Landscape and Irish Identity

ongoing 2013
James Arthur O'Connor: Moonlight Scene | Landscape and Irish Identity | ongoing 2013 | Crawford Art Gallery

While the notion of a people’s identity being embedded in the landscape is very ancient, as revealed in the careful siting of Neolithic monuments such as Newgrange or the Bronze Age stone circle at Drombeg, the idea of the Irish landscape and its people being synonymous has never disappeared over the centuries. The origins of place-names forms the basis of the Dinnseanchas, or topographical poems, many of which date to the Early Christian Period and even earlier. In the seventeenth century there was a revival of interest in landscape, inspired by the Classical writers of Greece and Rome. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the “Grand Tour” led wealthy British and Irish tourists through France and on to Florence and Rome. The education of these travellers was not considered complete unless they had studied Classical writers such as Horace, Virgil and Cicero. They brought back glowing accounts of the beauties of the Italian landscape, while the bay of Naples and Vesuvius were the subject of paintings acquired to embellish houses in Ireland.

However, from around 1700 onwards there was also a growing appreciation of landscapes closer to home, of the mountains and lakes of Killarney, Antrim and Wicklow.In 1740, at the annual exhibition of the Dublin Society Drawing Schools, Susanna Drury won a prize for her painting of The Giant’s Causeway. Drury’s view was so popular that it was later engraved by François Vivares and published as a print. In 1770, Jonathan Fisher, who lived in Great Ship Street in Dublin, published a series of large aquatint etchings, Views of Killarney. The six prints included The Eagle’s Nest, The Canal between the Lakes and O’Sullivan’s Cascade and the Lakes of Killarney. Fisher etched these plates himself, basing them on his own paintings. He reckoned on finding a ready market amongst the tourists who were beginning to travel to Killarney, and the fact that he continued to produce prints for many years showed that this optimism was not misplaced. In 1789 Fisher published a second portfolio, containing twenty views of Killarney. Early tourists in Kerry extolled the landscape by evoking Roman poetry and the work of painters of Italy such as Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa. This enthusiasm was not unique to Ireland: during the eighteenth century in England, Scotland and Wales, there was also a new interest in areas such as the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Highlands. Travellers in search of views often carried with them a special darkened convex mirror called a “Claude Glass”. This small optical device harmonized the light and dark tones of sunlit hills and woodlands and was so-called because it made landscapes appear more like a painting by Claude Lorrain (an effect not dissimilar to nowadays viewing a landscape through Polaroid sunglasses, or using Instagram software to make a photograph look old).

In many ways, the early Georgian era in Ireland appears to be a triumph of rationality, order and restraint, symbolised by elegant streets, neatly-planted trees, squares and Palladian country houses. The houses were surrounded by deer parks, and the views from the windows were enhanced by carefully-placed follies, temples and monuments. Prospects were created, and enhanced, by the plantings of trees, digging of lakes and canals, and even by the remodelling of the landscape itself. Classical statues were imported from Italy, along with paintings, but what is remarkable in the 1700’s is the rapid growth of a tradition of Irish landscape painting, led by William Ashford, Jonathan Fisher, Robert Carver, George Mullins, Thomas Roberts and Solomon Delane. These talented artists adapted the conventions of Dutch and Italian landscape painting, to convey a sense of the sweeping Irish skies and wooded hillsides. Paintings of Irish demesnes, prospects and houses added to the air of self-confidence that characterized estates owned by families such as Fitzwilliam, Powerscourt and Lucan. Two paintings of Tourin house on the river Blackwater are good examples of William Ashford’s work, while his painting of the bridge at Killarney also has a Claudean atmosphere, steeped in evening sunlight. The leading landscape painters in Cork were John Butts and Nathaniel Grogan, the latter publishing a set of aquatint views of the River Lee and Cork Harbour.

