The Parnell with the hidden talent

Anna Parnell, sister of Charles Stewart Parnell and leader of the Ladies' Land League, was also a superb artist, and three unsigned…

Anna Parnell, sister of Charles Stewart Parnell and leader of the Ladies' Land League, was also a superb artist, and three unsigned oil paintings may well be her work, writes Andrea McTigue

Anna Parnell (1852-1911) is best known as leader of the Ladies' Land League, which was active between 1880 and 1882. It helped tenants and prisoners, and during the jail terms of Anna's brother Charles Stewart Parnell as well as others, the women ran the affairs of the Land League.

According to Michael Davitt, Charles Stewart Parnell, on getting out of prison, was unhappy to find that tenants' affairs were in the control of the Ladies' Land League. He determined to put an end to it, believing it was overspending. He did not approve of its methods of dealing with land agitation problems. Davitt thought Charles's stern treatment of the Ladies' Land League at this stage was one of the greatest blunders of his political career.

Anna didn't speak to her brother again after their disagreement over the Ladies' Land League. For her, the Kilmainham Treaty, reached between Charles and the British government in 1882, was a betrayal. She defended him, however, during the leadership controversy after the O'Shea divorce case. The disbandment of the Ladies' Land League and the disagreement between Charles and Anna circuitously brought her back to art.


After some years in Ireland, she went to England and lived as a recluse, becoming involved in only a few public campaigns, such as the attempted political candidature in North Camberwell of her friend Helen Taylor, stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill. Anna also campaigned for the Sinn Féin North Leitrim general election candidate Charles J. Dolan in 1908, when she was pelted with eggs. Apart from such forays, she appears to have spent her time writing and painting.

The three Parnell children took after their artistic American mother, Delia Parnell. Both Fanny and Anna studied art. Anna gained a certificate from the Dublin Art School at the Royal Dublin Society in 1875. Their brother, John, was a competent painter, but, it seems, not in the same league as Anna. Both Katharine Tynan and T.D. Sullivan state in their memoirs that Anna was a painter of great skill. So where is the evidence today of Anna's artistic talent?

In 1874, aged just 22, Anna showed an oil painting, Household Cares, at an exhibition of the Society of British Artists at the Suffolk Street Galleries in London. She gave her address as 22 Lower Pembroke Street, Dublin. The painting was priced 10 guineas. In 1874/75 she exhibited Peep o' Day at the same society, priced £10. Her address was then 32 Chapel Street, Park Lane, London. The present location of these paintings is unknown.

I recently viewed three unsigned oil paintings which seem most likely to be the work of Anna Parnell. A strong reason for accepting Anna as the artist is that the owner's family believes them to be by "a sister of Charles Stewart Parnell". The owner's ancestors had Land League and Ladies' Land League connections and, presumably through this link with the Parnells, the paintings came into their possession in the latter part of the 19th century.

If it is true that the paintings are by a sister of Parnell, and there is no good reason to doubt this, the paintings should be attributed to Anna because she is the Parnell sister who most devoted herself to painting. She left art to one side only for politics. The only other Parnell sister who would be in the running as the artist would be Fanny, but her connection with art was relatively early. Unlike Anna, to our knowledge she never exhibited and in any event, she left Ireland well before the Ladies' Land League period.

During 1881 and 1882 Anna travelled throughout Ireland, giving lectures and helping families faced with eviction. Since Charles used to stay with the family to whom the paintings were given, it is quite likely Anna stayed in that house too. One painting is unfinished, suggesting she may have meant to finish it at the Kildare location. Events may have intervened to prevent its completion. Clearly, in the absence of authenticated paintings by Anna, the evidence that these three Kildare paintings are by her, although convincing, is still only circumstantial.

There is a family likeness between the subjects of at least two of the paintings. In them, young women are portrayed. The woman in the slightly pre-Raphaelite looking portrait (above top left) is painted against a green background, which appears to be an exterior wall. She is wearing a rose-coloured garment with a cream scarf around her neck. She has long dark hair, a long nose, and beautifully-shaped lips. Her face is meditative; there is a slightly mystical look about her. The eyes, like the hair, are dark, lustrous and striking.

