The artist as a young man
Thomas Roberts’s talent and technique were subtle, but they’re amply celebrated in a new exhibition and book
ALTHOUGH HE WAS only 28 when he died, and suffered during much of his adult life from tuberculosis, Thomas Roberts (1748-1777) was a remarkably productive artist and is regarded by many as the finest Irish landscape painter of the 18th century. That wasn’t always so, and even now not everyone would agree, but at least you have a chance to form your own opinion if you visit the National Gallery of Ireland’s current exhibition, which features about 50 of his works, many of them drawn from private collections. The show coincides with the publication of a major new book on Roberts, and the exhibition grew out of the book, which has been three years in the making.
Its authors are William Laffan and Brendan Rooney, who also curated the exhibition and, not surprisingly, they rate Roberts highly. All the evidence suggests that his work was valued and much sought after during his lifetime. He gained the backing of some of the highest ranking people in Ireland, yet his reputation doesn’t seem to have survived his demise. Rehabilitation commenced only in the 1970s, when the late, unfailingly perceptive Michael Wynne focused his attention on Roberts and organised an exhibition, comprising 16 works, in the National Gallery. His interest was echoed by Anne Crookshank and the knight of Glin. Their compendious volume Ireland’s Paintersmanaged to attribute about 40 paintings to Roberts. The efforts of Laffan and Rooney have upped the tally to 64.
There is only one known portrait of Roberts, a pastel by Hugh Douglas Hamilton. It’s thought he was about 21 when it was made. He looks open, intelligent and good natured, with the hint of a smile playing about his mouth. More than once he included tiny depictions of himself in his own paintings. There’s a sense of mischief to his account of himself as an artist at work, painting the Casino at Marino in Dublin in the open air, something that, Laffan and Rooney say, almost certainly did not happen; he would have made small sketchbook studies and worked up the painting in the studio.
Although based in Dublin throughout his professional life, Roberts was born in Waterford. His father was the respected architect John Roberts – he designed two cathedrals in the city and many houses in the region – and his mother was Mary Susannah Sautelle. It was a large family. His brother, Thomas Sautelle, also became an artist. Roberts attended the Dublin Society Drawing Schools. He developed fast, and was only 18 when he first exhibited with the Society of Artists in Ireland. The first room in the show features two early works together with pieces by his teachers – John Butts and George Mullins – and mature contemporaries. It must, Laffan and Rooney note, have been a bit galling for the masters that the student so quickly surpassed them. They’re not serious, though, pointing out that that Roberts actually remained on warm terms with his instructors, and that Mullins was a mentor as much as a teacher. All were part of a relatively small group of Irish landscape painters who knew each other and exhibited together.
It’s as well to note that the current exhibition, significant and welcome as it is, inevitably takes its tone from the generally muted, subdued nature of Roberts’s work. While he shared a contemporary taste for the incorporation of picturesque mountain torrents and waterfalls in his paintings, he was judiciously naturalistic in his palette, favouring earth hues and subtle tonality, and was inclined towards classically serene compositions. There is a sobriety to many of his paintings that could be mistaken for dullness. In terms of incident and anecdote, the human presence is miniaturised in the context of broad expanses of carefully detailed terrain that quickly recede to far horizon lines.
Subtle as his virtues may be, however, they are there. He was clearly an exceptionally capable, intelligent painter and was responsive, for example, to the restless, shifting nature of Irish light falling across the landscape. More than one observer praised his virtuosity at conveying the vaporous spray of rushing water. He is not generally thought of as a painter of people or animals, but the show includes examples – one previously attributed to his brother, Thomas Sautelle – that suggest he was more than capable in that regard.
He is significant in the history of Irish art for two reasons, Laffan and Rooney argue. One, he opted to live and work in Ireland, unlike the majority of home-grown artists, who emigrated, mostly to London, to advance their careers. Two, he painted the Irish landscape in a distinctive, characteristic way. True, he had to function within a prescriptive system of patronage, but he fared well within it, and found favour with a succession of important clients, including the earl of Ross, viscount Belleisle (at Lough Erne), Lord Charlemont, the Veseys of Lucan Demesne, the Leesons of Russborough House and the Fitzgeralds of Carton House.
