh began an ongoing investigation into national identity and social and political marginalisation. These include the collage project Shadow of Six Counties, referring to the six counties of Northern Ireland occupied by Great Britain (see, for instance, shadow of six counties (c) 1980, Tate T12291) and a series of paintings entitled H-block begun in 1982 (see, for example, Long Meadow 1982, Tate T05837) that directly cite the H-shaped design of Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze prison, which housed Irish Catholic political prisoners from 1971 to 2000.
Commenting in 1982 on her politically motivated works regarding Northern Ireland, Donagh stated:
Drawn, as I had been by my involvement in the depiction of an innocent victim of a bomb blast, in confrontation with the fact of British presence in Ulster, the shape of the six counties began to haunt my imagination … an image of topographic beauty altogether at odds with the fate the province had been assigned in the United Kingdom as the arena of death and violence.
(Quoted in Watkins 2005, p.17.)
The personal and political nature of Donagh’s works is further revealed by her depiction of the quilt made by her Irish female relatives that features in Counterpane and by the fact that the hand portrayed in the painting is the artist’s own. As the artist stated in 2005, ‘Counterpane clearly touches on my past and the creativity of women’ (quoted in Watkins 2005, p.17).
Sarat Maharaj, Rita Donagh: 197419841994: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Cornerhouse, Manchester 1994, reproduced p.29.
Jonathan Watkins (ed.), Rita Donagh, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2005, pp.16–17, reproduced p.83.
Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton: Civil Rights etc., exhibition catalogue, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin 2011, reproduced p.57.
Supported by Christie’s.