Some ivy leaves are trailing from the wall, falling in a pre-Raphaelite fashion over the sitter's shoulder. The presence of the ivy must be deliberate. The woman's hairstyle evokes the 1870s. If that period attribution is correct, then the sitter is likely to be Fanny Parnell. Anna studied art in the Royal Dublin Society's Schools of Drawing between 1870 and 1874, and after that in South Kensington. In Anna's Dublin art school period, Fanny was in her early- to mid-20s. It would have been a great honour for the Kildare family to receive as a present a portrait of Fanny painted by her sister Anna. Fanny's name was already known to nationalists from her rousing poems which started appearing in 1864 when she was 15. From 1882 and into the 20th century she had the status of a cult figure, particularly in the US. Anna was a household name, and her actions and speeches were reported in the international press. The ivy leaf came to be associated with Charles only after his funeral in 1891, so its presence in the portrait (whether it is of Fanny or not) is an extraordinary coincidence.

In the second portrait, the blue-eyed young woman is depicted outdoors and is wearing a straw hat with lilac fabric trim with the brim turned back. The hat gives her a theatrical look. She has clearly-defined features with intense, prominent, luminous, blue eyes and a somewhat retroussé nose. Her simple dress has a white ruffle inserted around the neck. In the background, on the left, is a white building with a window showing high up under the roof and on the right, a garden fence is visible. It suggests a farm or other provincial house. On the woman's right is a village and in the distance are two buildings, one of which is painted pink.

The third picture, which appears unfinished, depicts three children, who seem to be in a barn, outhouse or storeroom. The background is painted a fairly strong dark green. The blue-eyed girl with the lilac hat from the second painting bears an uncanny resemblance to the figure on the right of the third painting. The two figures are similar in all respects, except that the girl in the third painting is much younger and has brown, not blue eyes. Perhaps the eye colour was to be changed at a later date. The high shoulders on her dress suggest a dating in the 1890s. She is wearing a wide-brimmed sun-hat and a double string of coloured beads around her neck.

Beside her are two other children. The middle one has abundant long reddish-brown hair under a straw sun-hat. Her dress has a kind of wide collar or bib with decorative features. Beside the two girls, a younger child appears on the lower left-hand side of the painting. This child's largish face is not fully in the picture and it is not clear if this is a boy or a girl.

The children are facing a wooden surface such as a table, but on the left hand side is a wooden object like a beam or a piece of furniture or equipment. This has a strange effect on the viewer's assimilation of the painting. It is like a foreign object placed between the viewer and the figures. The children are pensive, with very expressive eyes. Only the small child is looking directly, and most engagingly, at the viewer.

On the table-like structure, which isnot finished, there is a squiggle. It is a circle painted in a different colour to the rest of the picture. It has a yellow rim and the outline of two eyes is painted in the circle. This whole left-hand section of the painting is unfinished. On the top right-hand corner of the painting is a monogram, painted like a heart enclosing an unclear yellow half-moon. Both the eyes and this monogram may have been added by another hand, as they are not of the same high standard as the rest of the picture. If the painting is unfinished and both the eyes and the monogram were from the painter's hand, she may have decided that those parts were going to be painted out.

These pictures have a fine sense of colour and line. The facial expressions of the figures are arresting, and there is a slight Renaissance look about the girls' faces. Luckily these paintings escaped the fate of Anna's other works. In 1909, illness prevented her from finishing a number of paintings she had stored in a London warehouse. We don't know what became of them.

As Anna's brother John had terminated the £100 annuity her father had left her, Anna was relatively hard up in the latter part of her life, but she was too proud to accept charity. She must have earned something from her paintings, but we do not know how much. Ill health, genteel poverty, fear of being recognised as a Parnell, and perhaps even a touch of paranoia dogged her footsteps.

Because her paintings are not recognised or authenticated, it is impossible to assess her output or evaluate its quality. She may not have signed her pictures, or if she did, perhaps she used a pseudonym. The paintings described above show considerable talent.

In her last years, Anna wandered from place to place around England, living under assumed names such as Cerisa Palmer. For a time, she settled in Devon and was involved with an artists' group there. She died by drowning at Ilfracombe, in Devon, in 1911, aged 59. Only after her death was it found that the woman called Cerisa Palmer was Anna Parnell.

Andrea McTigue is researching prominent Irish women from 1880-1950s