The Georgian era may have appeared calm on the surface, but in reality it was an era of rapid urban development, property speculation and a widening gulf between rich and poor. The wealthy patrons who commissioned views of their estates by Roberts and Ashford preferred the landscapes to appear ‘natural’, glossing over the fact they had been created by decades of hard toil. In the Arcadian landscapes created by these artists, it is difficult to see anyone actually working. The fields tinged with autumnal gold are empty of the farm labourers who made and tended those same green acres. In many paintings there may be a fisherman or a picturesque figure leaning on a staff, in the foreground, to lend a sense of scale, but otherwise these views are remarkable in that they avoid depicting the reality of what was a populous, and increasingly troubled, countryside. Such paintings can be equated with the poetry of Virgil or Horace, who described the golden sunsets, woodlands and well-tended fields of Italy in Classical times. But while Virgil and Horace praised those who worked on the land, making it rich and productive, the reality of a divided society in Ireland can be seen in the fact that landscape painters ignored the realities of life for the majority of people who actually ploughed the fields and harvested crops.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the growing political instability in Europe was reflected in a philosophical concept that came to be known as the Sublime. This concept, if not invented by the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, was certainly popularized by him through his influential book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757. Burke’s early years and education, with his mother’s family, the Nagles of the Blackwater valley in north Cork, had given him a keen appreciation of the beauties of the Irish landscape. Later, when working as a lawyer in Dublin he was drawn to the mountains of Wicklow, and he encouraged George Barret and other artists to paint scenes such as Powerscourt waterfall from life, rather than from notes, or from memory, in the studio. Burke’s urging to artists to draw directly from nature was in many ways revolutionary, and reflected a growing appreciation of the beauties of the Irish landscape, and a turning away from the Classical models that had governed art and literature up to that time. Burke wrote that the idea of the sublime lay in the struggle for individual survival in a potentially hostile landscape. He associated ‘the beautiful’ with forms of social interaction necessary for the survival of humanity in a more collective sense. Burke proposed a graduated scale of the Sublime, in which astonishment lay halfway between respect and terror. He understood that certain colours, forms and textures triggered intuitive responses within the onlooker’s mind, such as the association of curving lines with gentleness of form and femininity. The sublime, with its precipices and chasms, he considered more a masculine territory. With these leaps of association, Burke invested nature with a gendered construct based on the social mores of his time. It was a philosophy that found a ready audience amongst intellectuals anxious to consolidate a sense of nationhood and establish a meaningful relationship between city dwellers and the land.

As revolution swept Europe and the subsequent rule of Napoleon ensured that France and Italy were off-limits to many who would have previously traveled to Paris and Rome, interest in picturesque and sublime landscapes of Ireland became all the more significant. Burke’s theories took on a new meaning, as artists equated the turmoil and terror in Europe with visual elements in their paintings such as jagged precipices, steep cliffs, and thunder and lightening. These landscape painters were in fact representing the revolutionary state of politics in their time, and their art is closely linked with the Romantic movement, where figures such as Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet became immortalised as Romantic heroes of Irish history, even if they were not particularly successful as revolutionary leaders. James Arthur O’Connor’s The Frightened Waggoner is a perfect example of a landscape that has been transformed into a condition of anxiety and fear. The landscape in this painting is dominated by thunderstorms and heavy clouds. A sense of unease pervades the scene. What work remains to be done must be done in a hurry and O’Connor’s frightened waggoner struggles to control his horses, as night and bad weather closes in. O’Connor’s Monk in a Stormy Landscape another key painting from the Romantic period, depicts the frail figure of the monk in danger of being overwhelmed by the wild rocks and trees that dominate the composition. There is a sense in which the Arcadia of the 1770’s has been lost in the intervening three or four decades. Revolution, uprisings and military repressions had by then become the diet of Europe, and of Ireland too.

