Extracts from the Dictionary of Irish Artists
20th Century

by Theo Snoddy 2

STEPHENSON DESMOND, ARHA (1922-63), landscape, still life and portrait painter. Born in Dublin on 29th August 1922, the son of Patrick J. Stephenson, who became Dublin Chief Librarian, and a brother of the architect Samuel Stephenson, he was educated at the Christian Brothers’ School, North Brunswick Street.
At the National College of Art, 1939-46, he studied painting and was awarded the Henry Higgins Travelling Scholarship in 1946, the year he showed forty-two oils, including The Crucifixion, at the Grafton Gallery, Dublin. The Leader commented, prior to the artist’s visit to Spain: “One may reasonably hope that the brighter surroundings in which he will soon find himself, will induce him to use a brighter palette than the one he favours at present”.
Stephenson first exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1942, from Caragh Road, Dublin, and was a regular exhibitor, showing nearly fifty works. Initially, he contributed landscapes but in 1944 he showed a self-portrait, and in 1946: The Footballer and Head of a Boy. He occasionally presented Connemara landscapes and Clonmel scenes. His work appeared for the first time at the Oireachtas exhibition in 1944 and from then until 1962 he contributed twenty four pictures.
In Spain and Italy he continued his studies, and he was awarded an art scholarship by the Spanish Government. In Rome, in 1948, he was elected a member of the Associazone Artistica Internazionale. On the homeward journey, he spent some months in France painting in Brittany, returning in the summer of 1949.
At the RHA in 1952 he showed two still lifes, and in 1953 he was represented in the Contemporary Irish Art exhibition at Aberystwyth and that summer, near Roundstone, Co Galway, he was painted by his friend, Maurice MacGonigal (q.v.). Steve, as he was known to the family, was described by the artist’s son, Ciaran MacGonigal: “…very striking looking, with a beard, and at that time almost always wore a black Spanish hat and moleskin trousers”.
At the RHA in 1952 he gave his address as The Studio, 10 Lower Mount Street, Dublin, where the writer Brendan Behan accepted accommodation for a year. In 1954, too, he was appointed, at first part-time, as a teacher of life drawing and painting at the National College of Art. The Thomas Harvey Trust bought a still life painting in 1955, the year he showed a watercolour portrait of Behan at the RHA.
In 1955 too he exhibited chalk and charcoal drawings of well-known Dublin characters at Brown Thomas’s Little Theatre, Dublin, and in 1956 oil paintings at the Imperial Hotel, Cork, and also oils for his first show in Limerick, at the Goodwin Galleries. In 1956 he exhibited with the Munster Fine Art Club. At the Oireachtas in 1956 he exhibited: An Bhulog Arain; Buachailli Scoile, Baile Atha Cliath; Ceann. His charcoals were reproduced in the Daily Express for a series of articles on Northern Ireland.
Another exhibition took place in 1957 at Brown Thomas’s, and the Dublin Magazine found him a strong composer “with well-divided areas of colour, though he lacks atmosphere, nuance or quality of paint. These are hard sayings; but Mr Stephenson is just saved by the masculine vigour of his ‘attack’. In Blue Armchair he weaves a spiralling design out of the most unpromising of objects”. Coffee Pot and Flotsam and Jetsam were contributed to the 1958 RHA. Based on ‘The Last Supper’, he designed the mosaics over the High Altar at St Magdalen’s Church, Drogheda. The Arts Council in Dublin purchased An Bóthar go San Brieux in 1959, by which time he resided at 1 Avoca Terrace, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. In 1962, he held three solo shows: Imperial Hotel, Cork; Talbot Hotel, Wexford; Ritchie Hendrix Gallery, Dublin. On the Hendrix exhibition, the Irish Times said that looking at the landscapes was “rather like peering over a hedge at a well-kept farmland…” The artist was unable to be present because of illness. In 1963 he was appointed an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy. At the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork, are two landscapes both oil on board. A drawing of Dr. George Little is in Dublin Civic Museum. A Scene in Brittany is at the Vocational School, Crumlin Road, Dublin.
One commentator said that the artist had remained “firmly in the figurative landscape tradition. His was a very colourful palette and seemed to turn naturally towards the southern skies following his entanglement with Spanish art”. He died in a Dublin nursing home on 30 April 1963 after a long illness. In 1964 an exhibition of his paintings was hosted at Brown Thomas’s. About three years after his death, the New York Irish Institute Fund purchased three landscapes from the Arts Council, Dublin.

Works signed: D. Stephenson or Stephenson
Examples: Cork: Crawford Municipal Art Gallery. Drogheda, Co. Louth: St Magdalen’s Church. Dublin: City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee, Town Hall, Ballsbridge; Civic Museum; County Dublin Vocational Education Committee; Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art; Vocational School. Crumlin Road: Voluntary Health Insurance Board. Limerick: City Gallery of Art; County Library.
Literature: The Leader, 12 October 1946; Cork Examiner, 16 June 1955; Goodwin Galleries, Desmond Stephenson ANCA, AAI, catalogue, Limerick 1956; Dublin Magazine, July-September 1957; Daily Express, 13 June 1963; Arts Council Dublin, Report, 1966-7, Dublin 1967; Ann M. Stewart, Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts: Index of Exhibitors 1826-1979, Dublin 1987; Gorry Gallery, An exhibition of 18th, 19th and 20th Century Irish Paintings, catalogue, Dublin 1990; Irish Times, 19th May 1990; Jim Stephenson, Letter to the author, 1993; Ann M. Stewart, Irish Art Societies and Sketching Clubs: Index of Exhibitors 1870-1980, Dublin 1997.