Anne Hailes: Neil Shawcross's 80th birthday show a love letter to Andy Warhol

Artist Neil Shawcross, whose new exhibition on letters to Andy Warhol opens in Dublin next week, coinciding with his 80th birthday. Picture by Hugh Russell

IF ANDY Warhol was alive and painting today it’s a safe bet that letters of appreciation would either come via email or be typed. Copperplate is a thing of the past. Envelopes aren’t much in demand any more and stamps have out priced themselves so franking is the thing.

From March 23 first class will cost 76p (15 shillings in old money) and second class will be 65p (over 11 shillings). I was talking to a young person the other day and mentioned the price of stamps, “big increase since ‘LSD’”. He thought I was talking drugs.

However, when Warhol was alive and living in New York the postman brought huge bundles of handwritten fan mail to his door, from all around the world and, thankfully, being a hoarder, he kept them in boxes in his studio. I say thankfully because the envelopes the letters came in are the subject of an exciting new solo exhibition, ‘Letters to Andy’ which opens in Dublin on Thursday March 12.

It all began when artist Neil Shawcross was visiting the five-storey Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Worhol’s home town. On the first floor, among the archive material, he struck up a conversation with the chief archivist and the chat got round to the hundreds and hundreds of letters still kept in the museum. And out came the boxes and Neil’s interest was immediately fixed on the huge variety of envelopes, the writing, the addresses, the stamps.

A deal was done and a selection of around 80 images were sent to Belfast where Neil, born in Lancashire but resident in Northern Ireland since the early 60s, began his painstaking work.

“It was like all my Christmases came at one time. The variety is amazing, some addressed just ‘Andy, New York’, another ‘His Excellency Andy Warhol, 860 Broadway New York City’. Some from fellow artists have illustrations round the edges and others have little messages.”

The one he selected first was his favourite and it was addressed to Warhol’s mother, ‘Julia Warchola, 3252 Dawson Street, Pittsburgh, United States, Amerika.’ postmarked Slovakia with stamps stuck on at a jaunty angle. She came to stay with her son for two weeks and never left.

Another was addressed to ‘A. Warol The Pop King of America’ with four cartoon faces of Warhol along the bottom.

Irish News photographer Hugh Russell's Andy Warhol-esque take on one of his portraits of Neil Shawcross, taken at the artist's Belfast studio last week. Picture by Hugh Russell

Painting History

Known internationally as a portrait painter, Neil has had a lot of fun with the subject of his latest exhibition but it has been intense work. He admits to being happiest in his studio off Lisburn Road in Belfast. Painting is the bedrock of his life, as is apparent in this case as he brings his own joyful appreciation of pop art to over 20 canvases that, until last Thursday, lined the walls and took over the studio.

By now they will be hanging in their new home waiting for art lovers to come and purchase their favourites.

The work will be on show until April 11 in the Hillsboro Fine Art Gallery in Dublin, founded by John Daly in 1995 and widely recognised as Ireland’s leading 20th century and contemporary gallery.

“We’ve had nothing like it before,” John told me, “but then I’ve never come across someone like Neil before. He has always been fascinated by written letters, a thing of the past so this is almost a historical body of work showing handwriting that reveals much about Warhol’s many correspondents.”

The invitations have gone out and the feedback has been amazing.

Neil Shawcross will be 80 next week. Picture by Hugh Russell

“Neil is very well regarded as an artist and loved as a person and I’m pleased that such a personal exhibition will be shown as a single body of work. We have nine-foot paintings right down to small canvases which is important because these are not copies of envelopes but an interpretation which is unique to Shawcross.”

I don’t subscribe to coincidence but, be it fate or not, on the same day Letters To Andy opens in Dublin, a Warhol retrospective opens in Tate Modern London.

It happens to be Neil’s 80th birthday the week of the opening and, being a generous party animal, there will be celebrations both north and south.

It’s hoped the exhibition will make its way to Belfast eventually but in the meantime Manus McCown, a great admirer of the artist, will be displaying some of Neil’s Warhol work on the walls of his Café Connor on Stranmillis Road.

Neil Shawcross in his Belfast studio ahead of his new exhibition on letters to Andy Warhol. Picture by Hugh Russell


IT’S coming at us from all angles so I will add another couple of ideas. Be a lovey – only do ‘air kissing’, like the queen; wear gloves – put them on when you leave the house and keep them on as you shop, meet people, shake hands, hold onto the chrome rail in shops – then give your gloves a good wash with soap and water when you get home.

You can buy gloves for as little as £1.50 so have a few pairs on hand.

If you tend to put your hands to your mouth buy some Stop and Grow and paint the foul-tasting stuff on your fingers. I’ve bought Dettol surface cleanser which claims to kill 99.9 per cent of bacteria and viruses, and Dettol multi-surface wipes, made from 100 per cent biodegradable plant fibres, which makes the same promise.

I’ve gone round door handles, toilet handles, the bannisters and the steering wheel in the car so I feel reasonably protected.

I thought about filling a spray bottle with whiskey or gin to disinfect my hands during the day but then thought better of it – I might get a reputation as a hardened drinker.

It’s a frightening situation but people are wising-up to the risks. As one elderly lady on the bus said: “I’m not going to open the door to anyone until the government announces this virus is dead – after all, how do you know if they’ve been to Italy or China or God knows where? If you keep yourself away from people then you’ll be safe."

Take sensible measures to stay safe from coronavirus

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