The Act of Union in 1800 represented for Ireland a binding of liberties, and an end to the heady days of an independent parliament on College Green. Although there was economic prosperity, there was also a hankering after the glories of ancient times. Romantic painters expressed this feeling by focusing on the twilight, depicting the ruins of medieval monasteries in the fading daylight, evoking an Golden Age when present uncertainties were unknown, and the land and a benevolent Gaelic aristocracy had supported abbeys, schools and monasteries, as well as artists and poets. A graduate of the Dublin Society’s Drawing Schools, James Arthur O’Connor was one of the leading members of the Romantic movement that swept Europe during the Napoleonic era. Other Irish artists in this movement were Francis Danby and George Petrie. These artists did not travel to Rome to paint classical scenes, but instead looked to the landscapes of Ireland for their inspiration. In the 1820’s, Petrie explored the mountains of Connemara and painted views of sacred sites such as Gougane Barra, Glendalough and Clonmacnoise, places of pilgrimage over many centuries, that had begun to embody a growing sense of national identity in Ireland. A search for political and social liberty began, one that was linked both with the landscape and the remains of an ancient and noble past that could still be found in the countryside; ancient ruined abbeys, monasteries, round towers and high crosses.

Although the movement that began in the 1820’s led eventually to the Celtic Revival, the inspiration for this new way of looking at landscape can be found in books published during this period, such as David Cox’s Treatise on Landscape Painting and Effect in Watercolour (1814) or William Gilpin’s Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty, on Picturesque Travel; and on Picturesque Landscape (1792). In these books, the new status of landscape painting was defined and codified. In the early nineteenth century Petrie followed the example of his teacher Henry Brocas in making sketching tours to beauty spots around Dublin. The invention of the small portable Winsor & Newton watercolour box, and the availability of sketchbooks, had liberated artists from the studio and enabled them to travel widely in search of inspiration. Petrie, a fellow-student of Francis Danby and James Arthur O’Connor at the Dublin Society schools, was both a practical artist as well as a Romantic spirit. His watercolours were reproduced in popular books intended for tourists such as Thomas Kitson Cromwell’s Excursions in Ireland, Brewer’s Beauties of Ireland, and G. N. Wright’s Historical Guide to Ancient and Modern Dublin, all published in the early 1820’s. The first three decades of the nineteenth century saw an enormous growth in the publication of such guidebooks, illustrated with steel engravings. These books differed from their eighteenth century predecessors in they were smaller in scale and less expensive: the use of steel rather than copper for printing the engravings meant that they could be mass-produced. Fisher’s A Picturesque Tour of Killarney had contained twenty large aquatint views. Three decades later, the Rev. G. N. Wright’s Guide to Killarney, illustrated by Petrie, was in the bookshops, selling less expensively and to a much wider audience. The views selected by Petrie were the same as those depicted by Fisher, but the scale of his plates is minute by comparison with the eighteenth-century publication. Fisher’s aquatints were intended to be appreciated in the drawing room, while Wright’s was a practical guide-book designed to be carried in the pocket.

The growing interest in landscape in the nineteenth century was also fuelled by scientists and geologists, who were revising the long-held theories of the origins of the earth and of mankind. As more people explored the coastlines and mountains of Ireland, and pondered on the origins of natural wonders such as stalactites in limestone caves, or the hexagonal basalt rocks of the Giants Causeway, they came to question the Biblical account of the creation of the planet. In the seventeenth century, in Dublin, Archbishop Ussher had worked out, from a close reading of the Old Testament, that the earth had been formed in 4004 BC. The Scottish naturalist James Hutton led the way in a re-evaluation of this unrealistic date. From looking at the actual landscape itself, Hutton realized that the earth was continually being re-formed, with mountains rising and being eroded through millennia. Ussher’s theory could no longer be believed by people who looked at the evidence of sedimentary deposits being compressed to form stone, often containing the fossils of long-extinct creatures. Thus, around the mid-nineteenth century, landscape became even more politicised. New theories of the evolution of mankind were linked with the emerging theories of the millions of years it had taken to form the mountains, seas and coastlines of Britain and Ireland. Landscape became the site of an intellectual contest, between those who believed in the Biblical account of creation, and those who favoured the new scientific theories of evolution over millions of years. In the 1820’s, the work of George Petrie with the Topographical Department of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland encompassed geology, natural history as well as map-making, and the work of this Department represented an ambitious attempt to properly know and understand the Irish landscape. However, for reasons relating to both cost and politics, the plan to publish a series of Ordnance Survey ‘Memoirs’ of Ireland, one for each county, was stopped, after just one volume was published.

