Crawford Art Gallerypermanent collection themes

Charles Forrest
Charles Forrest
18th. Century Irish School, Portrait of Bessie
John Dennis

Robert Hunter
18th. Century Irish School, Portrait of William Penrose
Thomas Pope Stevens
18C Irish School
Thomas Pope Stevens
Baron Van Der Meer

The Cooper Penrose Rooms

The Cooper Penrose Collection, consisting of paintings, furniture, ceramics, books, and other items, gives a unique insight into the cultural life of a leading 'Merchant Prince' of 18th century Cork. Cooper Penrose (1736–1815) owned manufacturing enterprises in both Waterford and Cork, including factories where fine cut-glass decanters, chandeliers and drinking glasses were made by skilled craftsmen. The family also imported timber and was involved in property development in both cities. Woodhill House in Montenotte was the family home in Cork. Now demolished, the house was once an important centre for the patronage of the arts.

The Exhibition is displayed in the Crawford Art Gallery's 18th. Century Rooms, now renamed The Penrose Rooms.

The Cooper Penrose CollectionThe Cooper Penrose Collection
Exhibition catalogue (28pp)
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The Cooper Penrose Collection...

Penrose Family Crest

Penrose Family Crest
Carved wood
The trout surmounting the crest relates to a family legend regarding the origins of the Penrose family in Cornwall.

Painters and sculptors worked at Woodhill, while large art galleries displayed paintings by Irish and Continental artists. Although a Quaker, Cooper Penrose was not so conventional, and his wife Elizabeth seems to have been tolerant. Their daughters, Anne and Elizabeth, were spirited and independent, more so than the sons William and James. A lively house, Woodhill also became a place of refuge for young people rejected because of political or religious beliefs. These included Sarah Curran, the lover of Robert Emmet, who was taken in by the Penrose family after being expelled by her father from her home in Dublin, and also Elizabeth Pike, the Quaker heiress, who was abducted from Woodhill by the notorious Henry Hayes. Cooper Penrose himself seems to have had distinct Republican sympathies, maintaining ties with the United Irishmen, and travelling to Paris during the French Revolution. His material success, coupled with his family´s love of parties, music, literature and the arts, raised eyebrows, not least in 1816, when the family loaned a painting by James Barry, entitled Venus Rising from the Sea, to the annual exhibition of the Cork Society of Arts. Because it portrayed a naked woman, the Society would not place it on public exhibition, and the painting was returned to Woodhill.

While many of Cork´s great Neo-Classical houses, such as Dunkathel, Vernon Mount and Coolmore, are still standing--albeit facing an uncertain future--very little remains of Woodhill House. In 1930 the last owner, James Penrose, sold up and moved to Derbyshire, almost three hundred years after his ancestors had arrived in Ireland. The original roots of the family are in Helstone in Cornwall, where they are mentioned in the Domesday Book. A branch of the family had settled in Yorkshire in 1580, before moving on to Ireland seventy-six years later. In 1656, Robert Penrose moved to Dublin; his brother Richard following nine years later. They may already have been Quakers, as George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, had started preaching in 1646; twenty-three years later he was preaching in Ireland. Richard by that time had married an Irish woman called Anne Storye. William, the third of their five children, born in 1676, lived in Waterford, where he tanned hides, imported timber and exported agricultural produce. William´s second son, John, was born in 1706, and also went on to become a tanner and exporter of hides. He married Anne Cooper, of Cooper´s Hill, Carlow and they had four children, including Cooper Penrose, born in 1736. William´s younger son George, born in 1722, went on to found the Waterford Glass Factory in 1783, along with his nephew, also named William. John died young, and the eldest son, Cooper, was raised by his uncle Samuel. Both men moved to Cork in 1763 and entered into partnership with John Dennis, also a Quaker in the timber business. Shortly afterwards, Cooper married Elizabeth Dennis, the only daughter of the Dennis family. They lived in an Elizabethan house, Woodhill, that John Dennis had purchased from the widow of Sir John Dickson Haman.

