‘For those suffering loss, the past is their present’ - Colin Davidson on Silent Testimony

David Roy speaks to the Co Down artist about taking his Troubles-related exhibition Silent Testimony to London’s National Portrait Gallery and why its themes are perhaps even more relevant today than they were in 2015...

Co Down artist Colin Davidson with his exhibition Silent Testimony at London's National Portrait Gallery
The Co Down artist with his exhibition Silent Testimony at London's National Portrait Gallery

“THE way I would put it is that I made 18 new friends,” explains artist Colin Davidson of Silent Testimony, his 2015 portrait collection depicting a diverse group of people affected by the Troubles, which opened at the National Portrait Gallery in London earlier this week.

“I became really close to many of [the subjects] and still am close to many of them to this day: there’s a community of us that will travel depending on where the show is – I remember that myself and a delegation of the sitters went out to New York when it was on at the UN in 2018.”

While he’s best known for his striking large scale portraits of celebrities and public figures – famous sitters for the Co Down-based artist include Ed Sheeran, Seamus Heaney, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth II – Silent Testimony’s renderings of ordinary people whose lives were blighted by Troubles-related violence might be Davidson’s most important work.

Having set out in 2014 to try and highlight the losses experienced by a small sample of those ‘left behind’ by a peace process seemingly hyper-focused on accommodating the perpetrators of Troubles violence rather than providing closure and support for victims, survivors and their families, Davidson (56) found himself becoming hugely affected by those who agreed to sit for him.

“It was life-changing,” he admits of the creative process behind Silent Testimony, which was facilitated by the Troubles victim support group WAVE (Davidson is now a patron) and includes a brief text accompaniment alongside each painting outlining its subject’s story.

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“You can’t walk into somebody’s home and have them take you into their daughter’s bedroom as it was left the morning that she left for the last time, and not be changed.”

Colin Davidson's portrait of Paul Reilly from Silent Testimony
Paul Reilly’s daughter, Joanne (20), was killed on April 12 1989 in Warrenpoint. Joanne had been working in a builder’s yard when a no-warning bomb exploded beside her office. She was killed instantly.

The Bangor-based artist is referring here to his portrait of Paul Reilly, father of 20-year-old Joanne Reilly. Joanne was killed when a car bomb exploded beside her place of work in Warrenpoint in April 1989: Mr Reilly sat for his portrait in Joanne’s old bedroom, which had become a shrine to his late daughter – the wall clock set permanently to 9.58am, the time of her death.

“Thomas O’Brien was inconsolable when talking to me about his brother’s death 40 years before,” he recalls of his sittings with the man who lost his brother, John (23), sister-in-law, Anna (22), and two nieces, Jacqueline (17 months) and Anne Marie (5 months) in the Dublin bombings on May 17 1974.

“It was totally unresolved grief.”

Colin Davidson's portrait of Thomas O'Brien from Silent Testimony
Thomas O’Brien was bereaved on May 17 1974. His brother, John (23), sister-in-law, Anna (22), and two nieces, Jacqueline (17 months) and Anne Marie (5 months), were killed when a no-warning car bomb exploded as the young family were walking along Parnell Street in Dublin. Thomas passed away on June 23 2022.

Sadly, some of the subjects of Silent Testimony are no longer with us: Thomas O’Brien, Flo O’Riordan and Walter Simons have all passed away over the past nine years, while Maureen Reid, whose husband James was killed in a Belfast pub bombing in 1976, died in March 2015 before the exhibition even made its debut at the Ulster Museum.

Colin Davidson's portrait of Maureen Reid from Silent Testimony
Maureen Reid’s husband, and father of their 10 children, James (44), was killed on January 17 1976, when a bomb was thrown into the Sheridan Bar in the New Lodge district of Belfast. Maureen never remarried and raised her family on a widow’s pension. Throughout the years Maureen referred to James as ‘Daddy’. She passed away on March 25 2015 with her family by her side.

“Thomas, Flo, Maureen and Walter really hadn’t had an opportunity to tell their stories,” explains Davidson.

“So, for me to have been part of exposing potentially millions of people to their stories is a privilege. It’s an honour, and if they were here today, I trust that that would be a source of comfort to them.”

Colin Davidson's portrait of Walter Simons from Silent Testimony
Walter Simon’s son, Eugene (26), disappeared on 1st January 1981. Eugene was a father of three children and had recently remarried following the death of his first wife. He was due to become a father again. Eugene’s body was recovered in May 1984, when a bog in County Louth was drained. His remains were identified by the rose gold Celtic cross worn round his neck, which had belonged to his first wife. Walter passed away on July 7 2019.

Of course, Silent Testimony’s themes of unresolved human trauma also apply to other victims of conflicts around the world, past and present, and the collection has toured internationally during the past decade.

“For me, while [the show] is specifically portraying 18 people, it also refers to the many tens of thousands who are just like them,” says the artist.

“I would hope that people understand that it’s as much a comment about us as a society right now as it is about those 18 individuals.”

Artist Colin Davidson pictured at his studio in Co Down.
Artist Colin Davidson pictured at his studio in Co Down. PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

Looking back at this poignant project, Davidson reflects on how it has helped reinforce his belief in the power of portraiture to provoke a visceral reaction in the viewer.

“I think what making this work has taught me is that I’ve really only been scratching the surface of what portraiture can do,” he tells me.

“We learn to read a human face, we learn to intimately read expressions, whenever we’re very, very young. And the nuances of that can be read in a portrait painting as well. Where a photograph is a split-second in time, a portrait can represent a lifetime.

Colin Davidson's portrait of Flo O'Riordan from Silent Testimony
Flo O’Riordan’s son, Sean, was killed on March 23 1972 on Cawnpore Street in west Belfast. Sean received a gunshot wound to the back of the head and died a short time later in hospital. He was thirteen years old and was the second of six children. Flo passed away in July 2021.

“It’s an honour and a privilege to be afforded trust by people to attempt to expose something through their face that tells a deeper story.”

The Co Down man is rightly proud of Silent Testimony’s continuing contribution to an ongoing conversation about the necessity to provide support and closure for victims of violence in post-conflict societies – and specifically here in the north.

“There is a deep psychological aspect to making a portrait to start off with,” comments Davidson.

“But when I was making these portraits of 18 people who were still suffering trauma on a daily basis through loss that they experienced during the dark days here – that drove home to me, not only how worthwhile the project was, but actually what the true start and beginning of healing might be in this part of the world.

“That is, acknowledging what we did to each other here, acknowledging the human cost – and taking responsibility for it.”

Given recent developments like the Troubles Permanent Disablement Payment Scheme, which many victims of violence have struggled to access, and Westminster’s Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, which seeks to draw a line under the past by preventing the possibility of further investigations into Troubles-related crimes, the themes of Silent Testimony are perhaps even more relevant now than they were in 2015.

“The past is the past and there’s nothing we can do about it,” comments Davidson.

Artist Colin Davidson pictured at his studio in Co Down.
Artist Colin Davidson pictured at his studio in Co Down. PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

“But for people who are suffering loss, the past is their present. With Silent Testimony, I wasn’t really interested in the past – I was interested in now.

“It’s actually an exhibition about asking questions of where we are right now.”

Silent Testimony is at the National Portrait Gallery in London until February 23 2025. npg.org.uk and colindavidson.com for more information