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What is often – though not always – expected of portraits, is that they capture the likeness of the portrayed individual. At first glance, this painting by Edward McGuire seems to do precisely that. Looking at the image, the viewer’s eyes are immediately drawn towards the brightly lit face which is easily recognisable as the renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Yet, under further scrutiny, McGuire’s artistic virtuosity stands out thanks to his masterful use of visual metaphors that create a visually and contextually rich image – an image that shows not merely what the poet looks like but also who he is.

Seamus Heaney (1939–2013)

Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) 1974

Edward McGuire (1932–1986)

National Museums Northern Ireland

By painting Heaney holding a book, McGuire is clearly making a direct reference to the sitter’s professional calling. At the time when the portrait was painted, Heaney had already published three books and was on a clear path to success. Still, by choosing this particular setting where the book is rested, the painter further comments on what the profession means to the poet without the need for words. The table is set with a clean tablecloth laid down on its surface, but there is no food being served, perhaps emphasising Heaney’s hunger for intellectual achievement and the written word instead.

By incorporating blackbirds into the painting, McGuire highlights the importance of Northern Ireland and its nature on Heaney’s personal life and poetic inspiration.

The nature theme of plants and birds which runs across the background deserves special attention. At first, McGuire’s hyperrealistic style can trick viewers into perceiving the backdrop setting as nothing but a documentation of the surrounding environment where the portrait was conceived. However, the scenery is so idealistically painted that it becomes doubtful that a realistic representation is the intention. In fact, the nature of hyperrealism would not have concealed but revealed the naturally imperfect colour variations of the leaves and birds. After all, any decorations in portraiture are often left out unless useful in complementing aspects of the portrayed subject.

This is especially evident if one considers Peter Edwards' portrait of Seamus Heaney (1955). The painting by Edwards is bare of any unnecessary embellishments, maintaining the focus on the sitter who is presented as if engaged in deep contemplation.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney 1987–1988

Peter Douglas Edwards (b.1955)

National Portrait Gallery, London

From the colour and physiology of the birds in McGuire's work, it is possible to infer that they are juveniles of the native Irish blackbird species Turdus merula. By incorporating blackbirds into the painting, McGuire highlights the importance of Northern Ireland and its nature on Heaney’s personal life and poetic inspiration. ‘The Peninsula’, from his second published book Door into the Dark (1969) is a good example of this:

‘[...] At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you’re in the dark again. Now recall
The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log.
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog. [...]’

Furthermore, the depiction of young blackbirds in the painting parallels Heaney’s work which in 1974 was still at its early stages. By painting these birds alongside the leaves of what seems to be Ficus elastica, a highly enduring plant that can reach significant heights, McGuire hints at the poet’s undying imagination and future significance for Irish literature.

As a confirmation of this, the blackbird in the background of a painting from his early years became central in a poem published over thirty years later, after countless achievements – including winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ is the last poem in his last book District and Circle (2006) which earned him the prestigious T. S. Eliot prize:

‘On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.

It’s you, blackbird, I love. [...]’

Whether the painter intended everything precisely as described in this short analysis is perhaps besides the point. McGuire has skilfully infused reality with compelling visual metaphors that are left open to interpretation. He has not created a portrait that merely captures the present self of the sitter, but a poetic picture that suits the portrayed subject in a way that transcends the limits of visual representation.

Stefani Bednarova