Petrie’s watercolour of Gougane Barra in West Cork can be compared to the work of Caspar David Friedrich, the Romantic painter considered to have been a key originator of that sense of national consciousness that led to the unification of Germany. In Friedrich’s work, as in Petrie’s, a sense of nationhood was to be found in remote mountain valleys and isolated ruined monasteries. Another key Irish artist, younger than Petrie, but very much inspired by his art and writings, was Frederic William Burton. Born near Corofin, Burton studied at the Dublin Society’s schools, before going on to become a successful painter of portraits and genre scenes. There are two sides to Burton’s art. His portraits often depict members of the landed classes, but there was also a Nationalist strain in Burton’s art and he was very much aware of the travails facing ordinary Irish people at that time. In the 1850’s he painted scenes in Connemara, and works by him such as TheBlind Girl at the Holy Well sustain and develop Petrie’s Romantic vision. Burton was friendly with Thomas Davis and sympathetic to the ideals of the Young Ireland movement, a sympathy borne out by his other friendships amongst Ireland’s literary and academic world; George Petrie, Lord Dunraven, Eugene O’Curry and Sir Samuel Ferguson; all members of an intellectual elite that sought to give a cohesive identity to a country divided by sectarianism and class hatred. In this proto-Celtic Renascence, Ireland was given a new cultural identity, similar to that assigned, during those same years, to the peoples of Germany, England and France; a ‘national’ identity largely defined by a sense of inheritance and ownership of property. With politics in Ireland in the late nineteenth century dominated by the Land Wars, it is no surprise that landscape, and to a lesser extent figure painting, emerged as not only the two most dominant genres in early twentieth century Irish art, but also the most political. The tamed landscape and cultivated garden may perhaps be identified with the Anglo-Irish settlement, but the wild landscapes of the West of Ireland became synonymous with the Gaelic peoples, and the possibility of a resurgent nation. The troubled side of the landscape was captured by only a few artists of the nineteenth century, notably the Cork painter Daniel MacDonald.

In the late nineteenth century, the scene shifts to Paris and Antwerp, cities where it became almost mandatory for graduates of art schools in Ireland to finish their education. Joseph Malachy Kavanagh, one of the students who studied in Antwerp, subsequently painted scenes, such as The Cockle Pickers, that recall works such as Jean Francois Millet’s The Gleaners; paintings that initially appear to be picturesque landscape with figures but in fact turn out to represent poor people struggling to survive on the margins of society. Similiarly, cutting turf as a source of fuel provided picturesque subject-matter for artists but in reality it was often of vital importance to the economic survival of rural families in the West of Ireland. Hugh Charde, who also studied in Paris, painted Irish scenes such as Inchigeelagh, a work that portrays both the beauty but also the windswept and barren nature of Ireland’s upland landscape. In fin de siécle Paris, a young Irish art student from Belfast, Paul Henry, fell in love with a fellow student from Scotland, the red-haired Grace Mitchell. Not long afterwards the penniless couple travelled to the West of Ireland and settled amongst the fishing and farming communities of Achill Island. Inspired by Daumier and Van Gogh, Henry’s early paintings depict with painful honesty the harsh struggle for existence on Achill. He depicted people digging potatoes, cutting rye and setting lobster pots. In later years, he continued to produce views of cottages, bogs and mountains, works that became synonymous with the West of Ireland. However, throughout the early twentieth century, Ireland and its landscape were changing. The Land Act of 1923 continued the process, begun in the late nineteenth century, of breaking up and redistributing estates, through the work of the Land Commission. However, continued migration by farm workers from the land into the cities, and onto emigrant ships to America and Britain, gradually resulted in the countryside becoming depopulated. Painters such as Charles Lamb tried to portray an optimistic vision of Irish country life in the 1930’s, but Lamb’s vision, expressed in works such as Connemara Pattern, was at variance with the realities of life, which saw the elderly remaining at home, and the young emigrating. This reality was expressed more tellingly in paintings such as Himself and Herself, by Power O’Malley, an artist who himself spent much time in the United States and had a direct experience of emigrant life. The imaginative recreation of Irish rural life portrayed in the paintings and prints of Jack Yeats was, like Lamb’s, based both on personal experience and a degree of reality, but was also embellished with literary and metaphysical allusions. Something of a retreat from the bewildering world of Irish politics and years of violence can be discerned in the Symbolist paintings of George Russell, who also identified himself with the Greek initials “Æ”. Russell, an artist and intellectual who was closely involved with the agricultural co-operative movement, painted landscapes inhabited by sprites and fairies.

