Cecil King, painter and collector, is born on February 22, 1921, at Rathdrum, County Wicklow.
King is the son of Henry King, businessman, of Rathdrum, and Susan King (née Crowe). He is educated at the Church of Ireland Ranelagh School, Athlone, and at Mountjoy School, Clontarf, Dublin (1936–39). Subsequently he joins the printing firm of W. & S. McGowan in Dundalk, where he goes on to become a director. During the 1940s his interest in amateur drama leads him to take classes at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, where his fellow students include Milo O’Shea and Eamonn Andrews. Around this time, he is also involved in An Óige (the Irish Youth Hostel Association), in which he serves as honorary national secretary and honorary treasurer. This involvement leads him to travel extensively from the late 1940s around Europe, where he visits many major art museums and galleries.
King begins to acquire works of art, by both European and Irish artists, and by the mid-1950s he has amassed one of the most important collections of modern art in Ireland. Around 1954 he himself begins to paint, under the guidance of Barbara Warren and the English artist Neville Johnson. In his early work he focuses on urban scenes, often based on the area of Ringsend, Dublin, where he uses subdued tones to produce poetic images of a sombre mood. Even here his interest in the formal qualities of painting – such as the flatness of the picture surface and the juxtaposition of areas of colour on it, which becomes a defining feature of his art – is evident. In 1964 he leaves his successful business career behind in order to devote himself entirely to art, a bold move considering the limited audience for modern art that exists in Ireland at the time. In his own words he recalls how “Painting was what I wanted to do, I realised I didn’t need a car. I could do without an awful lot of things.” (Sunday Independent, November 7, 1982)
By this time, King is working in a fully abstract style. However, he still draws his inspiration from the external world, particularly the milieu of the circus. A painting such as Trapeze (1976; Allied Irish Bank collection) shows how he responds to acrobatic performance, not in any literal or figurative sense, but to the tensions and balances inherent within it. The overall effect is to convey to the viewer the essence of anticipation of the performance. Indeed, his works can create an almost physical sense of involvement on the part of the viewer. This is especially true of his Berlin Suite, a series of screen-prints produced as a result of a visit to East Berlin and published by Editions Alecto of London (1970). He is also inspired to produce a number of paintings on this theme of the claustrophobia of the divided city. Ultimately, he aspires to create works which, with their economy and restraint, achieve a meticulously balanced harmony. This concern leads him, in such works as the Baggot Street Series, to move away from even the most veiled figurative references, evidence for the fact that he constantly strives to further his artistic explorations.
King often works seven days a week. This quiet determination contributes in no small part to the international standing he soon achieves, as does his prolific record as an exhibitor. Writing a foreword to an exhibition of his work at Kilkenny in 1975, the critic William Packer finds that King’s art “confounds the expectations we might have of Irish art, for it is far from local in ambition, accomplishment, and seriousness.” He mounts over twenty-five one-man exhibitions and contributes to a large number of group shows in Ireland and abroad. A significant proportion of his output is to be found in galleries in Europe and the United States, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Tate Gallery, London. He is also represented in the major public and corporate collections in Ireland, such as the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Ulster Museum, Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Crawford Municipal Gallery, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Arts Council, Aer Lingus, Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Bank, and ESB. In fact, King, with his hard-edge abstract style, is one of the very few artists working in Ireland at the time whose work is comparable to that of the major (principally American) international exponents of abstraction. The term “hard-edge,” applied to King’s style, may however belie the subtlety he could achieve in terms of his handling of colour and texture. This is particularly true of his works in the media of pastel and tapestry, while his last paintings show a tendency towards more expressive brushwork and a more complex approach to colour.
King enjoys a happy relationship with Oliver Dowling from 1960 to the time of his death, at Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin, on April 7, 1986, having suffered a heart attack just three days before an exhibition of his work is due to open in Dublin at the Oliver Dowling Gallery. His legacy is not alone artistic: he also makes a significant contribution to the promotion of modern art in Ireland in his capacity as a member of the organising committee for the Rosc exhibition since its inception in the 1960s, where his wide knowledge of international art is much respected. A member of Aosdána, he twice serves as commissioner for the Department of Foreign Affairs cultural committee. He is also generous in his encouragement of young artists, whose work he regularly adds to his own collection.
(From: “King, Cecil” by Rebecca Minch, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie, May 2012 | Pictured: Abstract, Oil on Canvas by Cecil King)