Jack Pakenham


Born, Dublin in 1938. His mother died when he was three weeks old, and Pakenham’s northern Protestant father moved his children to Northern Ireland, changing their names in an effort to protect them form the influence of their Catholic maternal relations.

After living with various relatives, four year old Pakenham joined his brother and sisters in a children’s home at Childhaven, Co Down.

In 1947, the family set up home in Clifton Park Avenue, north Belfast. Pakenham graduated from the Queens University in French, Spanish and Philosophy in 1959. He lived in Ibiza and Dorset, before returning to Belfast where he taught English at Ashfield Boys High School. In 1990, he retired to devote himself to full-time painting.

Pakenham’s early expressionist works evolved, with the outbreak of the “Troubles”, into an engaged, ferocious response to communal violence.

In his own words: “Over these years, I have tried to convey through a poetic language of metaphor, symbol, allegory and ambiguous narrative some of my concerns and anxieties, to use visual language to expose and comment.

Recurrent motifs in paintings like the “Belfast Series” (1989-1995) include gagged or blindfolded figures, masked figures who suggest gunmen or hangmen, and limbless or decapitated shop mannequins.

The appearance of a sinister, grinning, red-haired ventriloquist’s dummy, inspired by a toy belonging to Pakenham’s son, represents both innocent victim and demonic presence.

He has exhibited widely including solo shows at the Orchard Gallery, Derry, Project Arts Centre, Dublin and Wyvern Gallery, Dublin. In 1987, he was elected an academician by the Royal Ulster Academy.

A poet as well as a painter, Pakenham is a member of the artists’ organisation at Queen Street Studios.

“Like most people in Ulster I have been appalled by the obscenities perpetrated on the Ulster people both Catholic and Protestant by vicious thugs, bullyboys and psychopaths hiding

behind the various cloaks of misguided Nationalism, to whom human life is the cheapest most expendible commodity in the World today.

As a painter who has always believed that there is a power and a magic in certain imagery I sought to convey in visual terms the horror, disgust and anger some of us have felt but for some reason could not

find the powerful appropriate imagery. I did not wish merely to record or illustrate since the camera did this more than adequately but wonted to produce a kind of collective scream and comment that would

work directly on the nervous system, shocking people who hod become almost apathetic, anaesthetised over the years by horror after horror,shock after shock.

It wasn’t until early 1975 that the appropriate universal imagery was given to me; I hod become totally intrigued by a ventriloquist’s doll I hod bought for my son several years previously. The image haunted

my subconscious for a long time and then suddenly I realised that this was the powerful universal symbol I had been looking for. During that year and into 1976 I produced a series of 30 paintings which I

hope convey some of the feelings of the past 7 years.

And so the doll with his inane optimistic grin even in death, his pathetic little body in grotesque positions became for me both victim and terrorist ... the ultimate manipulated little man whose words are

only what someone else gives him.

. . . the friendly humorous Ulsterman who sets up his friend for an ambush with a Judas smile .

. . . the innocent who faces his torturers, grinning in the vain hope that it is all some kind of game like those played by the school bullies and he will be allowed to go home.

He become the faces I have never seen since they hide behind masks and hoods.

the face of the girl who planted the bomb in the Abercorn Restaurant

the face of the man who mode the St. Valentine’s Day cards that maim or kill

the face of the boy who shot a policeman helping children across the road

the face of the man who killed the social worker organizing a game of table tennis

the face of the woman who w ishes to create a new Ireland with the bits and pieces left of an eight year old boy who innocently picked up what he thought was a transistor radio

I have given that person another face, another mask and surrounded it with the props he or she has created for this new horrific play, written for us all to act in whether we like it or not ... the shattered

windows, the hood and the blindfold, the noose and the gun, the bombs and the uniforms.”

Statement for “Art for Society” Exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery London, 1976.

“Belfast Series”

Paintings by Jack Pakenham

“For the past twenty six years, as an artist who has always believed that painting should do more than just “tickle the eye” with a pleasant sensation I have felt somehow compelled to try to come to terms with the experience of living in a society where murder, maiming, petrol bombings, physical and verbal intimidation are part and parcel of everyday life . I felt strongly that in these circumstances, concentrating on purely aesthetic considerations would have been totally inappropriate and irresponsible.

There were, however, major problems in attempting such a task . I did not wish merely to make a visual record or document, since it seemed to me that the media did this much more successfully; what concerned me most was to get beyond the obvious physical happenings, to get below the surface paraphernalia, to the metaphysical and spiritual reality, in an attempt to portray and if possible diagnose the malaise that made such things possible , the blind bigotry and hatred, the intolerance, the hypocrisy of rabble rousing politicians who made inflammatory statements and disclaimed responsibility for the acts those statements led to, the manipulation of young ideals and enthusiasm, the perverted warping of young minds, the cowardly silences, the ‘turn a blind eye’ attitudes, the misappropriation of language etc. All of these, because of their complexity, required a new vocabulary which could adequately deal with the various nuances of grey, the ambiguities and contradictions, the fact that ordinary life with its everyday concerns continues in spite of the mayhem surrounding it.

Nothing is as it appears to be;

Nothing is ‘only itself’

People must come to see the paintings with their own memories and allow the poetry to speak.”

Jack Pakenham, 1996

From ‘Jack Packenham, A Broken Sky , Paintings 1989 – 1995’

“it is as if on waking, you no longer found the familiar day-to-day things. While you were asleep there was a coup. In their place is the dream you thought you left behind you standing there. Nothing quite holds in this place and yet everything marks time, stays the same. The graffittied buildings, hardly lived in, places to avoid, holders of secrets in one moment become painted stage flats for a drama in another. Then, maybe, they are paintings in an artist’s studio, but something about the drama suggests that this is a makeshift fairground, a playground or a stranded travelling circus. The actors are in earnest, hardly acting so much so that the masks, on which they depend like breathing itself, take on lives. They lie jumbled and alert in boxes, trade places with kites, grow bodies all of their own. Elsewhere living bodies become limbless or distorted and mannequins, only part assembled come alive from immobility. Dolls and puppet become excited, even offended, and live purposely to no great effect. The magicians, masters and users of these illusions and controllers of the cast, work secretly, furtively and with determination, using flattery, sleight-of-hand and terror, unaware that they too wear masks and jerk like puppets. Military installations mingle with church towers, watching the proceedings below. There is the scent of extreme violence in this place but the sentries and blindfolded, the defences are make –believe and the messengers and mourners are halted, ignored and gagged. It is a place to flee from but wings are of paper feathers and the boat is a box, stranded in bare boards, headed for painted beyond…”

Julian Watson,

From ‘Jack Packenham, A Broken Sky , Paintings 1989 – 1995’