On March 5, Lucian Freud’s Head of a Boy, a painting of The Honourable Garech Browne from 1956, comes up for auction at Sotheby’s. Just 18x18cm, it is guiding at a whopping £4.5 to 6.5million (€5.1 to 7.4m). And no wonder. Freud may have been only 34 when he painted it, but he was arguably at the height of his powers – the painting shows a gentleness, a delicacy, that his work later lost.
However, it’s not just the talent of the artist that is arresting. The subject, too, is rather extraordinary.
Head of a Boy was painted when Garech was about 17, at Luggala, and shows him poised at that charming moment between childhood and adulthood. He looks pensive, perhaps even a little melancholy, but with a wistful determination that is very appealing.
By then, he had already left school, refusing to continue the kind of formal education he found pointless and tedious – he once boasted that the only official qualification he ever got was a cabbie’s licence, to drive a horse-drawn carriage. (In this he may have been continuing a family tradition of sorts; homework, his mother Oonagh once told her youngest son Tara, was something that governesses did.)
Garech was the perfect product of his aristocratic, bohemian upbringing. Although he had attended boarding schools in England and Switzerland – he ran away every chance he got – the true influences of his life were the poets, musicians, writers and artists he met at Luggala, all drawn there by Oonagh’s generosity, her sense of fun, and love of the arts.
Oonagh was the most intellectual, also the kindest and quietest, of the three Guinness girls who dazzled the London social scene in the 1920s. A friend of Tara’s, quoted in Paul Howard’s brilliant book I Read the News Today, Oh Boy described her as “a strange mixture of very spoiled and very sweet and very f**ked-up and very kind and very open”.
Unlike her sisters, Maureen and Aileen, Oonagh was neither impossibly grand nor snobbish. Instead, she was charming, and maternal. Where her sisters’ children were brought up in the traditional Anglo-Irish fashion – at arm’s length, by nannies and housemaids – Oonagh kept her own offspring close, and was affectionate and playful with them.
Undoubtedly, this had much to do with her own rather savage upbringing – Garech once recalled that “my mother told me that if she was sick, she was forced to eat her own vomit for her next meal”.
The result was that her children adored her. Tessa, who died tragically, aged 14, in 1946, after a diphtheria injection, and Gay (died 2011), from her first marriage to Philip Kindersley, and then Garech and Tara from her second marriage to Dominic, Lord Oranmore and Browne. As indeed did her various nieces and nephews, particularly Caroline Blackwood, Maureen’s daughter, later married to Lucian, who found in Oonagh the kind of closeness and kindness that was lacking in her own home.
Garech was Oonagh’s third child, her first with Dominic, born in June 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. He was christened in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin with seven sets of godparents.
After him came a baby who died at just two days’ old, and is buried at Luggala under a headstone that says simply ‘Baby Browne’, and then, in 1945, came Tara – six years younger than Garech, and a kind of golden child, impossibly precocious and charming, moving effortlessly from choirboy-beautiful infant to elegant, charismatic teenager, without ever passing through the awkward age. And of course Tara died young – in a car crash, aged just 21 in 1966; the moment of his passing commemorated by The Beatles in A Day In The Life.
Everyone who remembers him agrees that Tara was ‘magic’, and Garech, who could so easily have resented him, instead adored him. They were, for a time anyway, united in a love of Irish music and culture – and, later, a hatred of Oonagh’s third husband, Miguel Ferreras who she married in 1958.
“Our mother had lovers from time to time,” Garech once said, “there’s nothing wrong with that. The only one we took an instant dislike to was this creep and we hoped she would drop him very quickly.”
Much later, Oonagh herself would say of her divorce from Miguel: “The marriage failed because of my husband’s attitude towards my children and my friends. My children are very intelligent and sensitive…”
At Luggala, Garech’s upbringing was every bit as unconventional as you would expect. His childhood was spent immersed in the house tradition of open-handed, open-ended hospitality – parties went on for days and Champagne flowed; no wonder those Oonagh invited never said no. Actor Micheal Mac Liammoir likened staying there to “…an elaborate, haphazard picnic”, while Brendan Behan, a frequent guest, outlined the only rule: not to be tedious. “You may say whatever you like, so long [as] you don’t take too long about it and it’s said wittily.”
Amongst the charmed mayhem, Garech, as a child, was a curious figure, dipping in and out as he chose; drinking alcohol, smoking, forming strong friendships, regardless of age, with some of his mother’s guests, including Behan, and largely ignoring others.
Lucian was certainly a friend. Lucian knew Garech well by the time he painted him – he was a frequent guest at Luggala, even before his marriage to Garech’s cousin Caroline Blackwood, and Garech once described him as “perhaps the person from whom I learned most”, later elaborating: “Lucian would take me to the Gargoyle Club… I would not be allowed in by the bouncers, so Lucian would put me under his long overcoat and I walked on his feet to gain entry.”
As well as Garech’s social education, Lucian also took a hand in his cultural upbringing. “He subsequently introduced me to many interesting people, including Francis Bacon, and took me around the Louvre,” Garech said.
Head of a Boy is the second painting Lucian did of Garech. “He was painting my portrait at Luggala when the house caught fire in 1956, so he gave the unfinished version to Caroline and started again,” Garech said. By then, Lucian and Caroline’s marriage was already in trouble, and they separated, acrimoniously, a year or so later, after just five years together.
