A window on life in the west before the Famine
William Evans’s 1830s watercolours of Galway, Connemara and Mayo convey a sense of extreme beauty allied with inhospitable desolation
In the subdued light of the conservation-friendly Print Gallery of the National Gallery of Ireland, William Evans’s watercolours, painted in the 1830s, look freshly minted.
The 41 pieces, made during two visits to the west of Ireland, in 1835 and 1838, were acquired from a private collection in 2008. Evans was the drawing master at Eton and a former pupil and friend of his, Thomas Gambier Parry, began the private collection in question. From Galway to Leenane is the first public showing in Ireland for this exceptional body of work.
In exploring Galway and Mayo, Evans and a few precursors and contemporaries, notably George Petrie, were pioneers. Evans seems to have been guided by HD Inglis’s account of a journey through the western counties, published in 1834. Several of his own watercolours were engraved for a subsequent guide book, Ireland: Its Scenery, Character Etc, and many of the originals were exhibited at the annual exhibitions of the Old Watercolour Society in England, but not since.
His watercolours are all the more intriguing for offering a first-hand glimpse into life in the west pre-Famine.
In Galway, he concentrates on the several thousand-strong fishing community just beyond the city walls at Claddagh and the area around the fish market at Spanish Arch. The thatched cottages are long gone, cleared in the 1930s to make way for a housing development, but in Evans’s images they are a hive of activity, with a perpetually industrious population – especially the women and girls – and a slightly anarchic quality, still recognisable in Galway today. There are several careful depictions of Galway hookers on the water.
From the relative prosperity of Claddagh, Evans proceeded west and north, to Connemara and Mayo, into a spectacular though tough, wet mountainous landscape.
Dwellings are rudimentary thatched cottages with walls of rough stone, hunched away from the weather in dips and folds in the windswept expanses. Smoke curls from holes in the thatch, stone-built chimneys being rare. The people, isolated against the scale of the land, tend to animals, work the earth or address comparable tasks. Habitations appear strung out over vast distances and life looks incredibly harsh, as it surely was.
Evans took over his Eton position from his father, Samuel, in 1818 and was drawing master until 1840 when his son succeeded him. He also became, however, manager of a students’ boarding house, as part of a change in policy on student accommodation at the college. His daughter followed him in that position and there is still an Evans’s House at Eton today. Parry wrote an account of the boarding house, incorporating historical notes on the Evans family.