Histories of Paintings from Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Mary Jane Boland

Mary Jane Boland

In 1813 the Dublin-based artist Joseph Peacock (c.1783 – 1837) exhibited an expansive canvas entitled ‘The Patron of the Seven Churches’, on the Festival of St. Kevin, in the Vale of Glendalough, Co. Wicklow at the Society of Artists of the City of Dublin annual exhibition.

The painting, which was later exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1817 and at the British Institution in 1818, details a wide range of community activities taking place amidst the imposing scenery of the Wicklow Mountains. In the distance, a round tower presides over the cluttered scene, its dominance in the landscape exaggerated by the artist for added effect.

Peacock’s painting, which is now in the Ulster Museum, depicts a traditional devotional gathering called a ‘Pattern Day’ that happened at this site on June 3rd every year to commemorate the patron-saint of Glendalough, St. Kevin.

His canvas is filled with over a hundred figures; some are singing, dancing and enjoying the celebrations associated with the day, while others are capitalising on the commercial aspect of the Pattern by trading their wares and produce.

Throughout the crowd, all walks of Irish life are present, from blind beggars and itinerant musicians to regimental officers and elite spectators on horseback. All of this activity is placed among the ruins of the monastic city founded by St. Kevin in the seventh-century. Rolling, threatening clouds provide a backdrop to the glacial valley and cast suitably dramatic lighting effects over the scene.

Much can be learned about the activities of traditional, local Pattern Days from this image. For instance, in 1986 William Crawford used the image as a visual source for the history of this type of festival and the folk-practices associated with it in his descriptive article for Ulster Folklife. Similarly, Mairead Dunlevy used the painting in her investigations into the history of costume and dress in nineteenth-century Ireland.

While the image has proved very useful to historians of folk-practice or material culture, for the art historian it actually raises more questions than it answers: why was a little-known artist painting such a large scale picture of Irish life at this time? Why did a demand for this type of art exist? And ultimately, what does the painting reveal about practices of spectatorship in early nineteenth-century Ireland?

In spite of the range of questions that the picture raises, it has never been subjected to an intense art historical interrogation. Indeed, its scholarly treatment to date provides an insight into the historiography of early nineteenth-century painting in Ireland in general.

As part of this collection of articles that examine the writing of Irish art history, this article aims to investigate the limitations of this historiography and to offer some suggestions as to how the history of painting in early nineteenth-century Ireland can be re-examined and reassessed.

By using the case-study of one artwork (‘The Patron of the Seven Churches’) its focus will specifically be on the art of everyday life and the perception of it among art historians, critics and audiences over the past two centuries. A clearer understanding of how the art of daily life was consumed in early nineteenth-century Ireland can be developed by clarifying confusing definitions, by moving away from connoisseurial or biographical methodologies and by looking at works of art from the perspective of the audience rather than the artist.

In contrast to the treatment of this type of painting by art historians in Ireland, every day as a phenomenon in early nineteenth-century British art has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years. Major interventions by scholars such as John Barrell, Christiana Payne and David Solkin have interrogated the everyday aesthetic in the paintings of George Morland, David Wilkie and Thomas Heaphy.

In his seminal text ‘The Dark Side of the Landscape: the rural poor in English paintings, 1730-1840’ (1980), Barrell assessed paintings of the rural poor by Thomas Gainsborough, Morland and John Constable as pictorial evidence of the hierarchical social system that existed in Britain during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century.

According to Barrell these painters were “committed to a continual struggle, at once to reveal more and more of the actuality of the life of the poor, and to find more effective ways of concealing that actuality”. The notion that the rural poor were both familiar and unfamiliar, known and unknown, or representative of both the safety of an archaic rural past and the danger of an uncertain industrial future, lies at the heart of Barrell’s analysis of these works of art.

Such an inherent conflict also informs Solkin’s study of Wilkie and his contemporaries in Painting out of the ordinary: modernity and the art of everyday life in early nineteenth-century Britain (2008). Solkin argues that a fundamental dialectic lies behind how early nineteenth-century artists and audiences used everyday imagery.

For instance, the dominant upper and middle classes could assert their authority over the lower orders by commissioning artworks that depicted characters and their expressions in a pejorative, regularised way, while at the same time emblems of social advancement (like the newspapers seen in Wilkie’s Village Politicians of 1806) indicate that this hegemonic power also felt threatened and fearful of a world that was becoming less familiar thanks to the rapid dawn of modernity.

Solikn’s Foucaultian argument that an elite audience used paintings of everyday life as a means to survey the poor can be extremely persuasive. However, these methods have yet to be thoroughly considered by art historians looking at this type of artistic production in Ireland.

Central to recent discussions on the art of daily life in Britain has been the need to define key terminology. Particularly, art historians have grappled with the term “genre” and its widespread (mis)use in Western art history as a means to describe scenes of everyday life.

The term is particularly enigmatic in an Irish context. While there is a wealth of material relating to the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists of Irish everyday life, particularly Jack Yeats and the so-called “Irish Impressionists”, little has been written about their late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century predecessors like Peacock, or others such as Nathaniel Grogan, John George Mulvany and George Grattan.

“Genre” derives from the French word for “kind” or “type” and up until the late eighteenth-century it referred to all minor categories of painting such as landscape, still life and animal painting.

In other words, it described all subjects that were considered beneath the preserve of history painting. Following the admission of J.P. Greuze to the French Academy as a “peintre de genre” in 1769, it was frequently used to describe paintings of ordinary life and was widely adopted by French art theorists, such as Denis Diderot and Quatremère de Quincy, when discussing domestic scenes.

The situation was slightly different in Britain where the term “genre” was not used until the mid-nineteenth-century. Instead, scenes of daily life were usually described as the art of “common” or “familiar” life.

Similarly, in Ireland, scenes of everyday life were titled ‘pictures from familiar life’ or “subject pictures” in the early-mid nineteenth century. The earliest known reference to the term “genre” in Irish art discourse appears in The Irish Monthly in 1879 where, in an article about Netherlandish “genre” painting, there is a lengthy description of Jan Van Eyck’s altarpiece ‘The Adoration of the Lamb’. Although the contributor is aware of the term “genre” there is an unawareness of its misuse.

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