Other painters such as Nathaniel Hone continued to depict the Irish landscape, often working in a more or less Impressionist style that allowed the artist to create works of art while avoiding commenting on social or political matters, even inadvertently. But to avoid comment entirely was impossible. The cattle that enlivened landscapes by artists such as Hone, James Humbert Craig and Dermot O’Brien were also a key element in Ireland’s export economy, and while they may have been staples of the artist’s visual repertoire, they were less unreliable as a generator of national wealth, as export markets fluctuated and foot and mouth disease struck. In the 1920’s and 30’s Sean Keating became the leading exponent of a style of painting that can be described as Socialist Realism. Setting his allegorical paintings in recognisable landscapes, Keating charted the changing fortunes of Ireland and its people, documenting through his art the War of Independence, and ambitious industrialisation schemes entered into by the Irish Free State, such as the hydroelectric generating station at Ardnacrusha on the Shannon.

While the government struggled to keep the country stable and the economy growing, by keeping both wages and public expenditure low, modernist art made some impact in the cities, in a small number of galleries and in progressive events such as the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. However, through the 1930’s and 40’s landscape and portraiture remained the genres most acceptable to Irish audiences. Gerard Dillon produced many works celebrating a rural way of life. By the 1960’s, portraits of the people and landscapes of the West of Ireland were becoming clichéd, and were closely linked with tourist marketing. These often sentimentalised images were now avoided, for the most part, by younger artists, keen to look to Europe and the United States for new ideas. Aspects of the landscape continued to resonate however with artists in the 1960’s and 70’s, most notably with Tony O’Malley, Richard Kingston and Brian Bourke. Patrick Collins in particular was inspired by the sense of past epochs embedded in the landscape and in paintings such as Rainy Landscape, he represents not only a visual impression of the landscape but also his own emotional response to it. Echoes of the past, as embedded in landscape, continue to resonate with contemporary artists such as Alanna O’Kelly, whose 1990 photo-installation, The Country Blooms, a Garden and a Grave, is inspired by the Irish famine and potato blight of a century and a half earlier. Aspects of beauty and the appreciation of landscape inform the paintings of Elizabeth Magill, whose Blue Constrictor represents trees and sky in a manner that, while entirely contemporary, harks back to the Romantic tradition of the early nineteenth century. William Crozier likewise is inspired by an expressionist tradition in painting, in works such as The Ripe Field(1989) and The River Boundary (Lough Hyne) (1988). The painter Martin Gale adopts a different approach, painting Irish landscapes with a precision and meticulous style that is close to photo-realism. Beneath the apparent calm and innocuous surface of Gale’s landscapes however, persists a sense of unease. The romanticism that had inspired paintings of Irish landscape in the early nineteenth century never entirely disappeared and contemporary artists working with photography and video often touch upon themes pertinent to the perception and representation of landscape. Indeed it seems that the most meaningful representations of landscapes, irrespective of date, are those where an awareness of society and politics, while not necessarily visible, is not far from the surface.

Peter Murray 2013

Image: James Arthur O'Connor: Moonlight Scene
ongoing 2013
Crawford Art Gallery
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