The partnership of Cooper Penrose, Samuel Penrose and JohnDennis prospered, and included setting up a glass factory in Cork. Although Penrose businesses and homes were divided between Waterford and Cork, the family operated as a unified enterprise, with machinery, raw materials and capital moving between the two cities. Skilled workers also traveled between the factories, a mobility of labour that can lead to confusion in deciding whether items of cut glass are “Waterford Glass” or “Cork Glass”. Ultimately, as recognized by Mairead Dunleavy, they may be best described, simply, as “Penrose Glass”. Cooper and Elizabeth Penrose had two sons, James and William Edward, born in 1766 and 1768, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, born in 1771 and 1774 respectively. In 1780 the family moved back into Woodhill, the Elizabethan house of the Dennis´s having been demolished and completely rebuilt. With the departure of James Penrose in the mid-twentieth century, the days of the Penrose family in Ireland were at an end. The house in Cork was dismantled, its ruined shell lingering on for decades. It was finally leveled in the 1980´s and a modern house built on the site. Some fragments still survive: The high stone walls surrounding the gardens of Woodhill mark the southern boundary of Lover´s Walk, a narrow road leading from Tivoli to Montenotte. The gate piers also stand, as does the original gate lodge to the house, an octagonal 18th century Neo-Gothic structure, built in the 17th century, still survives.2 The main house, Neo-Classical in style, was begun around 177 and completed five years later. It was described by the painter Daniel Maclise as containing “a very remarkable picture gallery, one of the chief in the South of Ireland”.
The Galleries at Woodhill...
The galleries at Woodhill were contained within wings added, around 1802, to both sides of the late 18th century house.

These wings were set back from the central block, an arrangement followed at nearby Dunkathel House. The West Wing contained the art galleries and was one storey in height, while the two-storey East Wing was used for offices and kitchens. The central block, with Adam-style fireplaces, staircase and plasterwork ceilings, had large rectangular sash windows, while the wings were more theatrical in style, and had round-headed windows, recessed into arcades and surmounted by oval windows.

By the standards of Cork´s usually austere Neo-Classicism, Woodhill was a dramatic and beautiful house. A sketch plan shows the entrance hall divided in two. Opposite the front door, two doors, flanking a fireplace, led to another hall, paved with black and white marble, at the back of which a semi-circular ‘apse´ carried a cantilevered staircase to the first floor.

In common with other Cork houses, such as Henry Hayes´ Vernon Mount, or Dunkathel, the staircase steps were of stone, while the balustrade was of decorative wrought iron. To the west of this front hall was a large reception room; to the east a smaller sitting room. Joscelyn Denis Penrose, father of John Denis, remembers the sitting room as overflowing with decorative shell and feather work, done by Sarah Dennis, Cooper´s mother-in-law.

In the late eighteenth century, the west drawing room was grand, austere and furnished in the French style, with gold and white painted furniture. However, a century later, a photograph shows the same room cluttered with paintings, Victorian furniture, porcelain and bric-a-brac.

Although the photograph is scratched and grainy, it is possible to make out the portrait by David, to the left of the door leading to the front hall. Joscelyn Penrose recalls the adjoining dining room, as it was in the late 19th century: “Here again the original furniture that went with this room had been removed and replaced with what I consider the worst type of Victorian atrocities which ruined the room as a whole.” He continues: Quite close to this door in the hall was another one that led into what was called “Barry´s Room” because one of its walls was covered with Prints of Barry´s pictures. It was a dark little room with bookcases down the left-hand side of the room as you enter. In my day it was never used for anything except as a passage to Cooper´s Picture Gallery which consisted of three rooms, one leading out of each other. These in my day were completely empty except for Barry´s nude Venus which stood on the floor propped up against the end wall of the Gallery looking very deserted and dejected. Out of this Gallery there was a door that led out into the garden that was full of lead statues and the air was heavy with the smell of verbena, bay and box and the hum of bees and insect life.”

From the outset, the great advantage of Woodhill was its excellent location, on an elevated south-facing hillside, with its own landing stages and storage yards on the banks of the river Lee below the house. In 177 Cooper Penrose set about transforming house and gardens, and the main work was completed five years later. Although Abraham Hargrave has been tentatively identified as the architect, Woodhill was probably designed by Michael Penrose, an amateur architect and relative of Cooper Penrose. It was noted for its wide cantilevered staircase, cut-glass chandeliers in ballroom and drawing room, and stuccoed ceilings. Late nineteenth-century photographs show the house as a two-storey Palladian structure, with one-storey wings connected to the main block by curving screen walls, embellished with oval windows. The gardens included lawns surrounded by trees, with sculptures at intervals.

The “Philosophers Walk” was bounded by a wall of red brick and was adorned with ‘domes´ (perhaps niches) containing antique bronze busts. The house was a centre for music, entertainment and hospitality. There was a tradition of an annual servants´ ball, when servants from neighbouring houses were invited to a dance in the ballroom. However, this licence to enjoy the splendour of Woodhill was strictly limited: there was a rule, common at the time, that under no circumstances could servants pass in front of the hall door, or enter by way of the main gate. The servants used a side entrance, the remains of which survives on Lovers´ Walk. A second carriage drive, with a gentler incline, ran from Tivoli to Woodhill, and was used exclusively by members of the Penrose family. Visitors used the upper gate, by the octagonal gate lodge.

