Rugby ace Bowe as you’ve never seen him before

Tommy Bowe (oil on canvas) by Stephen Johnston
Tommy Bowe (oil on canvas) by Stephen Johnston

Emerging Belfast-based artist Stephen Johnston has painted a series of striking portraits of rugby ace Tommy Bowe. JOANNE SAVAGE talks to him about his new collection of work

Clough-born artist Stephen Johnston has created an astonishing series of portraits of Irish rugby star Tommy Bowe, capturing him with what looks like an old-fashioned soldier’s tin hat on his head in one work, while in another he holds a melon, wears a cape and holds a wooden stick, and in a third appears relaxing in a wheelbarrow.

Bowe, the Irish, British Lions & Ulster wing is one of the most familiar (and arguably most handsome) faces on the local sports scene but Belfast-based artist Johnston, 26, has painted him in a surrealist fashion few could have anticipated.

Johnston, who studied art at the University of Ulster - achieving first class honours - has previously been known for oil paintings that obscure the face of his subject - sometimes even placing buckets over their heads with apples balanced on top; Johnston’s art retains a certain sense of humour despite the serious, finely-hewn perfection of his representational accuracy in oil on canvas.

“I met Tommy Bowe through a gallery owner and thought it would be very interesting to paint a well-known face,” says the artist, whose work has previously been exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London after winning a place in a competition in Paris and Australia.

“I see my work as a constant experiment and a lot of the time I am inspired by random objects you see around the house. But I also am inspired by the work of surrealist artists like Rene Magritte who would often paint people in a way that incorporated an unusual object or an unusual setting.”

The surrealist painter Rene Magritte (1898-1967) famously painted people with sheets over their heads or with bowler hats or with birds fluttering in front of their features or huge juicy green apples where one expects eyes, nose and mouth.

It is clear that Johnston is following this line of humour, surprise, and surrealist frustration of the expected and conventional yet at the same time matching the bizarre elements with a serious representationalism - he paints Tommy Bowe as accurately as his paintbrush allows, and it allows an astonishing, almost photogenic level of clarity on canvas.

“For me sheds and wheelbarrows and other random objects that people overlook are fascinating and work well in the setting of a portrait,” Johnston adds, when I ask him to explain the watermelon Bowe is painted holding, and the wheelbarrow he sits in, the wooden stick he holds, the cape and the soldier’s tin hat.

“With the tin hat Tommy is wearing I was thinking about how rugby is a kind of battle, a battle between two sides or teams that is in some ways similar to a military battle. The players go on the pitch and fight it out, don’t they? So that was on my mind when I completed the main portrait of him.”

So did the very fit Tommy Bowe appreciate the paintings when he saw them?

“I think when I met Tommy I got a real sense of the playfulness of his personality and that really fitted well with the spirit of my work - which is playful, colourful and inventive too.

“He was very happy to pose in wheelbarrows and hold watermelons so he was a great sport and he really liked the paintings when they were finished.

“I’m just really thankful he was up for it.”

The man himself, Tommy Bowe, said of being painted by Johnston: “When I was approached by Stephen, I was frankly a bit apprehensive about having my portrait painted.  But I have to confess to be being not only relieved, but actually quite pleased with the outcome.

“Stephen is a very talented artist. His imagination and his technical ability are remarkable.

“His concept of portraying me as a warrior/ soldier going into battle is intriguing, but I think I might take a bit of stick from my teammates for relaxing in a wheelbarrow, and especially for carrying a large melon instead of a rugby ball!”

After convincing Bowe to sit in a wheelbarrow Johnston sketched and took pictures and then worked laboriously on his paintings. He wanted something to substitute a rugby ball and settled on the piece of fruit because he likes that element of bafflement and bewilderment to come through in his paintings - an element prioritised by the surrealists, who privileged odd scenarios, strange combinations, weird alterations of expected forms and the introduction of unusual objects or symbols.

“I love to leave paintings open-ended and for people to look at a painting and leave asking questions,” adds Stephen. “There has to be a bit of wonder about a painting, I think.”

Stephen, whose work is on display at Gormley’s Fine Art in both Belfast and Dublin, added:

“It was a real honour to have Tommy sit for me. He is a powerful and imposing player, as well as a very engaging personality with a strong presence. I’m fascinated by the athleticism and vulnerability of world-class sportsmen such as Tommy, the huge demands on the top players of a magnificent but often brutal and combative contact sport. I hope I’ve captured some aspects of this amazing international athlete.

“Hopefully too, the viewers and his many fans will be challenged and stimulated by the somewhat unconventional elements of these portraits.”

Stephen Johnston’s paintings of Tommy Bowe are on show at Belfast’s Merchant hotel, until February 20.