What’s in a name?

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From Cliff Richard to Bill Clinton and even Mother Teresa, Barbara Hartigan’s portraits have taken on a life of their own and taken her on a journey

Barbara Hartigan has built up an astonishing collection of portraits over the past 35 years. One glance at her new book Putting Names On Faces: Confessions of a Portrait Painting Stalker and her talent is clear to see. What’s even more astounding about her work is that the famous faces she brings to life on canvas have all been signed by the celebrities themselves.

Barbara’s love of painting was put on hold when she got married and her children were young, but after a 12 year break she decided it was time to focus on her passion once again.

“I’ve been a full-time artist now for the last 35 years. It all started when I made the decision to go back. I joined the Limerick Art Society and became a member. I used to exhibit with them and from there it kind of took off for me. People would ask me to do things, so I was getting commissions and exhibiting, and I held my own exhibitions as well.

“I was doing landscapes and floral pictures but I always had a hankering for doing portraits. I decided the only way people would commission me to do them was if they could see portraits of people they would recognise.”

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Comedians Tom O’Donnell and Paschal O’Grady were Barbara’s initial inspiration behind the series - growing up in Limerick
she would go to see them in the pantomime as
a child, something she remembers with fond memories. As luck would have it human error is how the tradition of signing her work began. “I was exhibiting a portrait of Tom and Paschal and they came along to see it, but I had forgotten to sign the picture. My husband spotted my mistake and I was down on my hands and knees signing the portrait when they arrived. Tom said to Pascal ‘Do you know Pascal, we should be signing it too,’ and it was as simple as that.”

Barbara’s knack for tracking down celebrities to get that all-important signature is surprisingly straightforward, yet has proved to be tremendously successful. “I would look for somebody who I knew was going to be in certain place at a certain time, maybe they would be appearing in a concert
or doing a book signing. ey had to be people that I admired and people with interesting faces. I would never ask anybody to sign a portrait if I hadn’t bought a ticket for his or her show. John Denver was the only show I didn’t manage to get to because tickets were sold out. I felt mean that I hadn’t a ticket and I even went to the theatre to see if anybody had returned one, but I couldn’t get in.”

Over the years Barbara would bring her portraits along to a multitude of concerts and events and would always manage to find a way of getting her work to the star in question, with a very thoughtful letter attached. “I used to send this hand-written letter backstage because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was trying to plug them something.”

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Her efforts certainly paid off and not only were the celebrities highly impressed with her talents, some even wanted to purchase the pictures themselves. Barbara would agree without hesitation but she did have one favour to ask in return. “I would always say ‘You can buy it and
if I do another one, will you sign it for my collection?’ They were never done with the idea of trying to sell them, it was done more as a tribute.”

It was her father’s words of encouragement that led Barbara to keep going with her collection and she has amassed over 70 portraits throughout the years. “He always said to me ‘Aim high. Go for the really big names’ so that’s what I did. Once Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa had signed
my work, I thought I had hit the jackpot; the sky was the limit. Every one of them was an adventure and it’s an absolutely thrilling feeling, a rollercoaster of excitement. “There are an awful lot of people that have made a huge impression on me but when I met Terry Wogan, I just felt so excited about it. He was so lovely and very charming, a gentleman.”

Her wish to compile a book of her work
and the stories behind them is something the artist had dreamed about for a very long time, not only as a keepsake for herself, but for her children to have in the years to come.

“This was my little hobby on the side and I hoped it would be a bit of a legacy for my family when I’m gone. My children were sick and tired of me constantly saying through the years how I’d love to put them all together and do a book. So, when we got a publisher in the North of Ireland I was absolutely thrilled to bits. Then the recession started and they had second thoughts, as the book would have been very expensive to produce, because there is so much colour in it. at was the first time it ground to a halt.”

The journey towards publication has not been a straightforward one and Barbara has faced both hurdles and tragedy along the way. A friend of mine, Dermot Walsh, who was a freelance journalist would often ask me about the book and said that I should keep going with it. He offered to help me put all the information together. I had kept everything right from the beginning; all the records, photographs and dates.”

Over the course of a year, once a week Barbara and Dermot would go through her paintings with Barbara reciting the stories and Dermot writing them up. It was during this period when Dermot told her the tragic news that he had terminal cancer.

“I had lost a friend and I just didn’t know where to turn again,” she says. “I had all this information but I didn’t know how to put it into chapters. So for five more years it just sat in a box and I kept on collecting more portraits, but not doing anything with them.”

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Ironically it was another comedian, Jimmy Carr, who once again set the wheels in motion to create the book.

“It was coming up to my 70th birthday and we went to the concert hall in Limerick to see Jimmy Carr. I had done a portrait of him and after the show he asked to meet me and wanted to know what I was doing with the paintings.
I had told him about my hopes for a book and he said, ‘You need to do it’ and even suggested
a name for the book. I had already thought
of a title but that was an impetus to get going again.”

This time, however, it was Barbara’s children who began the process and worked on the project in secret for a number of months as a surprise, only bringing their mother on board in the final stages.

“It was my son’s idea and he masterminded all of the organisation. One of my daughters did all of the photography and another daughter did a lot of typing and proof reading. My youngest daughter, who is a graphic designer, designed everything and put the whole book together. I was given little jobs to do then and the book was launched on December 7, 2016, by Cathy O’Halloran, who is the RTÉ mid-west correspondent. It has been 35 years in the making and the biggest thrill of my life.”

Michelle Newman