Along with sea shell displays and other natural history exhibits, Woodhill contained a number of paintings by James Barry, including the controversial Venus Rising from the Sea, a large portrait The Prince of Wales in the Guise of St. George, Lear and Cordelia and Jupiter and Juno upon Mount Ida.4 Described by William West as ‘the Irish Vatican´, along with Greek and Roman sculpture casts, the galleries also contained Angelica Kaufmann´s Return of Telemachus and The Sacrifice of Gideon, ascribed by Maclise to Boucher. Crofton Croker records that Penrose also owned works by Nathaniel Grogan, while it is likely that John Butts´ View of Cork was also at Woodhill6 In addition to being a patron of James Barry, Charles Forrest, Thomas Pope-Stevens, Robert Hunter and John Butts, Penrose had his portrait painted in France by the acclaimed French Revolutionary artist Jacques Louis David. This portrait is now in the Timken Museum, San Diego, California.

Up to the time of the donation of the Penrose Collection to the Crawford Art Gallery, only a handful of art works from Woodhill made their way into public collections. Venus Rising from the Sea is in the National Gallery of Ireland, while The Prince of Wales in the Guise of St. George was acquired by the Crawford many years ago, along with The Fall of the Rebel Angels, a large unfinished painting by Samuel Forde.

A glass decanter in the National Museum bears the crest of Cooper Penrose, while in the National Gallery is a silver salver, presented to Edward William Penrose, in gratitude for his petitioning King George III against the Act of Union.8 In addition to being a patron of Barry and Butts, Cooper Penrose had family portraits by Hunter, Stewart and other leading artists of the time. The house also contained a large collection of Chinese porcelain, brought to Cork by tea-clippers from China.

The library at Woodhill was also remarkable, and included works by Voltaire, Lawrence Sterne, Henry Fielding and other authors. These were not the sort of books that would have been approved of in Quaker households at the time, and fuelled the unease felt by the Quaker brethren in Cork at the conspicuous display of wealth and unconventional lifestyle at Woodhill. Eventually, according to family tradition, Cooper Penrose was “read out” at a meeting; the charges being that he wore sheepskin gaiters, had seven brass cannon aboard his yacht “Gossamer” and kept a barrel-organ and a painting of a naked Venus in his house. However, these reasons are fanciful: In reality, Penrose was expelled from the Quaker brethren for having attended a race meeting with his daughters, accompanied by an armed servant.

Other stories about Cooper Penrose abound. Once, when High Sheriff of Cork, he is said to have defied the Corporation when they wished to change the name of Grattan Street to Duncan Street, in honour of a British admiral. Penrose planted a stone tablet inscribed “Grattan Street” in gold lettering at the corner of this street. When he died in 1815 , another tradition has it that he was buried standing up, in the garden at Woodhill, near the present railway line. There was a tradition that so long as a Penrose stood at Woodhill, the property would be protected.
The Splendour of Woodhill...
The splendour of Woodhill attracted many visitors. Lewis Dillwyn, a Quaker who visited Cork with his friend Joseph Woods in 1809 gives a brief but vivid description of the house and the Penrose family:

About 4 Cooper Penrose called on us & insisted on our accompanying Mr. Woods to dine with him at his Villa which is beautifully situation on the North bank of the City about 1½ Miles from the City. He has a fine collection of Pictures for which he has been building a Gallery as also five other Rooms for Statuary, & they are all very tastily lighted by Cupolas from the Ceiling. We returned to our Inn about 11 O´Clock well pleased with the hospitality & polite attention of Mr. Penrose & his Son.

In 1802, during the Peace of Amiens, it was possible for British and Irish citizens to travel in France. Aged 63, Cooper Penrose went with his family to Paris, where he was introduced by an Italian friend to Jacques Louis David. Family tradition has it that Penrose had difficulty persuading David to accept a commission to paint his portrait, with the artist´s wife asking Mrs. Penrose “Do you think my husband paints pictures by the yard?” David accepted very few commissions from sitters who were not French, and who were unconnected with the French political and social elite. However there is a suggestion that Penrose´s niece Julia was a student of David´s and so this may have prompted the commission. Penrose sat eighteen times for his portrait, from ten o´clock until four at each sitting.