ROBERTS ALSO worked within the established pictorial conventions of his time. His output falls easily into three landscape categories: views of demesnes, made for their owners or with their patronage in mind; topographical landscapes; and idealised landscapes. From our point of view, the latter are probably the least interesting. They are virtuosic confections combining a number of standard ingredients, incidentally interesting, but really they don’t tell us that much about Ireland as it was at the time. Even the stone and vegetation in the paintings look as if they have been derived from European models rather than being based on direct observation.
Not that documentation is the only or even the main criterion, but the idealised scenes are, in the end, academic exercises. Laffan and Rooney point out that Roberts incorporated Irish inserts in his ideal landscapes, often in the form of ruins, both monastic and pre-Christian, though not geographically specific. He was picking up on the contemporary interest in antiquarian pursuits, and it might be pushing it to see a nationalist agenda in this iconographic choice.
It’s true that even topographical paintings of the period are compromised in that sense too, because artists were prone to shuffling features around like stage props, inserting thatched cottages and other objects of interest at will to generate a bit of pictorial mood and incident (landscape gardeners repaid the compliment by creating parklands inspired by classical landscape paintings). Nonetheless, Roberts’s topographical studies tend to be accurate and, beginning with several views around Dublin, including Rathfarnham, Clonskeagh and Lucan, they are fascinating documents as well as being fine paintings qua paintings.
A section of the exhibition is laid out to trace an Irish version of the Grand Tour, a route that seems unlikely today but reflected the scenic interests of the time, as outlined by Richard Twiss in his account of a visit to Ireland in 1775. Don’t bother with the Giant’s Causeway, he remarked, and skip the vast majority of the towns.
However, he recommended the countryside around Dublin, including the valley of the Dargle, Powerscourt and the salmon-leap at Leixlip. Then he moved inland to the northwest, where he warmly endorsed Lough Erne and its environs. Lough Erne features in about 15 of Roberts’s known paintings. Belleek, Belturbet and Ballyshannon also feature in significant works by him. His surviving studies of Ballyshannon view the town from upriver and hence miss the most spectacular view of the salmon-leap there (it is no longer a feature of the river), so it’s presumed there was or is at least one more painting of Ballyshannon by him somewhere.
His demesne paintings are crowned by the four large views of Carton in Co Kildare. Roberts handled the large scale with aplomb. He was particularly good at planning series of paintings.
That the four Carton works don’t quite elegantly coordinate has to do, Laffan and Rooney suspect, with the fact that ill health prevented him completing the projected six. The commission was subsequently taken on by William Ashford, who was at pains to distinguish his own work from Roberts’s.
IN AN EFFORT to ameliorate his illness Roberts went to Bath. Apparently he looked better on his return, but he then travelled to Lisbon, setting off in November 1776. Embarking on a lengthy sea voyage in winter, Laffan and Rooney surmise, must have been an act of desperation. He died in Lisbon early in March 1777.
There are probably more paintings by him as yet untraced. Discoveries were made right up to the moment the book went to press.
The almost complete lack of drawings – there’s just one in the show – is perplexing. It’s thought they passed into the possession of Thomas Sautelle, and their fate thereafter is unknown. This exhibition is an important one – there should be more monographic shows of work by Irish artists – and will enhance and consolidate his reputation, at least in an Irish context, though to propose him as an innovator in a European context seems perhaps a little over-ambitious.
Thomas Roberts 1748-1777: 50-plus works by arguably the finest Irish landscape painter of the 18th century. Beit Wing, National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Sq West and Clare St Mon-Sat 9.30am-5.30pm, Thurs 9.30am-8.30pm, Sun noon-5.30pm Until June 28 Admission free 01-6615133
Thomas Roberts: Landscape and Patronage in 18th-Century Ireland, by William Laffan and Brendan Rooney (Churchill House Press for the National Gallery of Ireland) 416pps, 338 illustrations €55