An Irishwoman's Diary

Mon, Feb 25, 2013, 00:00

Before the arrival of the camera, it was the artist who recorded source material for historians and botanists. William Burton Conyngham (1733-1796) was a great believer in establishing an account of Ireland’s archaeological heritage. By about 1780 he had assembled a remarkable collection of more than 600 watercolours and drawings, many of them beautiful, all of them important in laying the foundation for what would become Irish archaeology.

Initially an interest in antiquities was shared by the wealthy, many of whom had taken the Grand Tour which included the sites of classical Greece and Rome. Burton Conyngham, whose father’s family had first come to Ireland in 1610, was born a Burton, a second son. The Conyngham, his mother’s name, came later when he decided in 1781 to adopt it by royal licence. Little is known about his childhood. He went to Cambridge University when he was 17. A few years later, during the mid 1750s, he set off on the regulation European Grand Tour and had his portrait painted in Rome by the great Anton Raphael Mengs. The work, depicting a soft -faced if determined young man, is in the Paul J Getty museum in Los Angeles.

At 26, he secured a commission in an elite regiment. He was also becoming politically active and was MP for his uncle’s borough of Newtown Limavady which he represented from 1761 until 1776. He then became MP for Clare which, aside from a period between 1783 and 1790 when he switched his attention to Killybegs, Donegal, he served until his death at the age of 63.

William Burton Conyngham is one of Ireland’s many forgotten heroes. The vital part he played in consolidating the story of Irish field monuments, from dolmens to castles, has been largely forgotten. His project was the first national archaeological inventory and he had begun commissioning artists including Gabriel Beranger (c.1729- 1817) and the American Henry Pelham (1749-1806) to draw Ireland’s ancient monuments, some 50 years before the Ordnance Survey began its work in 1824. His legacy has been now retrieved, quite brilliantly, by Dr Peter Harbison in a comprehensive monograph, William Burton Conyngham and his Irish Circle of Antiquarian Artists, published by Yale University Press.

Not only does this book place Burton Conyngham in context, it also brings together the works of the various artists commissioned by him, and features sites as they then looked, as well as some which no longer exist.

Nowadays, most mentions of Slane Castle in Co Meath are in connection with rock concerts. Yet from 1772 onwards Burton Conyngham lived in the castle. A talented watercolourist in his own right, it was his idea to despatch the Huguenot Beranger and the Italian theatre designer Angelo Maria Bigari to Connacht in 1779 on an archaeological sketching tour. They were away for 72 days during a sweltering summer which included getting lost in a bog and the various delays caused by Bigari’s inept horsemanship. Harbison’s informative and entertaining account of that journey was published by Wordwell in 2001.

Another Burton Conyngham artist was his protégé, the Co Tipperary-born tax collector, Austin Cooper (1759-1830) whose story was told, again by Harbison in Cooper’s World (O’Brien Press, 2000). Before this, Harbison had published three books on Beranger’s work in Ireland. After Beranger’s death in 1817, he was forgotten until Sir William Wilde, surgeon and gentleman antiquarian, began a biography but died before its completion, leaving it to be finished by his widow Speranza. The Burton Conyngham monograph is the culmination of 20 years of investigative research by Harbison, including tracking down the Cooper collection in Northamptonshire. That collection, consisting of more than 100 works by Beranger, Bigari and others, had originally formed part of the Burton Conyngham collection purchased by Austin Cooper in 1810. Following his visit to the home of the ninth generation of Austin Coopers, Harbison persuaded Pat Donlon, the then director of the National Library to acquire the collection.

Burton Conyngham was singular; committed, energetic and known to be difficult. He founded the Hibernian Antiquarian Society (1779 -1783), a forerunner of the Royal Irish Academy. Having welcomed architect James Gandon to Slane as his guest, he later fell out with him apparently because he had not been consulted about the site for the Four Courts. He could be peevish, but such minor personality tics are easily forgiven given his visionary contribution to Irish heritage.


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