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Seamus Heaney

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Seamus Heaney

by Ross Wilson
charcoal and pencil, surface worked, 1994
18 5/8 in. x 13 1/4 in. (472 mm x 335 mm)
Purchased, 1994
Primary Collection
NPG 6261

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Ross Wilson (1958-), Artist. Artist or producer of 14 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Made at Harvard University (where Heaney was Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory), the drawing relates to a painting commissioned by a private collector.

In Autumn 2018, five years after Seamus Heaney's death, the Royal Society of Literature and the National Portrait Gallery celebrated the lasting power of Heaney's verse, his ability to 'credit marvels', and his enduring presence in the work of poets writing now. Poets Inua Ellams and Sinéad Morrissey, as well as novelist and friend of Seamus Heaney, Andrew O'Hagan, were commissioned to respond to portraits of Seamus Heaney held by the National Portrait Gallery, drawing upon both the images themselves as well as the ways in which Seamus Heaney’s writing has influenced their own work. We are grateful to the T. S. Eliot Estate for sponsoring this project.

Portrait of Seamus
I remember him using the phrase 'merry commotion'. It seemed right for the kind of music that depends on a fiddle and a bodhran, the soft Irish drum the musicians touch with a wooden stick called a tipper. The bodhran is an evolution of the tambourine, today without its jingling coins or its streamers, but its round frame can still be made of willow wood, and when you touch the skin lightly it is much closer to the beat of the heart, two thousand years closer, perhaps, than loud speeches or the big bass drum. When you recited a poem in front of Seamus, his fingers would massage the air, as if feeling for the document itself, as if conducting a score amid the oxygen your shared. And it is that Seamus, the riddler of music, that I look for in all the portraits that have been done. There are some that show the stately Seamus, the Nobel Laureate, the windswept son of Erin, but my eye is drawn to what the ear knows better, to the antic pen and brush, the charcoal and the pencil. Ross Wilson's studies for 'Seamus Heaney at Harvard', done in 1994 and part of the National Portrait Gallery's collection, have for me what Seamus himself found so necessary to a poem, 'phonetic purchase or rhythmical promise.' You must attend to the energy of the thing, with 'an ear to the line'. Wilson's studies include several of a smiling Seamus: we see a mad spray of hair, a symphony of thought, squiggle and shadow. For me they construct a thoughtfulness and they capture with vivacity the poetical mind. In my Scottish schools, such art, we learned, has a unity of form and content, the portraitist dealing in forms that gladly meet and match the smiling occasion.
Andrew O'Hagan

See also NPG P1672 and NPG 7003

Linked publicationsback to top

Placesback to top

  • Place made: United States (Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA)

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1994back to top

Current affairs

The Queen opens the Channel Tunnel. After seven years of digging, various financial hold-ups and technical difficulties, a long-awaited rail link is created between Britain and France. The tunnel is 31 miles long with 24 miles under the sea, the longest under-sea tunnel in the world.

Art and science

Trevor Bayliss starts production of his clockwork radio. The innovation is a fantastic example of simple environmentally friendly design and has been found particularly useful in areas where there is no electricity supply, such as remote communities in Africa.
Blur release their classic Britpop album depicting London life, Parklife.


Violence breaks out in Rwanda. An estimated 800,000 people were massacred in the Rwandan Genocide, most of them Tutsis, murdered by extremist Hutu militia groups.
South Africa holds its first democratic elections in which full enfranchisement is granted. The African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela won the majority of the vote, and Mandela became the country's first black State President.

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