In February 1928, Ria Mooney and Shelah Richards were performing in New York with an English theatre company. Shelah wrote home to her fiancée Denis Johnston telling him about their attending Eva Le Gallienne’s performance in New York (‘perfect’) and Ria (‘by the by’) securing a contract with the Civic Repertory Theatre Company. She added:
Paddy Tuohy was a scream in New York, daily he came and told and —oh well I’ll tell you when I see you—but I understand all about the party you had with him on the Thames Embankment now.
I do wish she hadn’t saved those stories for private telling.
Images of Tuohy show a grave, intense, bespectacled young man. Later accounts suggest he was suffering from manic depression, meaning he was all kinds of fun at parties but inwardly he was desperately struggling to cope. Tuohy began his career as a portrait painter, although many believe his artistic talents expanded considerably further than this form. In 1930, Ria Mooney arrived at his apartment, as he’d offered to host a party in his home, which overlooked the Hudson river. She found him lying dead on his couch. In typically idealistic form, Ria refused to believe he had committed suicide; despite the claims of others, she insisted his death (by turning on the gas in an air-locked apartment) was accidental.
Ria came to know Tuohy as a tutor and mentor in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art when she was seventeen. Still vacillating between the theatre and the art world, she was taking classes in drawing and painting. According to a story Ria herself told academic and biographer Patrick J. Murphy, Tuohy stood over her shoulder during a class in the early 1920s and declared that she’d never be able to draw. But from Tuohy, Ria learnt much about colour and form (concepts that would remain with her and mark her work as a director). It was arguably also Tuohy who recognized the qualities in her that gave her such presence on stage, without saying a word or, in fact, without moving at all. For long before she became known as ‘the Abbey’s whore’, (a ‘good-natured’ jibe in the words of Ethel Mannin) Tuohy cast her as the mother of Christ.
In 1920, Tuohy began work on a religious commission from a parish priest in the centre of Dublin. The size and complexity of the work he finished the following year had never before been seen in Ireland. All of the figures in The Baptism of Christ were painted from real-life ‘sitters’, students and friends, or the children of friends. A female figure, with dark locks and back turned, is Phyllis Moss, a student who would later become Tuohy’s fiancée. Holding out her hand to touch the head of the child is Mary, or Ria Mooney.
Once you know that it is Ria, the similarity is striking, although I admit I never would have made the connection without the assistance of Niall and Kathy Mooney. And then you start to see those dark, bewitching eyes in the background of many of Tuohy’s paintings.
The painting of The Baptism of Christ was a long, slow process. Tuohy’s studio was often a meeting place for people to watch and discuss art with the painted, and during this time there was one particular visitor: Fred (F.R. Higgins). Tuohy wanted to paint the poet; it was much later before he agreed. But he was there, watching Ria in position. On the completion of the painting in 1923, Tuohy learnt that his commissioner had died, and his successor had no interest in the piece. It sat in the basement of a pub on Baggot Street for a year, before it was brought to London for the annual Royal Academy exhibition, where it was unanimously praised. (The painting is now owned by the Ulster Museum although apparently not on view there.)
That wasn’t the only time Ria sat for Tuohy, spending hours sitting patiently in his studio. The cover of her autobiography also comes from a Tuohy portrait, dated 1922. Theatre historians have debated over various origins of this portrait – with the general consensus becoming that she was appearing in a Garcia Lorca play. In fact, Murphy reveals that Tuohy had a particular interest in Spanish women, having spent time studying Velasquez and other Spanish masters in Madrid. His studio was full of props and ‘costumes’ for sitters, many Spanish in origin, such as the mantilla and beaded necklace Ria wears in her portrait. Her striking looks were an elegant match for such props.
So, by 1923, Ria knew the stillness and poise required for art modelling. Tuohy couldn’t afford to pay her, although he sometimes offered paintings as recompense. But in 1924, something changed. The Dublin Drama League decided to produce Pirandello’s experimental work Henry IV and Lennox Robinson would play the lead role.
Pirandello’s Henry IV is not the Shakespearean king. The play centres on a man that is dressed in costume as the king for a fancy dress party when he has an accident and falls unconscious. On waking, he believes that he is the king. Pirandello understood the fine line between theatre and madness.
Although the performance would only take place on a Sunday evening (mostly an invited audience, I’m guessing) on the Abbey stage, the artist Beatrice Campbell (later Lady Gleneavy) was asked to paint life-size portraits of the characters to be used in the production. She used the actors as models and the portraits formed the backdrop for the production. Accounts reveal that the actors ‘stepped out’ of their portraits, highlighting the porous walls between life and art.
On April 27th 1924, Ria Mooney stepped out of a portrait of herself as the Marchesa Matilda de Tuscany. How that looked, we can only imagine. But Ria stepped away from a full-length, portrait of herself dressed as a queen to become a fully-dimensional actress. She never entirely left the art world, but brought her artistic vision with her to the theatre. And I, for one, am very happy that she did.
So, in a month coming down with commemorations, please don’t forget to mark Ria’s arrival. Visit an art gallery, or open an art book. Raise a glass, or even a cup of tea, in thanks for Ria Mooney.