A history of the Water Colour Society of Ireland provides a collection of moments frozen in time, all connected to a pioneering society and a unique dimension of Irish cultural life
IN A GROUP photograph taken at Lismore Castle in Co Waterford, on a December day in 1870, most of the subjects look discreetly away from the camera; some heads are bowed slightly. A few, however, gaze directly forward. Among them is Henrietta Sophia Phipps, one of the young women painters who established the Amateur Drawing Society, which would, by March 1889 and four name changes later, become known as the Water Colour Society of Ireland. Standing near Phipps and looking determined is Frances Wilmot Currey (1848-1917).
The society’s annual exhibition – the 155th has just finished at the County Hall in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin – is certainly about art but it is also part of the ongoing social and cultural history of this island and most positively testifies to female self-assertion. When the first exhibition opened in Lismore courthouse (now a heritage centre) in May 1871, more than 100 works were on view. “We were not at all aware that there was so much talent,” conceded one reporter.
The art historian Patricia Butler traces its development in a book that was commissioned by the society. Over the years many of Ireland’s major artists, including William Orpen, Sarah Purser, Mildred Anne Butler, Walter Osborne, Paul Henry, Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, Norah McGuinness, Nano Reid, Gerard Dillon and Brigid Ganly, as well as the remarkable Lady Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe (1867-1967) – more of this botanical specialist later – were members. But alongside the famous were the talented amateurs. Watercolour painting and sketching were long considered accomplishments suited to young ladies awaiting marriage and ideal pursuits to enjoy after the husband and family were secured. There was an element of social class and privilege about it, yet there was also talent, as the range of works reproduced in Butler’s book confirms.
A practical motivation lay behind the founding of the society: watercolour artists were considered secondary to their oil-painting counterparts. This seems strange: watercolour is a demanding medium and far less forgiving of the artist than oils. The society, founded by women for women, was also open to men, and, aside from encouraging improvement in standards of art, it aimed to promote a sense of professional identity. By the time of the society’s 10th exhibition, in March 1877, a record 544 exhibits were accepted and hung. Ninety-nine of the exhibiting artists were women; 13 were men. Central to the emerging status of women throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries was their role as artists; most of Ireland’s leading botanical artists were women, invariably self-taught.
The medium was penalised for the versatility that had made it so effective for illuminating ancient sacred manuscripts and, later colouring maps and documents. This small-scale stigma affected attitudes. Despite its long history it was not given serious respect as an artistic medium because of its practicality. When Gabriel Beranger (c1730-1817), whose work in Ireland has been so well chronicled by Dr Peter Harbison, set out recording church sites and field monuments for posterity, he worked in watercolour. Butler records: “One of the areas traditionally associated with water colour is topography.” Beranger’s work was more closely examined by antiquarians than by fellow artists. James Malton (c.1766-1803) would, with his Views of Dublinseries, introduce a narrative element in his depictions of busy streets.
Vital in the establishment of the Water Colour Society of Ireland were the traditions born in sketching and drawing clubs throughout the 19th century. These little groups encouraged the exhibition of work. By the early 19th century techniques in the manufacture of paint had also improved: artists could buy their pigments ready-mixed. What had been tinted drawing in the 18th century moved into colour. The availability of permanent white in 1831 and, within three years, Chinese white helped broaden the palette when mixed with a wide range of new colours. Such advances increased the appeal of these delicate works formerly overshadowed by oil and invariably washed out by the harsh lighting conditions in exhibition spaces.
Although not among the finest works reproduced in the book, it is interesting to see an attractive sunset attributed to the colourful writer of popular songs Percy French (1854-1920). The determined society co-founder Frances Wilmot Currey is shown to have been an accomplished artist with works such as A Bazaar in Tangier(1887), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. An autumnal watercolour, The Gardens at Newtown Anner, Clonmel, Co Tipperary, signed “HP”, is the work of co-founder Henrietta Sophia Phipps. The great Sarah Purser (1848-1943) began exhibiting with the society, then named the Irish Fine Art Society, Butler points out, “as early as 1880”.
Purser’s study of the young WB Yeats also features. It was included in the society’s exhibition of 1899. Apparently Yeats and Purser had several disagreements over it. Yet in 1935 the poet, then 70, asked Purser’s permission to reproduce the portrait in the autobiography he was planning to write. Purser lived a long and active life and became a matriarch of Irish art. A crayon profile study by Lillian Lucy Davidson of Purser in old age, but with still more than 20 years to live, captures her formidable resolve.
Walter Osborne’s powerful yet intimate At a Child’s Bedside, signed 1898 and exhibited at the society’s show of 1901, testifies to the tonal depths of watercolour. Phoebe Donovan (1902-1998), aunt of the poet Katie Donovan, is represented by a peaceful study of water lilies, reeds and a blue boat on Lough Derg, dated 1960. Another distinguished society member was Lillias Mitchell (1915-2000), sister of the polymath Frank Mitchell.
Among the many biographies and profiles included is that of Evie Hone (1894-1955), a member of a major Irish artistic dynasty extending to Nathaniel Hone (1718-1784) and, further back, to an early-16th-century Flemish craftsman and glass artist, Galyon Hone, who, having settled in England, succeeded Henry’s VIII’s glazier, and worked on many projects, including the great East Window of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Hone was already established as a professional painter in oil and watercolour, before turning, at the age of 38, to glass. By the time of her sudden death at the age of 61, she had completed more than 50 stained-glass-window commissions in Ireland and abroad.
Hone and her close friend Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) were proposed and elected to the society on November 20th, 1930. Within eight years Jellett was serving on the society’s committee and also exhibited. Jellett was an original and courageous artist. Her lingering death at 47 caused another friend, the writer Elizabeth Bowen, to remark: “The greatness of Mainie Jellet was to be felt in many ways; but not least in her simplicity.”
It is difficult to pick a typical member, but consider Lady Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe, the botanical artist, who, while living near Rangoon, was invited to create a garden and duly transformed 60 hectares of jungle and marsh into a botanical wonderland. Her orchid paintings capture the plant’s graceful movement. She died two months shy of her century.
So many stories, so many pictures, moments frozen in time; all connected to an intrepid shared vision that shaped a pioneering watercolour society and, with it, a unique dimension of Irish cultural life.
The Silent Companion: An Illustrated History of The Water Colour Society of Irelandby Patricia Butler, published by Antique Collectors’ Club, £45