Joseph Farington, saw the portrait during his visit to David´s studio in October 1802, he commented in his usual caustic way that it was “painted in a very poor manner having a sort of woolly appearance as if done in crayons.”10 However, by his own account, as recorded in his diary for 1802, David accepted the commission in an enthusiastic and businesslike way:

If Mr. Penrose will have complete confidence in me, I shall paint his portrait for two hundred gold louis. I will represent him in a manner worthy of us both. This painting will be a Monument which will attest to Ireland the virtues of a good family man, and the talents of the painter who has painted it.

There shall be three payments. There shall be 50 louis at the start, 50 louis when the painting shall be sketched out, and the balance of 100 louis when the work shall be completed.

The finished painting, a three-quarter length portrait, shows Penrose dressed plainly, seated against a plain brown wall. Dressed in a black cutaway jacket, white waistcoat, dark grey knee breechens and white stockings, he is depicted sitting in a Neo-Classical armchair. There is no evidence of the sitter´s social status, save perhaps the excellence of the portrait itself, and its self-consciously austere style, which befitted one of Cork´s leading Quaker merchants. It is signed “Louis David faciebat parissiis anno Xme republicae Gallicae.” (Louis David made this in Paris in the tenth year of the Gallic Republic)

Following discovery of her secret love affair with Robert Emmet and her expulsion from the family home at Rathfarnham, Sarah Curran was given refuge at Woodhill by the Penrose family. Although an eminent barrister, well liked by his colleagues, Sarah´s father John Philpott Curran was a different person at home. Sarah described her life in The Priory in bleak terms: “What was our portion? To bear tyranny and injustice, to submit, to bear as well as we could a melancholy home and confined circumstance with latter had the additional weight of being unnecessary parsimony towards us. . . and as for myself I think all the better traits of my disposition were stifled and lost. How should a youth of sorrow and tears form a character to cheerfulness, strength, and fortitude.” When letters from Sarah Curran had been discovered in the possession of Robert Emmet, and the Curran family home was raided by the militia, John Philpott Curran was outraged, and expelled Sarah. The letters had been carried by Anne Devlin, who acted as a go-between. Robert Emmet knew his rebellion was doomed to failure, but persevered nonetheless. The seeds of his rebellion had been sown in Cork years before, when his father, Dr. Emmet, a specialist in fevers, had worked among the poor people of Cork. In 1770 Emmet was appointed State Physician and moved to Dublin. However, his views on class distinctions, and his championship of Catholic Emancipation, “made him unpopular with Dublin Castle, the seat of the Government administration. Grattan ridiculed him as the ‘man with the pill and a plan´. His political views were not without effect on his youngest son who would listen for hours to discussions of Ireland´s bondage between his garrulous father and his brilliant brothers.” After the failed rebellion of 1801, Robert Emmet was hanged, drawn and quartered outside St. Catherine´s Church on Thomas Street, Dublin.
Sarah Curran Stayed at Woodhill...

Sarah Curran stayed at Woodhill from the autumn of 1803 until the winter of 1805 . It is probable that she was not an easy guest to entertain, and the emotional ordeals she had suffered must have weighed heavily on her mind. The family did their best to keep up her spirits, and in the sociable atmosphere of Woodhill she eventually met, and married, Captain Robert Henry Sturgeon, a nephew of the Marquis of Rockingham, and an officer in the British army.

Thomas Moore, another visitor to Woodhill, was inspired by Sarah Curran´s subsequent travels to Sicily with her husband to write She is Far from the Land. In 1806, while in Sicily, Sarah wrote to Anne Penrose at Woodhill, enquiring how the planned sculpture gallery was progressing: “Have you heard anything of your statues etc., and how go on the rooms? What would I give for a peep at them.” However, when she wrote this letter, Sarah would have been unaware that Cooper Penrose, had abandoned his plans for a sculpture gallery, opting instead for a gallery of paintings. One account had it that the ship from Italy carrying the sculptures destined for Woodhill had sunk in a storm, but a more prosaic, and probably truer, story was that the sculptures Penrose had purchased in France during the Peace of Amiens, were stranded in that country when hostilities recommenced.

