My favourite painting: Val McDermid

'It’s a mysterious, atmospheric painting, which I find both moving and disturbing.'

Healing of a Lunatic Boy, 1986, by Stephen Conroy (b.1964), 48in by 36in, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Val McDermid says:
‘I first saw this picture displayed in the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in an exhibition of new Scottish painters back in the 1980s. I’ve had a framed print of it over my desk ever since. It’s a mysterious, atmospheric painting, which I find both moving and disturbing. When I’m writing, I often lean back in my chair and use it as a canvas for my imagination. It’s a strange combination of the chilling and the emotional and I’d love to see the original again one day.’

Val McDermid is a crime writer. Her latest book, The Skeleton Road, was published in September.

John McEwen comments:
Stephen Conroy was born at Helensburgh, near Dumbarton, and studied at Glasgow School of Art, 1982–87. He entered the school the year Steven Campbell (1953–2007) graduated and left for America in a blaze of glory and was influenced by Campbell’s enigmatic figurative pictures.

This picture was purchased for the national collection when Mr Conroy was still a student and hailed as the boy wonder of Scottish painting. It was painted in his penultimate student year, when he won first prize for painting at the Royal Academy’s British Institute Fund Awards and his degree show sold out. In his graduation year, several of his paintings were chosen for an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA). His student fame spread south of the border. An early champion and collector was the charismatic Dr David Brown (1925–2002), until 1985 Assistant Keeper in the modern collection at the Tate Gallery.

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The SNGMA’s entry for Healing of a Lunatic Boy reads: ‘Despite the fact that the men in this painting all share the same small space, they seem completely isolated from each other. This gives the painting a sense of unease and claustrophobia which is central to Conroy’s work of the 1980s… The scene is dramatically lit, as if the figures are on stage, creating shadows which add to their mystery. Open-mouthed figures appear frequently in Conroy’s paintings of the mid to late 1980s, as do men with blank glasses.’

Mr Conroy lives in Scotland. Marlborough Fine Art, London, where he has exhibited since 1989, remains his gallery.

This article was originally published in Country Life, December 31, 2014

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