Shy and modest artist Sam McLarnon was Antrim Coast’s finest ambassador

Artist Sam McLarnon at work in his "studio", his beloved Antrim Coast. INLT 14-614-CON
Artist Sam McLarnon at work in his "studio", his beloved Antrim Coast. INLT 14-614-CON

HEART-felt tributes were paid in the past week to renowned artist Sam McLarnon, who died on Wednesday (March 28) following a tragic accident.

The 89-year-old Bay Road man, an esteemed member of the Ulster Watercolour Society whose paintings of the Antrim Coast are hung in homes and galleries all over the world, fell while walking in Ballygally on Sunday, March 25, striking his head on a pavement.

There was a large attendance at the funeral in St MacNissi’s Church and Mr McLarnon was buried at Feystown church yard.

Writer and historian Felix McKillop, who corroborated with the artist for the 1995 publication Larne And The Road To The Glens, said Sam’s exquisite illustrations had been key to the book selling out in a matter of months.

In his History Of Larne And East Antrim in 2000, Felix featured Sam as a subject and wrote: “The Borough of Larne is blessed with an artist such as Sam McLarnon. A modest man by nature, his paintings scattered all over the globe will ensure that his name will live on long after his death. His epitaph could well be similar to that of St Paul’s Cathedral architect, Sir Christopher Wren – ‘If you seek a monument, look around’.”

The son of Larne harbour crane driver Sam McLarnon and Mary, a seamstress, Sam’s early years were at Fleet Street, but he lived most of his life at Bay Road, where he shared a home with his sister, Maureen.

His talent was obvious even as a youngster attending McKenna Memorial School and later at Larne Technical College.

A teacher once told Sam’s mother that the only thing in her son’s head was art and that he should be steered towards learning a trade, but she was having none of it and encouraged her son in his artistic endeavours.

In his biographical account in History Of Larne and East Antrim, Felix McKillop wrote: “He studied art at Larne Technical School obtaining the Advanced Art Certificate course. Soon he was the recipient of various art awards, winning six Gold, Silver and Bronze medals, and a Diploma in Illustration. These qualified him for a C J Browne Scholarship in 1943 and subsequently qualified him to teach art. But ... his love of the outdoors led him away from teaching.

“He began commercially designing posters and painting the outdoors. McLarnon opened a studio in Main Street, Larne, and for 28 years held annual exhibitions there. He was a founder member of Larne Art Club in 1940 and in the mid-1960s helped found the Ulster Watercolour Society.”

Sam was also a life member of Carnlough Art Club.

“Away from the art scene, Sam became involved with the Boy Scout movement,” wrote Felix. “A member of the first St MacNissi’s Scout Troop in Larne when they were founded in 1935 under the guidance of Christie and Barney Breen, Sam always kept a keen interest in the movement. He held various positions in the Scouts, eventually becoming a Diocesan Commissioner for Cubs. His experience in the movement led him to write a book regarding Guidance for Cub Masters.

“Around 1968 he gave up his studio work and began working for various galleries. His commissions included Harrod’s in Knightsbridge, London.”

The author summed up the artist’s universal appeal: “Simplicity is the key to Sam’s watercolours. Never paint in three trees when one can tell the same story, is his motto. Each day, summer or winter, he drives into his beloved Glens of Antrim to paint. He says there is no substitute for being face-to-face with nature all year round.”

Sam never actually received the aforementioned medals he won as a student. His great-nephew Gerry McNally explained: “He never got the medals because metals were scarce in the war years. He was given the certificates and after the war he was supposed to claim his medals, but he never did.”

Typical of a man who - despite being feted by having his work displayed at numerous exhibitions, was uncomfortable being in the limelight. “He never went to any of the exhibitions. It wasn’t why he painted and he didn’t want any fuss,” said Gerry.

He described his uncle as “the greatest ambassador Co Antrim has ever had”, adding: “He was a quiet, funny and quick-witted man who will be missed by many, but his work will always be with us.”

Gerry said there was hardly an inch of the coast that Sam did not know. “He was asked to paint some scenes many times over, like the Black Arch. I remember sitting in his garden one day while he painted it from memory.

“But he loved nothing more than being out and about to do his painting and no matter how many times he painted a subject, it was different every time, allowing for the light on the day and the mix of colours. He could look at one of his paintings from years ago and tell you if he had painted it inside, or outside.”

Larne gallery owner Tommy Workman said he will miss an old friend. He added: “I always maintained that Sam was the most under-rated painter there was. He didn’t get any of the accolades he deserved and yet his paintings are all over the world from America to Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

“Probably he painted too many, but the fact is painting came easy to Sam. Some people have to learn to paint, but Sam had a God-given talent: he just enjoyed what he did and he didn’t paint for the money, it was for the love of it.

“I remember buying a very early oil painting he did in Donegal and brought it in and showed it to Sam. He recognised it right away as one of his own and ran his hand over the thickness of the oils he had used on the clouds. It was obvious he had put everything in to it, but all those years later he just said: ‘I was ambitious then.’

“Sam didn’t care about awards. He was a very modest man, very shy and very, very generous. If somebody was good to Sam, or did him a good turn, he appreciated it and many a time he turned up on people’s doorsteps with a painting by way of thanks.”

Art dealer Jackie McIlwaine said: “Sam was a good friend and a true gentleman. I have been selling his paintings for 40 years and Sam was always a welcome visitor here at McIlwaine Fine Art.

“They say a prophet has no honour in his own town, but Sam was respected near and far as the only man who could capture the Antrim Coast. His work will always have a wide appeal to people who have fond memories of the many locations he painted. People have bought a McLarnon because he painted pictures of the church they were married in. Just last week a lady in England bought one of Sam’s painting because she wanted a picture to remind her of her home village in Glenarm.

“Sam will be sadly missed and my thoughts are with his family and especially his sister, Maureen.”

Sam McLarnon’s generosity knew no bounds. He sponsored a school in the Third World, paid for Scout trips out of his own pocket and frequently helped local charities to raise thousands of pounds by donating paintings to be raffled.

One such beneficiary was the RNLI, who said: “Mr McLarnon was a loyal supporter of the RNLI and for many years donated paintings to the Glens Lifeboat Guild, the fundraising group of Red Bay Lifeboats. As a result of his generosity, many thousands of pounds were raised for the worthy work of the RNLI.”

Immediately recognisable for their evocative depictions of the unrivalled beauty of the Antrim Coast, Sam McLarnon’s paintings have captured the hearts of three generations of people - be they art collectors, or simply the proud owners of a McLarnon that perfectly captures for them a favourite place, a special occasion, or a cherished moment.