Born March 10th, 1954
Died May 27th, 2023
Graham Knuttel, who has died at the age of 69, was one of the best-known artists in Ireland, achieving international fame for his stylised paintings of shady figures rendered in bright colours. His original canvasses were displayed in fancy restaurants and collected by film stars and politicians, while his prints adorned the walls of apartments and bars, livingrooms and bedrooms from Dublin 4 to Mullingar.
His work became synonymous with the Celtic Tiger; the sinister looking gangster-type figures in sharp suits were often depicted with sultry female companions, between whom there didn’t seem to be too much love lost. Frequent appearances were made by cats, sailors and chefs, and his paintings and prints hinted at dark stories bubbling under the surface.
Knuttel was colourful in life as well as in his art. He was born in Dublin in 1954. His German father, Frederic, and English mother, Margaret Westley, moved to Ireland following the second World War. Frederic Knuttel had served with the RAF. His two elder siblings, Valerie and Peter, were 10 and 12 years older, enough for Graham to say that he more or less grew up as an only child, and he often described a defining moment of being scared, and scarred, by a one-off meeting with his paternal grandmother, who threatened to lock him in a wardrobe.
He went to Sandford Park School in Ranelagh – although it would be wrong to say he attended, as he said he preferred to hang out in cafes and, later, bars, and discover another side of what life has to offer. He also enjoyed exploring the coast, sketching seagulls, which he would sell to a neighbour. His parents encouraged him to paint, and he found art college life suited him well when he enrolled in Dún Laoghaire College of Art and Design (now IADT) at the age of 18.
It was here that he switched, or so the story goes, from painting to sculpture, in order to get better grades. His sculptures from this period, which often feature birds and animals, occasionally appear at auction. There is a delicacy of detail in them, and a quirkily delicious finesse that is absent from the painting for which he later became so famous.
Knuttel himself said he was inspired by Picasso and Cézanne, and their work may have impacted his art, but it is easier to see the influence of some of the German and eastern European artists of the war and postwar eras, such as Otto Dix and Basil Rákóczi, co-founder of the White Stag group, who ultimately settled in Mayo.
His work touched a vein, not least among the people whose own lives chimed with those he was depicting: the internationally wealthy and powerful. Collectors and admirers included Sylvester Stallone, the Swiss Bank Corporation, Robert De Niro and Bertie Ahern. According to his agent, Noel Kelly, “people loved the sense of danger, drama and intrigue in his work. He had a great insight into the human condition and he was always kind and full of fun. I will miss him very much and the world will be a duller place without him in it.”
Duller indeed for those who followed celebrity gossip. Newspapers were fond of remarking that he was related, on his mother’s side, to the actor Cary Grant. He often said that the line between his life and work was blurred. He enjoyed drinking, but not while working, saying he painted obsessively, and that drinking and getting drunk blurred, even if briefly, that obsession. At the start of the 1980s, he lived with sculptor Anna McLeod, with whom he had a daughter, Kate. He had a 10-year relationship with artist Rachel Strong, who died in 2003, and later he had a relationship with then journalist Gayle Killilea.
Those works that he did pour his heart and soul into should transcend the rest to become a valued and evocative record of Ireland at a particular time and place in its history
He went on to marry Ruth Mathers, who donated a kidney to him in 2022. He told the Sunday Independent: “She was a perfect match. That’s amore. It’s love.”
The wealthy, famous and infamous lapped up his work, but art world accolades were harder to come by. The more elitist types can tend to look down on an artist who appears, on the surface, to be all about their celebrity appeal. They may also be sniffy about the ultra-prolific, and prolific Knuttel certainly was. In 2008 An Post released two Knuttel-designed stamps to mark the Beijing Olympics, there were ceramic coffee cup collaborations with Tipperary Crystal, a silver chess set with Viscount Linley (now Lord Snowdon) and licensed prints and, after a while, it was harder to spot the glowing gems in the breadth of his output.
That said, he was an astute observer of the Celtic Tiger years, and those works that he did pour his heart and soul into should transcend the rest to become a valued and evocative record of Ireland at a particular time and place in its history. In 2008 he remarked to journalist Barry Egan, “the thug and the banker certainly have more relevance now. At least the thug still has his Porsche, unlike the banker.”
Following his death, President Michael D Higgins said Knuttel “throughout his life made such a valuable contribution to Ireland’s artistic community”. Minister for Arts Catherine Martin sent her condolences, saying, “he made an immense contribution to Ireland’s artistic landscape. The bold colours and themes in his work were both striking and thought-provoking, contributing to his lasting international legacy.”
Whatever art world insiders may have thought, his art was frequently imitated, and Knuttel jealously guarded that part of his reputation. He won a court case against a gallery using his second name to sell works by his brother and nephew; and The Turk’s Head pub in Dublin agreed to pay undisclosed damages to Graham Knuttel after it exhibited imitations of the artist’s work, Night on the Town, Love in the Afternoon and Foyer Regent Palace Hotel.
Knuttel’s health issues were well documented. In 2020 he had a liver transplant, and a kidney transplant in 2022. He died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family, and is survived by his wife, Ruth; brother, Peter; daughter, Kate; and granddaughter, Ella.