Artist remembers 'flamboyant' legend

By Peter McDermott

[Rodney Dickson drew this 12 x 10 inches charcoal on paper portrait while working on his 8 x 10 foot oil on canvas painting of Alex Higgins in 1992.]

A Brooklyn-based artist who painted an 8 x 10 foot portrait of Alex Higgins remembered the snooker legend as a "flamboyant character" who carried himself "almost like a Shakespearean actor."

Rodney Dickson said Tuesday: "He had his clothes made by that fancy tailor in Dublin - Louis Copeland.

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"It was a rags-to-riches story. It was an incredible peak, but a miserable end," said the abstract expressionist painter from Newtownards, Co. Down. "His last years were difficult and now he's finally at peace.

"Alex was an extraordinary human being -- he was one of the greatest ever to come out of Ulster," Dickson said of Higgins who died last week at age 61. "We should remember Alex when he was at his best - as 'the Hurricane.'"

The then Liverpool-based artist, who was prominent in the north of England painting scene, approached Higgins in 1991 through his manager with the idea for the portrait and the snooker player consented. Artist and subject worked together over a period of six months on the project.

There was a campaign subsequently to have the painting displayed prominently in Belfast City Hall. Journalist and activist Eamonn McCann and the late David Irvine's Progressive Unionist Party, among others, supported the move.

"I was to get a decent price for it, but the idea fizzled out somehow," Dickson recalled.

When the artist relocated to New York with his wife in 1997, he donated it to the Ulster Museum, where it remains in storage.

"I decided that there was no need for it to come to America," Dickson said. "People here didn't know who he was. The painting should have a home in Northern Ireland."

Back in 1992, Higgins was past his best, but could still be a formidable opponent on the snooker table, Dickson remembered. "It was the beginning of his decline," he said. The two remained in contact intermittently, though an arrangement to meet when Higgins was in New York in 2004 fell through.

"He was volatile and erratic and I've no doubt he caused the trouble they say he did," Dickson said, "but he was polite to me.

"He wasn't educated, but he was bright," he said. "He had these interesting weird thoughts about world issues. It was obvious that he thought deeply about things.

"He was generous when he had money," Dickson added. "And he could be very funny."

"When Hurricane Hit the Big Apple," a 2004 Irish Echo interview with Alex Higgins, appears of page 12 of this week's print edition.