In the recollections of Joscelyn Denis Penrose, son of J. E. Penrose, there is a glimpse of life in Woodhill in 1803: “The excitable Sarah wanted smoothing down, which was a job Anne could do far better than Elizabeth, and that is why Anne was Sarah´s special friend.” Anne, however, who was eleven years older than Sarah, had a longstanding friendship with a Miss Elliston, daughter of the Archdeacon of Lincoln, and Sarah ‘was always frantically jealous of Miss Elliston´. The part which this Miss Elliston, at a distance, played in the final scenes of Sarah´s life is revealed in Sarah´s three last letters. The first, dated Messina 2 th July 1807, is enthusiastic enough: “My dear Bessey this all seems a Rhapsody perhaps and I believe although one may feel enthusiasm it falls to the lot of few to describe it, but I know that when I desire no one shall see this. I was pleased to hear there is a good picture of you at last. Please God that we meet once [again]. I shall never again be without your picture and Anne´s, cost what they will. I have often had an idea of drawing a little general sketch of the parlour at Woodhill as we used to be in some of those blessed days, some working and at the harp, etc. Anne Latham, Kate Wilmot, Edward and I even think I would add Alday. . .”

However, by January 10th of the following year, Sarah Curran was writing to Anne of her grief at the death of her new-born child, and over the following weeks, her letters to Anne Penrose reveal a heart broken through being isolated by her former friend from Cork. Before Sarah died, she sent a message asking that she might be buried beside her sister Gertrude in the grounds of the Priory in Rathfarnham. Her father refused. She died at Hythe on 3 May 1808, and was buried at Newmarket, County Cork.

Sarah Curran was not the only recipient of hospitality at Woodhill. Cooper Penrose had also given refuge to the fugitive Lord Edward Fitzgerald, an action which resulted in the sacking of Woodhill by a troop of soldiers. Some years earlier, in 1797, when Penrose´s niece Mary Pike became estranged from her family, she also took refuge at Woodhill, during which time Sir Henry Hayes of Mount Vernon, purporting to be a friend, concocted his scheme of abducting and marrying the heiress against her will. Cooper Penrose engaged Sarah Curran´s father, John Philpott Curran, to prosecute the case against Hayes, who, after his conviction in 1801, was sentenced to transportation to Australia. It was during this period that the Currans became friendly with the Penrose family. After her ordeal, Mary Pike became unhinged and died in an insane asylum.

After the death of Cooper Penrose, his son James, who was living at Corkbeg, his wife´s family´s house near Whitegate, reluctantly moved back to Woodhill. He lived there for a decade before economic circumstances forced him to move to Germany. The two Penrose sons had carried on, albeit at a much slower pace, the tradition of art patronage established by their father. In 1818 James was a member of the Society for Promoting the Fine Arts and was recorded, in the catalogue of their annual exhibition, as lending a painting by Murillo. His brother, Edward William Penrose, also a member of this Society, loaned that same year his own painting of a moonlit landscape, along with works attributed to Hobbema, Jervas and Guido Reni; paintings almost certainly from Woodhill. In April 1828, Edward Penrose bought Samuel Forde´s The Fall of the Rebel Angels for twenty guineas, and it was delivered to Woodhill the following day. James lived on at Woodhill for a decade, before economic circumstances forced him to move to Germany. For the next century, Woodhill was rented and became progressively more run down. By 1894 the Penrose estate had passed to Rev. John Dennis Penrose, and in 1933 the last owner was James Penrose. In that year the property was finally vacated by the family.

Many of the works of art from Woodhill. were sold at this time, but the core of the collection, the family portraits, by artists such as Robert Hunter and Charles Forrest, were brought to England where they were preserved by the family until being acquired and donated to the Gallery in 2008 by John and Helena Mooney. In enabling the collection to return to its home city, the Penrose family have also made a significant contribution to Cork´s economic, social and cultural history. The display of the collection in the newly named “Penrose Rooms” at the Crawford Art Gallery is apt, as these early 18th century rooms provide an ideal environment for the display of the works of fine and decorative art. They also enable the integration of the Penrose Cooper Collection with aspects of the existing Crawford collection, such the fine set of Cork and Waterford cut glass of the 18th and early 19th century. Thus has been recreated a remarkable chapter in the history of art and patronage in eighteenth century Cork.

Born in 1774, the youngest daughter of Cooper and Elizabeth Penrose, Elizabeth “Bessie” Penrose was sociable, well-read and enjoyed parties. In this portrait, painted around 1803, she is depicted wearing a dress and headdress inspired by Turkish costume. This style was very popular in fashionable society at the time, having been introduced to England and Ireland, in the eighteenth century, by travellers such as Lady Wortley Montagu. The fashion lasted for much of the 18th and into the early 19th century, as can be seen in the portrait Mrs. Baldwin (1782) by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

As well as fashions and customs, Turkish baths were also popular, and there were several in Cork in the nineteenth century.

Like three of her four brothers, Bessie never married. She died in Cork in 1862.