Mystery surrounds evocative painting of 19th century Irish emigration

Unknown artist changed original depiction of Connemara child’s funeral


The Gathering, the year-long programme of festivities to attract the diaspora, is a reminder of the country’s long and sometimes painful history of emigration. The biggest wave of departures occurred during the decades following the Great Famine of the mid 19th century and many artists have attempted to depict the phenomenon.

A powerful Victorian painting, to be auctioned at Bonhams in London next month, shows an emigrant about to depart from the west of Ireland. Or does it?

The painting is confusingly titled The Last Brief Voyage: A Connemara Funeral, or The Emigrant’s Departure. It was made by the English artist William Henry Bartlett (1858-1932) and was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in May 1887 when it was simply titled, The Last Brief Voyage.

The critic for the prestigious magazine The Athenaeum, assumed the painting depicted a child’s funeral in the Scottish highlands and islands and wrote about a “picture of the landing of a child’s coffin from a boat at the old graveyard near a ruined Hebridean church”.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who visited the exhibition, realised that the English artist had “been hard at work among the seaside folk in Connemara”. Bartlett himself later recalled how, during a visit to Connemara “among the sand hills overlooking the bay”, he had seen “a small and primitive graveyard, in which it is still the custom to bury children”.

He had “chanced to see a funeral there, only once, and it was very striking. It took place in brilliant sunshine and the general effect was very original, almost oriental in character. The plain deal coffin, covered with a white sheet, was deposited on the sand, the mother sitting upon it, while two men made a grave, the custom being to dig it after the funeral party arrives on the ground. Keening women with their picturesque cloaks were grouped around close beside the chief mourner, and with their curious lamentations could be heard a considerable distance. The intense white sand, and deep blue of the sky and deeper blue of the sea beyond, formed a fitting background to a strange and remarkable scene”.

So, he painted The Last Brief Voyage, which depicted the funeral scene. However, according to Bonhams, sometime after the artist’s death in 1932, “the picture was subsequently, unaccountably altered and the coffin repainted as a crude wooden trunk, transforming its subject matter into an emigrant’s departure.”

Mystery surrounds this transformation and no light has yet been shed on who was responsible, or why. The painting, which measures 135cm by 211cm, was last sold by an art dealer in London in 1956 for the trifling sum of only £26.

It is now for sale again, from a private UK collection and has been assigned an estimate of £7,000-£10,000 (€8,200- €11,700) ahead of the auction at Bonhams in New Bond Street on July 10th.

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