From the age of about 16, having done with school, Garech rented a mews house in Dublin (although Luggala would always be the home of his heart) and began trying to find ways to preserve and revitalise the traditional music he loved.
He went to a variety of record companies, trying to interest them in producing a recording of the uilleann pipes, and was laughed off. “Nobody wanted to hear about this old stuff,” he later said, recalling that Erskine Hamilton Childers, then a Government minister and subsequently president of Ireland, asked him: “Why are you making gramophone records of squealing pipes and women wailing by the fireside when it’s an image of a modern Ireland we wish to present to the world?”
Having encountered rejection, Garech decided to finance an LP himself, which then led to the setting up of Claddagh Records, with a friend, psychiatrist Ivor Browne, preserving and celebrating traditional Irish music, and also poetry, by recording writers such as Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Robert Graves, Samuel Beckett and John Montague. Each album was a work of art, with art work commissioned from artists such as Louis le Brocquy and Eddie Delaney.
By now, Garech had taken to dressing in traditional Irish garb, including Aran knits and tweed suits. With his long blond hair and upper-class accent, he certainly cut a strange figure, and not everyone took kindly to him at first. Montague has said that initially, he thought Garech to be something of a phoney, all attitude and affectation. He soon discovered however that, along with the outward appropriation, there was a true depth of inner knowledge and passion for many of the most despised aspects of traditional Irish culture. Gloria MacGowran, wife of actor Jack MacGowran, who, Garech recalled, “planted a sycamore in memory of Samuel Beckett” at Luggala, once described the scene: “People call his friends sycophants, his circus, his court. Outsiders see a palish man… frittering away his time on licensed premises, his own court jesters. The puritanical see him as the living sources of the seven deadly sins, a self-indulgent reprobate. The pompous see him as a traitor to his class. Few see the man who has revitalised Celtic art and music, realise the passion, and notice the razor mind – even when it’s their own face that is being nicked.”
He certainly knew, with precocious certainty, what it was that he was interested in. In their teens, he and Tara spent summers travelling around Ireland recording traditional singers and musicians at festivals and in pubs, preserving a way of life and a culture that would almost certainly have been lost if it hadn’t been for their strange enthusiasm. Those recordings were the genesis of Claddagh Records.
Barely a year after Oonagh’s marriage to Miguel, Garech himself was the subject of various excitable newspaper headlines when he ‘ran off’ with Margaret, one of the Luggala housemaids, the daughter of a local forest worker. Asked what their respective families thought of the affair, Garech told a newspaper at the time: “They don’t come into it. My mother has no objections to my going out with Margaret. Nor have her parents objected to me. We are not engaged but anything is possible when you are in love.”
In fact, nothing more came of the relationship, but Garech certainly demonstrated a depth of inherited indifference to public opinion. In 1970, Oonagh moved to the South of France and transferred Luggala to Garech, where he continued the tradition of raucous hospitality Oonagh had begun. As he established himself among the cultural figures of the time, he took a new generation of artists, writers and musicians there, and, through Tara, increasing numbers of celebrities such as Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Charlotte Rampling and Dennis Hopper.
As the writer Frederic Mullally said of Garech: “His Irishness comes out in his addiction to the gregariousness of tavern life; his gallantry in the fact that he is at his best, even in those predominantly male preserves, with a stunning female by his side.”
After Margaret, there were various relationships for Garech, including a Chinese student at Trinity and a Japanese film producer. In 1981, when he was 42, he married Princess Harshad Purna Devi, then in her mid-20s and the English-educated youngest daughter of the Maharaja of Morvi, a former princely state in India. She apparently “served a two-year apprenticeship as a saloon-bar companion” before they were married, after which Garech spent less time in Luggala and more in London and Singapore, where his wife lives.
When Tara died, Garech was just 27, and devastated. For decades he kept Tara’s bedroom at Luggala exactly as it had been when he lived, a shrine to the younger brother he had adored. And maybe that early loss – alongside the even earlier loss of his half-sister Tessa – accounts, to some extent anyway, for the definite vein of melancholy, even sadness, that ran through his life.
In a rare interview given to Miriam O’Callaghan in 2017, Garech said: “I’ve had a wonderful life because I’ve been very lucky. I’ve met all kinds of fascinating people, endlessly so, and I’ve enjoyed every second and I still do,” then adding, “If I’d been asked if I’d rather begin this voyage, I would be delighted not to have done so. I think it’s frightful to bring anyone into this world. There are lots of reasons to go on and get things done, but it doesn’t stop life being basically hell. I happen to be alive, so of course I celebrate it, but if I was given the choice, I wouldn’t be alive.”
Garech died in London in March last year, aged 79. According to his will, “My mortal remains are to be cremated by a fire of sandalwood and cow dung, according to Hindu rites.” The ashes were then scattered across Lough Tay, Luggala, meaning that he now lies alongside his brothers Tara and Baby Browne, and half-sister Tessa.
Captured by Freud
The greatest portrait painter of his age, Freud painted many of the people around him, including…
Girl in Bed – measuring 45x30cm, this petite work (above) is one of several of Freud’s paintings of his second wife Caroline Blackwood, and the most beautiful. Here he captures his wife (Garech Browne’s cousin), and the wonder and fragility of their early relationship.
HM Queen Elizabeth II – one of Freud’s smallest paintings (just 9×6.5cm), he was accused of painting Elizabeth in an unflattering light, while others pointed out that she looks remarkably like the painter himself in this picture.
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