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.

As teacher, boarding-house manager and artist, Evans was a busy man. While his work is very competent, he did not pretend to any great originality as an artist. Immediately prior to going to work at Eton, he was a student of the then well-known landscape and genre painter William Collins. The father of novelist Wilkie Collins, William Collins was extremely popular for much of the 19th century. His work evidences both topographical precision and a fondness for sentimental narrative vignettes, the latter going down very well with the Victorian audience, so that the prices of his paintings remained high even long after his death in 1847.

Both these features can be found in Evans’s work, though he is much lighter on sentiment and whimsy that Collins or, for that matter, another painter associated with the west of Ireland at the time, Frederic William Burton. Burton is thought to have based his celebrated watercolour The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child, painted in 1841, on life in Claddagh rather than out on the islands.

Evans’s many studies of individual figures tend to be matter-of-fact, far less dramatic than Burton’s. Still, in terms of colour and composition it feels as if he is slightly exoticising Galway, giving it a Mediterranean flavour. On the other hand, photographs taken over the following 70 or 80 years confirm many details of his depictions in terms of costume and topography. He excels at the landscape further west, the sprawl of mountains and bogland and the restless, watery light.

He is an attentive, scrupulous observer of the texture and atmosphere of the place, conveying a sense of extreme beauty allied with inhospitable desolation. Collectively his watercolours, both the fast, fragmentary sketches and more considered, finished pieces, amount to a valuable snapshot of a familiar place in another time.

Pictorial conventions
Evans functioned within the pictorial conventions of his time, as people tend to do, now no less than then. From Galway to Leenane incorporates a strand by contemporary artist Wendy Judge, who has a long-term interest in questions about virtual travel and authentic experience. Her intricate drawings of mountainous terrain are accompanied by three-dimensional models, landscapes in miniature that we are invited to experience as “real” by viewing them through optical aids. Perhaps there is an equivalence to our being at one remove in different senses from the virtual now, and the depicted past.

From Galway to Leenane: Perceptions of Landscape is at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin until September 29th. See nationalgallery.ie

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