Parallel worlds: Artist Jan Hendrix on exploring Virgil's Aeneid with Seamus Heaney

Before his death in 2013, Seamus Heaney had begun working with artist Jan Hendrix on a special version of his translation of The Aeneid: Book VI by Virgil. David Roy spoke to the Mexico City-based Dutch artist about a new exhibition of work from the project and his long-time friendship with the poet

Artist Jan Hendrix was a long-time friend of Seamus Heaney

"HE IS always missed – but tonight he is even more seriously missed.": The late Seamus Heaney was very much on the mind of Dutch artist and architect Jan Hendrix as he prepared to preview a new exhibition based on the final collaboration with his friend of over 25 years.

Hendrix's large silk-screened on silver leaf panoramic illustrations of the dramatic Dante-esque landscape of Yagul in Mexico were created for a new collector's version of Heaney's posthumously published 2016 translation of Virgil's The Aeneid: Book VI.

Now available in a limited edition of 78 from Bonnefant Press, the handsome new volume was launched at the preview of The Aeneid Book VI Heaney/Hendrix on Tuesday evening at London's Shapero Modern gallery.

"He would have loved to be here for sure because this is a text that he worked on forever," Hendrix (67) told me that morning.

Indeed, the Roman poet's epic tale of Aeneas's voyage into the underworld was a life-long touchstone for Bellaghy's only Nobel Prize-winner. As he explained to Dennis O'Driscoll in 2008's interview collection, Stepping Stones, "the motifs in Book VI have been in my head for years – the golden bough, Charon's barge, the quest to meet the shade of the father".

Heaney began his painstaking translation from the original Latin in the wake of his father's death in 1986: he was still revising this labour of love when he himself passed away in 2013.

"It's was like a talisman that he always carried with him all the time, to tinker with and work on and change," says Hendrix, who had by then begun collaborating with his friend on the illustrated limited edition of the text.

"When we started working on this third book in 2007 or 8, Seamus was very much alive. He kept on working on the text, he never thought it was good enough – and then he died."

However, the project did not die with him. Once the Heaneys decided that the poet's last draft of The Aeneid: Book VI was worthy of publication, the Mexico City-based artist continued working with the family to complete the planned collectors' version.

It follows the pair's previous collaborations: 1992's The Golden Bough (Heaney's earlier translation of part of The Aeneid: Book VI) and The Light of Leaves in 1999, both featuring Hendrix's evocative representations of Yagul.

"We talked a lot but he hadn't actually seen much of my work before he died," the artist reveals.

"But it was a blind trust that we had in each other: there were no doubts about how we could make something beautiful. We knew that we were both putting in the greatest effort possible: he was very keen on adjusting tiny bits and pieces of the text and I was very keen on responding to that with adjusting tiny bits and pieces of the images.

"Making a book like this one takes years – it takes forever because you want extend the pleasure of making something. It's not so much about the result as the process.

"His family were very kind to continue with the idea even after Seamus died. I worked very closely with his widow, Mary, and Catherine his daughter."

Appropriately, Hendrix was introduced by Catherine Heaney at the preview of what is actually the award-winning Dutch artist's first ever solo exhibition in Britain. Hendrix reveals how he was drawing inspiration from Heaney's work long before the the pair actually met.

"I first came to know Seamus's poetry in the late 1970s and I was totally taken by the strength and the power of what he was writing in the days of Death of Naturalist and his first books," says Hendrix.

"I thought they were just brilliant and actually I made a series of prints, silkscreens and etchings based on Lovers on Aran. I sent him some copies and from then on we established a hesitant correspondence.

"I finally met him at the International Poetry Festival in Rotterdam about one year before his Nobel Prize (won in 1995)."

The pair bonded over their rural upbringings (Hendrix was born into a poor farming family in Maasbree) and their mutual love of landscape and nature, the latter being a major inspiration for their respective works.

The artist visited Ireland for the launch of their second book and the poet also travelled to Mexico in 1999 to visit his Dutch friend's adopted homeland, where the pair enjoying a trip to Yagul.

"Seamus was such a kind, generous man. It was so easy and inspiring to be with him," enthuses Hendrix.

"He didn't behave as if he had the Nobel Prize – he was not a show off. He was literally down to earth – he was born on a farm, I was born on a farm: it was basically the same as in the north of Ireland, we ate potatoes every day.

"There were lots of parallels. One solved his dreams and thoughts in poetry and the other tries to do it in images and prints."

With the new London exhibition set to become a pilgrimage for Heaney devotees, it seems only right that Hendrix should bring their final collaboration to the latter's homeland in the near future.

"We are discussing – I don't want to say too much, but there is a plan," he offers, before confirming that Heaney and his work continue to remain a source of inspiration.

"Always," he enthuses,"there are certain inspirations you carry with you all your life – that doesn't stop when somebody dies."

:: The Aeneid Book VI, Heaney/Hendrix continues at Shapero Modern until February 18, see for details.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access