This early Harry Kernoff (Harcourt Street, Dublin, 1920s) is rather brownish and doesn’t appeal as much as his other work at first, but the longer you look at it the more you see and in the process of seeing it you feel something which you don’t get from more obviously flashy paintings, a sense of having worked for the pleasure you feel in looking at it.
The girl in the yellow dress and red cloche hat on the sunny side of the street is easy to make out, as is the man on the bicycle, or maybe motorcycle, more likely the latter as he appears to be dressed very grandly for a mere cyclist in a cape and hat with earflaps. The horse and cart is a little more difficult to make out and I’m still not sure what’s being carried on the cart, but I hope to decipher that with more time and greater resolution.
Things change as you look at this painting: what appears to be an umbrella turns out, on closer examination, to be a crutch, smart suited cityish gent changing into indigent before your very eyes. The woman on the front left is transparent as a memory of times past, and the other figure behind her, in red and sickly yellow, I can’t make out at all what it is, colourful enough to be a child, but too big for one.
A flashily dressed girl perhaps? Men didn’t dress in red flowing garments like that in the 1920′s, unless they were artists or priests. Or maybe a person from an earlier age, when the street was new and fresh instead of brown and dust-besmirched, and clothes were tighter, shinier and brighter altogether? Why shouldn’t a painting of ghosts have ghosts from different eras?
But would I have taken the trouble to notice all this if it wasn’t for the chimneys? Not a chance. They are the only sunlit things on that side of the street, as is usual when walking down Harcourt Street after mid-afternoon in summer; its evening gloom hasn’t changed in the ninety plus years since this picture was painted and Kernoff captures it perfectly.
I love the chimneys because they remind me of my father. ‘Old Dublin chimneys’, as he used to call them. I know them when I see them because he used to point them out to me so often, but I have never heard them referred to like that by anyone else, the term doesn’t appear on any web page and they don’t seem that different from chimneys of the same vintage in any other city.
But my Dad thought these sort of chimneys were special Dublin ones and throughout my childhood the words ‘old Dublin chimney’, would cure any annoyance, distract him from any misdeed, help procure from him in his abstraction any amount of loose change, but no paper notes; even the depth of distraction caused by the thought of old Dublin chimneys only went so far…
I remember you had to be quick, so quick, to get the cash, because his examination of the particular chimney pointed out to him never lasted very long, most of them being clear interlopers. By the mid-1980′s almost all of the old Dublin chimneys had been taken down and and it would have been nearly impossible to find a full set for a four-pot chimney stack, never mind a whole street like this one.
But he never failed, my father, no matter what he was doing, to get distracted by the thought of what might be, just maybe, perhaps, a real old Dublin chimney, and take a look in hope.
Which is why I love this picture so much.