Art in Focus: The Sphinx Half in Shadow and Chephren Pyramid, Giza, Egypt’ by Nathaniel Hone the younger

What was the secret of Nathaniel Hone’s Sphinx?

The Sphinx Half in Shadow and Chephren Pyramid, Giza, Egypt (1892), Nathaniel Hone the Younger (1831-1917) Graphite and watercolour on paper.Photograph: National Gallery of Ireland

What is it? The Sphinx Half in Shadow and Chephren Pyramid, Giza, Egypt is a watercolour by Nathaniel Hone the younger (1831-1917), one of the most significant Irish landscape painters of his time.

How was it done? It is one of two watercolours of the subject painted by Hone on his visit to Egypt in 1892, and compositionally the closest to his larger oil painting, The Sphinx. It is also atmospherically truer, a direct and economically stated account of the eroded monument in the afternoon light. The critic James Thompson pointed out that his one contrivance was to increase the relative size of the pyramid given the viewpoint. Hone was a brilliant and prolific watercolourist, though he modestly referred to them as "only studies". More than 300 were included in the Hone Bequest, numbering over 500 works in all, gifted to the gallery two years after the artist's death by his widow Magdalene.

Where can I see it? It is included in Nathaniel Hone: Travels of a Landscape Artist, a display of Hone's work curated by Sarah McAuliffe in The Hugh Lane Room, the National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square, Dublin until December 1st. As the title suggests, the selection aims to highlight Hone away from home.

Is it a typical work by the artist? Its brisk immediacy is typical of his watercolour approach, though as regards subject matter Hone was more likely to be found on his home ground in Malahide in north Dublin than in Egypt. He spent a good deal of time in France earlier in his life but his lengthy journey to the Mediterranean in 1892-93 was exceptional.


Hone was not, as one might expect, a direct descendent of Nathaniel Hone the Elder (1718-1784), artist and founder member of the Royal Academy. His lineage extends back through a younger brother of that Nathaniel, Brindley, a Dublin merchant (the Hone family history is extremely complicated and closely interlinked). The younger Nathaniel quit engineering studies aged 21 and headed to Paris to paint, in time moving on to Barbizon, a centre of landscape painting. When he eventually returned to Ireland, in 1872, as an accomplished painter, he married and settled in Malahide.

Like Roderic O'Conor, Hone was in the fortunate position of being free from financial pressures. Though known and respected by his peers, and a frequent exhibitor at the RHA and elsewhere, he was able to follow his own artistic inclinations, which he did, tirelessly. While he was not quite a minimalist, his artistic instinct was counter to many prevailing trends. He clearly liked to avoid or downplay many of the prevalent pictorial conventions. Take his landscape, The Bog at Erris, comprising land, sky, a horizontal division and a pool of water, a work so stark it is some way towards Mark Rothko or Sean McSweeney. Hone did that again and again: take a standard landscape subject and get rid of any dramatic clutter, bringing it back to essentials, something that disconcerted many observers. Equally, his many forest studies tend towards being all-over, textural compositions.