Impulse

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IMPULSE, oil on linen, 60 x 50 cms

© Fergus A Ryan, 2020, revised 2021

'Nor law nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds.'


From 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death', by William Butler Yeats.


Major Robert Gregory, the subject of this poem, was born in County Galway in 1881, the only son of Yeats' close friend Lady Gregory. Robert Gregory had studied at the Slade School of Art, and was at one time on the Irish cricket team. He became a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, and was killed in action in Italy in 1918 while flying a Sopwith Camel aeroplane.


In this painting I have merged my own experiences as a pilot and painter with that of Gregory. The leather flying helmet here belongs to the Norwegian master painter Odd Nerdrum, and features in several of his paintings (I added the goggles). I had drawn myself in a mirror wearing the helmet while staying at the Nerdrums' home and studio in Norway in 2019, and I was eager to paint the memory in some appropriate manner.


In the background of the painting is Yeats' 15th-century home, Thoor Ballylee, in south County Galway. Yeats wrote four poems about Robert Gregory, including 'In Memory of Major Robert Gregory', in which he remembers his deceased friends while climbing the 'winding stair' at the castle, as if reintroducing his old friends to one another.


‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ was quoted in the film Memphis Belle.

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