‘Our Mutual Friend’: Portraiture and Genre Painting in Victorian Cork draws from the permanent collection of the Crawford Art Gallery. The collection has recently expanded to include six portraits generously donated by the Dorman family, which form the centre-piece of the exhibition. The Dorman family were closely involved in education, technological progress and in Cork’s business and cultural life.
Dr. Samuel Hobart, whose large portrait is seen on first entering the exhibition, was one of eleven children of Samuel and Eleanor Hobart, of Eyre Court in Co. Galway. Having qualified as a medical doctor he moved to Cork around 1820, marrying Charlotte Abbott, daughter of Samuel Abbott, who owned a brewery in the city. A member of the Royal College of Surgeons, Hobart was a brilliant surgeon. He served in the House of Industry and Cork Lunatic Asylum, and also worked at the North Charitable and South Charitable Infirmaries.
On the right hand side of the centre wall, portrayed wearing ‘preaching tabs’, and with his hand raised in blessing, the Rev. Thomas Dorman in 1850 married Charlotte Isabella Hobart, daughter of Samuel Hobart. One of their sons, John William, became an engineer on the British Guiana State Railway, while another son Richard, studied at the Royal Indian Engineering College in London, before embarking on a successful career as a surveyor. A third son, Edward Hobart, was secretary of the company that maintained the West Cork Railway, while a fourth, Major Thomas Dorman, was in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Their portraits, by James Butler Brennan, can be seen not only as works of art displaying technical skill, but also as visual documents in which members of the family wanted themselves to be recorded for posterity. In contrast with the more flamboyant eighteenth century, in these portraits the men wear black, while the women are dignified and reserved. The portrait of Charlotte Isabella Dorman depicts her soberly attired, with little in the way of personal ornamentation. She wears a lace cap and collar, aspects of dress that were becoming increasingly important in late nineteenth century Cork, where lace-making was being
taught in convents and schools throughout the county. The school founded in 1829 by Charlottes’ mother, also named Charlotte, three decades later moved into the Hobart’s former home and was known as Rochelle School. It is now part of Ashton School.
The exhibition also includes landscape, maritime and genre paintings that provide background and context to the Dorman portraits. The paintings by Daniel MacDonald, Eviction Scene and Bowling Match at Castlemary Cloyne depict two very different scenes of rural life. In the first, a family are being ejected from their smallholding, while in the second, two members of Cork’s merchant aristocracy indulge in a game of road bowling, with an avid audience looking on. A series of genre paintings by James Brenan, headmaster at the School of Art, depict aspects of life in county Cork, and vividly illustrated the hardships and challenges faced by families living in rural areas. While on first glance A Committee ofInspection appears to be an innocuous view of a cottage interior with a weaver at work, in fact it is a critical commentary on the negative effects that mass-produced textiles were having on the indigenous hand weavers of Co. Cork. Brenan’s Letterfrom America is an eloquent painting, showing how the young girl, who has attended National School, is now the only person in her family able to read. The bleak realities faced by many Irish rural communities in the mid nineteenth century are captured by MacDonald and Brenan, as well as brief interludes of happiness and contentment. The genre paintings of William Magrath, a Cork artist who emigrated to the United States later in the century, are more sentimentalised, and show how depictions of Ireland were becoming standardised and stereotyped.
In Cork, as in other cities in the British Empire, a new rising middle class sought to remove itself from the libertarianism that had characterized much of aristocratic life in the previous century. Growing in numbers and confidence, this middle class supported Realism in art and literature, and the depiction of modem life.
The nineteenth-century maritime paintings, mostly the work of local artist George Mounsey Wheatley Atkinson and his family, attest to Cork’s importance as an international port city. Most of these “ship portraits” were commissioned by the owners or captains of the vessels. They also document the technological changes of the time, with sailing vessels being superceded by steamships. The spirit of enquiry during this era meant that people were torn between differing systems of belief. Science vied with religion, nationalism with empire, and conservatism with radical movements. The Romantic Movement provided an escapist route for those less impressed with the benefits of railways and industrialisation.
Women and men were restricted by gender, class and clothing. The middle class could be objectified, domesticated and their moral worth evaluated. The idealized Victorian portrait displays gravitas and restraint, with the chaste woman a standard for Victorian society as a whole. This conditioning began in childhood, as is vividly displayed in the Portrait ofMabel Arnott by Jenny Ashton Hackett, a graduate of the Cork School of Art. The young girl, wearing an elaborate dress, holds sprigs of lilac and laburnum. Lilac symbolizes early love, while the latter symbolized danger. The painting is in fact a coded narrative, which would have been understood instantly by a Victorian audience. The sensual instincts that lurked beneath this codification provided a justification for the gendered separation of public and private spheres, and a warning against impropriety and the abandonment of social
and moral order. Realistic depictions of women were outnumbered by the extremes of constructed femininity, and painters helped to reinforce societal values by portraying ideal physical types, roles, deportment and environments.
The James Butler Brennan portraits are shown in this exhibition interspersed with examples of actual lacework, reflecting the importance of this industry in Cork and the economic independence it provided for women in a patriarchical society. Headmaster of the Cork School of Art from 1860-1889, the genre painter James Brenan (not the same artist as J. B. Brennan) was particularly interested in the development of the lace industry. Brenan was at the forefront of the development of this craft, one that could be utilized in both a rural and urban setting. Female portraits often displayed detail of lacemaking and were a decorative
embellishment upon often restrained and simple costume.
The religious imagery on display in this exhibition is further testament to the transcendental and spiritual aspects of Victorian life and society. These paintings convey a wide range of human emotions, such as grief, intense love and loss, emotions notably censored in the stiffness and rigidity of the Victorian portraiture. These religious images reveal some of the psychological conflicts, which existed, in Victorian society. Religion, as well as providing a belief system, also provided a way of expressing strong emotions
and sentiments, which were repressed beneath the veneer of Victorian respectability.
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