Crawford Art Gallerypermanent collection themes

William Gerard Barry James  Brennan James  Brennan James  Brennan
James  Brennan William Conor William Conor Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacLise William Magrath Grierson Erskine Nicol
Erskine Nicol Stephen O'Driscoll Stephen O'Driscoll Robert Richard Scanlon
Harry Scully    

"Soul Beggars" Weddings, Departures, Fairs and Festivals - Scenes of Everyday Life in
19th Century Ireland

In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Davis, a leader of the Young Ireland movement, advocated a ‘national’ art. Davis believed art was “biography taught through the eye” and that painting should be a record of places, peoples and events. Whether or not a national school of Irish art did develop has often been debated, but there is no doubt that a thriving regional school of art existed in Cork in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one that tended towards Realism and Romanticism.

The fact that the majority of artists in this exhibition are from Munster reflects the realities of nineteenth century Ireland. In Dublin there was more encouragement for art that expressed the viewpoint of the ruling classes, while Cork, with its merchant princes and traders, was more interested in the realities of everyday life, the here and now. The Realism that flourished in Munster saw artists such as James Brenan producing visual reportage and social commentary, while there were other artists, notably Daniel MacDonald, whose work contains a strong dash of humour and social satire. MacDonald's Country Dance is a cheerful scene, while his Bowling Match at Castlemary Cloyne incorporates both Cork street characters and members of the local aristocracy. A separate drawing by MacDonald entitled Cork Characters provides a key to identifying at least three of the onlookers at the bowling match. In a series of ink sketches, Daniel MacDonald depicts a hedge school master, men returning from a duel, pilgrims at Gougane Barra, soldiers in an Irish town, and other scenes of everyday life. The same spirit of satire is evident in Stephen O'Driscoll who produced silhouette portraits that depicted well-known citizens of his day.

An eye-witness image of emigration is provided by Robert Richard Scanlan, whose Emigrants Awaiting Embarkation, West Cork 1852, reveals a wide variety of age and of prosperity amongst those assembled on the quay. With most of Ireland’s farmers being tenants on large estates, the payment, or non-payment, of rent became a focal point of discontent, and emigration was often the only recourse open to those evicted from their lands. Landlord and Tenant a drawing by Erskine Nicol, gives an insight into this world. For those who remained in Ireland, there were religious festivals and social events to enliven and mark the passing of the seasons.

Daniel Maclise’s print Snap Apple Night is a visual documentation of fortune telling, divination and social ritual in early nineteenth century Cork. While Maclise pays homage to David Wilkie, whose depictions of life in Scotland contain narratives relating to philosophy and the development of theories of sense perception, there is something else at the heart of Snap Apple Night. The slightly frantic image of the man standing, mouth agape, while the dancer nearby raises his shillelagh exultantly hint that social chaos and disorder may not be far away.

The hopes pinned by improving landlords in Ireland on the potential for spinning, weaving and lace-making to supplement rural incomes, formed the theme for many works of art. For those too poor to afford spinning wheels, patchwork was a way of re-using discarded fabrics, as in Brenan’s scene of an old woman in a cottage interior, Patchwork. The reality of the textile industry in Ireland was that it was vulnerable to market forces, with many businesses failing as a result of cheap imports. In James Brenan’s Committee of Inspection, a hand weaver accepts with quiet resignation the demise of his craft and livelihood. In Brenan's Letter from America, a young girl, literate as a result of schooling, reads a letter to her parents, while in Words of Counsel, a parish priest speaks with the parents of a young girl, while her hopeful fiancé stands outside the cottage door.

There is little sentiment, and a hint of Courbet’s Realism, in William Magrath’s Son of the Soil, which depicts a man working outside a thatched cottage. Magrath, having studied in Cork, emigrated to New York, where he produced many paintings of rural life in Ireland. In a similar vein, Harry Scully's portrait of a farm labourer accurately depicts the effect of years of working outdoors. Hugh Charde, who taught at the Cork School of Art, also successfully avoids sentiment in his Market Woman [exhibited in the corridor opposite these galleries], depicting a rosy-cheeked young woman carrying a basket of vegetables. This painting owes much to French Realist tradition.  The influence of French Impressionism is evident in the work of Cork artist Charles McIver Grierson, whose Potato Gatherers is an evocative essay in pastel, and in the painting by William Gerard Barry, a Cork artist of the later nineteenth century, who depicts the interior of a cottage with an old woman looking after children. In the twentieth century, the tradition of depicting everyday life was carried on by William Conor in Belfast, whose characteristic sketches are evocative of an era now largely vanished.

Further information on the Irish Famine can be found here (Ireland's Great Hunger Museum).