A wandering creator of dizzying liberating art
Born: December 20th, 1950
Died: July 28th, 2021
When asked to write about his work in 2009, David Lilburn summed up his approach succinctly in the first sentence: “I like doing what you could call walking drawings.” From the mid-1970s he developed and mastered informal, dynamic image design. As a constant wanderer or wanderer, he was constantly drawing, filling pocket-sized sketchbooks and later, back in the studio, much larger sheets of paper with quick, concise visual representations of the people, places and things around him. Improvised notes, maps, inserts, diagrams, collaged fragments, and revisions were part of the process. He never thought of a later, photographically correct, conventional version of a scene, such as a traditional, academic painting. The whole point was to honestly and directly reflect your experience of the passing moment in context. There is something dizzying and egalitarian about that, and these qualities come into their own in his work.
Although he habitually and skillfully used oil paint, watercolor, and colored ink, drawing was unusual enough, drawing being the very essence of his art, and of course extending to gravure printing processes that suited his visual fluency and enormous graphic ability. The finished works could be strictly sparse and linear or, at the other extreme, tonally rich and dense with layer after layer of detailed information and allusions, but always with a touch of engaging informality.
They could be very personal, such as numerous ravishing studies of his young son Caspar and his immediate domestic life, or broadly iconic, such as his brilliant panoramic view of The Twelve Bens in 2009 or his epic, labyrinthine exploration of The City from the 17th century. These works not only take you on a journey, as one commentator acutely remarked, they lead you “thoroughly and with relish lost”.
The artist’s multi-layered personality – calm, but also extremely sociable and lively, intensely curious, watchful and unscrupulous without prejudice, always with a touch of mischief – is infallibly expressed in the work. It is perhaps not surprising that musically he had a deep appreciation for jazz and played the saxophone.
He was born in Limerick to Florence (nee Armstrong) and Stuart Lilburn, the eldest of three brothers. He attended Newtown School in Waterford. He first studied history and political science at Trinity College Dublin before taking a summer course in lithography at Scuole D’Arte in Urbino (his pivotal introduction to printmaking) and then at home at the Limerick School of Art And Design. He quickly established himself as an impressive, if disrespectful, graphic designer who exhibited extensively and won several awards. That said, it can be said that it took the art world a while to catch up with him because he mainly worked in the print field and what he was doing, to a large extent, sui generis.
In 1977 he worked as a graphic designer in Eindhoven and met Romanie van Son. Back in Ireland two years later, they lived in several western towns before settling in Limerick City, right on the Shannon. Lilburn later noted that moving to the city resulted in a significant shift in focus in his work, from the landscape itself to city map drawings – although he never gave up on the natural landscape.
As a resident graphic artist at the University of Limerick, he worked for many years on numerous graphic design and related projects in multiple departments. In 2006 he founded a publishing company with friend and fellow artist Jim Savage Occasional Press. For several years they pursued an exciting collaboration with the Ballynahinch Castle Hotel in Connemara, on projects with the poets Peter Fallon and Tony Curtis as well as the artists Dorothy Cross, Donald Teskey and many more. Lilburn’s own beautiful volume, Walking Drawing Making Memory, which includes works created in response to the Connemara landscape, was released in 2009. Occasional Press also published an anthology of John Berger’s writings on drawing and, more recently, Berger’s notable visual biography, John. by photographer Jean Mohr by Jean.
Extremely diligent and usually juggling multiple projects and plans at the same time, Lilburn has carried out numerous commissions over the years and his work is included in many public and private collections.
David Lilburn leaves behind his widow Romanie van Son, sons Jonathan and Caspar, son-in-law Adrian, his brothers Hugh and Gary and their families