Few artists can lay claim to imagery more instantly recognizable, or to a pictorial sensibility as universal as Markey. It might appear at first glance that such a pronouncement contradicts itself, in so far as the images we know the painter by are often scenes of Irish country life in the first half of the twentieth century, and are therefore bound by geography and time. But there is a universality to Markey's pictures which belies the tendency to think of him as a purely Irish artist. In the United States people of diverse cultural backgrounds, Russians and Poles, Cubans and Brazilians see in the paintings of Markey something of their own heritage, as if they might walk into one of his pictures and feel they have come home.
One might explain this phenomenon by how the pictures are composed, by the choreography of the stylistic elements under the direction of the artist's brush. In part it may be accounted for by the imprint of foreign lands upon the artist's soul. Markey's spirit of adventure could never resist the allure of exotic climes, and he travelled widely in Europe, North Africa and the Americas. Perhaps, it might be explained by a consideration of other influences. It is fair to say that Markey owes a debt to the German Expressionists and to the School of Paris, to the individual artists, Maurice Vlaminck, Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse and Juan Gris to name only a few, and even, perhaps, to the Hungarian painter Albert Bertalan, and that he is the portal through which these and other European artists continue to influence the popular imagination. A further reason may lie in the human drama which unfolds in the artist's work. Perhaps this is the most compelling reason why it is difficult to avoid falling under the spell of the artist's vision. His work encompasses a panoply of human emotions; the longing for the safe return of a loved one from the uncertainty of the sea depicted in the paintings as clusters of women and children standing along the shore looking towards the boats on the horizon or the tender complicity between a mother and child as they hurry home from the evening fields ahead of a thunder shower. These and other human emotions are implicit in the landscapes and seascapes of the artist. But whatever the reason or reasons for the cult of Markey, each new generation finds something of their own experience reflected in him.
Markey Robinson was born in Belfast in 1918. He grew up in a society divided against itself in the post war period following World War One. By the time he was a teenager, the great depression had cast an economic pall across the face of America and Europe, and the rise of Fascism had imperiled the hopes and aspirations of a generation. The times were hungry, fragmented and uncertain, and it was against this backdrop that the young Markey attempted to assert his burgeoning, artistic sensibility. With virtually no formal art training, save for some drawing lessons received at Perth Street School, the young Markey set his sights on becoming an artist. Along the way he would ply his trade as a welder, toy maker, decorative glass maker, in addition to trying his hand as an amateur boxer. He would also spend time at sea. One of his earliest successes came when a painting of his showing the affects of a German air raid on Belfast took the attention of Mr. P Brown, Chairman of the Civil Defense Authority. He acquired the picture entitled 'Bomb Crater in Eglinton Street' and would later present it to the Ulster Museum where it became part of their permanent collection. Other successes followed in the same year of 1943 when Markey showed his work in the seminal Exhibition of the Living Art in Dublin and at the British Civil Defense Art Exhibition in London. Doubtless Markey was encouraged by the attention his art was receiving at this time, and his work continued to develop in the post war era. With the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945, Markey was free to travel abroad in pursuit of fresh inspiration. Paris so long the center of the art world held a special attraction for the artist. Though the city would eventually bow to New York as the acknowledged Mecca of artistic experimentation, Paris would forever hold its status as one of the great art capitals of the world, and Markey felt accepted there. However, he never strayed from his homeland for long, and throughout the coming decades he would exhibit at the Royal Ulster Academy and the Royal Hibernian Academy. In addition to the landscapes and seascapes of the Mourne Mountain region and the coasts of Galway and Donegal which formed the core of his artistic output, Markey began to paint sailors, ballerinas and clowns invoking a brighter palette to match the waywardness and theatricality of his subjects. Independent in mind and spirit, he was perceived by his contemporaries as being somewhat of a mystery man. Undoubtedly this same independence was one of the main reasons why his work did not come to the attention of an international audience sooner. Markey was not one to tout his own talent, nor did he fall in easily with another's plan for him. He was too independent a figure to chart a straight and narrow course, and any gallery's marketing plan which relied on his active support was doomed to failure. Nevertheless, despite many who dismissed him, Markey continued to mature as an artist even whilst being marginalized. During the decades of the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties, his work was primarily exhibited in Ireland and Britain with a small coterie of admirers taking note of him in Paris. Beginning in the late nineteen sixties, the Oriel Gallery in Dublin began a concerted effort to promote his art both at home and abroad. From this period onwards his paintings began to find favor with collectors in the United States. Various international exhibitions of his paintings took place in Washington, Montreal, Tokyo, Geneva, Philadelphia and London. Like all brief accounts of the life of a painter, it is impossible to give credit to all the people who helped advance his reputation. Suffice it to say that valiant efforts were made by a number of art historians and gallery owners in Dublin and Belfast to bring his name to the attention of a wider audience.
Markey in later years often spoke with affection and longing for the Balearic Islands, and many of his landscapes are overlaid with the mantle of Spanish life. Hints of Aztec and Inca culture are similarly discernible in his work. Various subjects from Celtic, Arab and classical antiquity also people his pictures, as do depictions of religious iconography such as the Virgin Mary and Jesus. By the nineteen eighties Markey was reaching the apotheosis of his style, and in achieving at last a complete maturity, he repaid his debt to the artists from whom he had earlier borrowed. As he walked the streets of Dublin with a small, hand held trolley in tow, it seemed that only a few were aware that a great master moved among them.
Markey was an artist of the people, though he remained largely anonymous amongst them. He sold every picture he painted, yet lived in humble circumstances. His view of the world was by twists and turns both apocalyptic and childlike. He was on friendly speaking terms with the flower ladies on Grafton Street, the art dealers on Main Street and the dispossessed poets on any street. By the end of the nineteen nineties he had returned to the city of his birth. He continued to paint, but as the decade neared its end, his strength was failing him. In 1999, he was found dead in the hallway of the house where he had gone to spend his last days.
If style is the signature of an artist, then the name of Markey will be writ large in the history of twentieth century art. Few artists are as instantly recognizable or as completely memorable as he. Whether the painting is a still life, a landscape or a figurative study, the mark of the artist is indelible. Indelible too is the impression that lingers long after we have turned our attention away.