Views from the Big House


Eileen Battersby looks at a remarkable book that captures a long-lost rural Irish landscape through almost 200 paintings

It is a painting that tells the story of a busy market day. A stagecoach is either arriving or leaving. The upper floor of the courthouse dominates the small town scene. Dogs are squaring up to each other. The wealthy, or more probably, gentry, move among the poor who are desperate to sell their wares.

The setting is rural and it could almost be a scene from an Austen novel poised to come to life when the characters begin to move. The period is right. But this is not Austen's Regency England. It is Ennis, Co Clare, as painted in 1820 by an English painter William Turner de Lond. To study it is to explore a chapter of 19th-century Irish social history brought to life.

De Lond's vibrant, detailed reading of the scene provides layers of insight to the Ireland of its time. De Lond was an outsider but he was alert to social nuance, down to the rules governing the sale of hens in a public thoroughfare. This eloquent painting belongs to an inspired collection assembled over the past 30 years by Desmond Guinness, Knight of Glin, president of the Irish Georgian Society, and now active on the advisory committee of the recently established Irish Heritage Trust. This new body, formally announced last September, is a charity seeking membership and sponsors. It has a wide brief; the preservation of the landscape as well as protecting the built heritage and vernacular architecture in all its diversity, represented by great houses, small dwellings, original farm buildings, courtyards, pubs, churches, old petrol stations, bridges and so on.

Close on 200 works in the Glin collection have been gathered together in an exciting volume, Painting Ireland, an art book edited by William Laffan that reads as an extraordinarily multifaceted history. The theme is landscape, the thesis is a sense of place and the brilliantly sourced insights, anecdotes, formal art criticism and biographical detail offered by a multidisciplinary team of experts including art historians, archaeologists, architectural historians and social historians. They include Peter Harbison, Brendan Rooney, Finola O'Kane and others, at times deferring to antiquarians of the past, who explain the process by which places evolve, flourish, decline and, in many instances, disappear.

The Huguenot painter Gabriel Beranger, although criticised by the antiquarian Col Vallancey for making drawings "disfigured by . . . embellishment, a propision to daubing which injured the truth and perspective of the original", has long been defended by Harbison who regards Beranger as an important witness. In his stimulating introduction to the book, William Laffan quotes Harbison who has argued that Beranger's works "give us an insight into the state of historic monuments in the 18th century and, even more significantly, his watercolours include the only visual records we have of some of them which have since disappeared almost without trace."

The title, Painting Ireland - Topographical Views from Glin Castle may sound somewhat localised; and the book's appearance - handsome coffee table at its most splendid - may suggest that this is yet another celebration of the Irish Great House, that enduringly ambivalent symbol of tyrannical wealth reduced by political self-assertion. Yet this wonderful book - which should, incidentally, be purchased by every school in the State - is a serious, informed commentary that looks to the great houses and to the far wider world of the military, the church, once mighty castles reduced to deserted skeletons standing in fields, rural peasantry, the beggars in the street and the poor, neither idealised nor romanticised although there are some lyric exceptions such as a lovely quasi-Impressionistic watercolour of Scattery Island in Co Clare, while other works have a near-forensic quality.

THIS IS THE way to teach Irish social history. It is a book about the past, not about privilege. Antiquarianism and military draughtsmanship have been central to the topographical tradition. Ownership was one reason for having a home painted. Artists were commissioned by proud owners intent on leaving a statement. Other artists, professional as well as talented amateur, simply painted what they saw out of interest or pleasure, or both.

Painting Ireland is, most importantly, a record of what remains, what has been lost and what it once looked like as well as the imaginations and ambitions which created it.

Never has the cautionary polemic of conservation and preservation been as elegantly presented with such balanced conviction, scholarship and stories of lives lived - and all from a diverse collection of largely 18th- and 19th-century works with a few 20th-century figures such as the great Derek Hill - represented by Sligo Bog, a moody oil of Ben Bulben in a cold yellowish light created by sun filtering through thick cloud - and Louis le Brocquy, whose delicate watercolour is one of several included studies of Glin Castle and was obviously executed as a gift to mark a visit there.

Le Brocquy's is a personal work and contrasts with the many more obviously historically-based studies such as Welland's mid-19th-century detailed view of Cahir Castle and Bridge. Considering the origins of this castle date back to a 3rd-century fort, the theme of landscape in evolution is well served by its inclusion. Cahir Castle survives as the finest example of a 15th-century castle, while many similarly important buildings and monuments have been lost.

Commenting on a pair of sepia washes featuring cromlechs attributed to a follower of George Petrie, Peter Harbison remarks: "The Shankill Cromlech is likely to have belonged to a different class of megalith known as a wedge tomb, but we will never know for certain, as it was destroyed more than 150 years ago". The decline of buildings is captured by Claudia Kinmouth who writes in a piece accompanying two attractive watercolours of Ballylin House and avenue in Co Offaly by the talented Mary Ward (1827-1869): "The scene at Ballylin today is the all too familiar one of a wasted demesne landscape. Barely enough remains to hint at the former character: a few isolated trees, intermittent stretches of broken demesne wall, fine ashlar gate piers announcing vaguely recognisable gate lodges and a group of outbuildings clinging to the walls of the former gardens - the latter now used as rather elaborately bounded pastures. The site of the 18th-century house lies buried under a silage pit."

An advertisement in Faulkner's Dublin Journal on April 2nd, 1757, offered part of Ballylin's demesne lands, then in the possession of Lucy Armstrong, and consisting of 160 acres, to be let, along with the dwelling house, stabling for 16 horses, a large orchard and a walled garden. "Four years later," writes Kinmouth, "it was advertised again - this time for sale." It was purchased by John King and so began a long association with the King family, which lasted until 1936 when the demesne was sold and it became an intensive farming operation. The house was abandoned "and eventually unroofed to avoid rates". By 1947, the house was demolished and the stones were "dumped in amongst the foundations of the local power station". Before this sad end, however, the house had been painted by Mary Ward, the gifted youngest child of the Rev Henry King who had inherited the property in 1821. His wife was Harriette Lloyd, sister of Alice Lloyd, mother of the astronomer 3rd Earl of Rosse. Young Mary Ward was also interested in science and "shared the experience of building the Leviathan, the great telescope at Birr, between 1842 and 45". Mary Ward died abruptly in 1869, when she fell from Lord Rosse's steam engine and was crushed. According to Kinmouth, Mary Ward's brother "is understood to have replied irascibly to Lord Rosse's announcement of her death: 'you killed her, you bury her'."

The many interests and technical versatility of Nathaniel Grogan (c.1740-1807),are represented by various works such as his idyllic view of Castle Hyde on the River Blackwater in Co Cork. The 19th-century building painted by him is but one of a succession of houses to stand on the spot. The seat of the Hyde family, it was the home of Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League and first president of Ireland. Its current owner is dancer Michael Flatley, who has initiated a controversial refurbishment. In the entry accompanying another Grogan work, Study of a Farm Building, some biographical information explains that the artist, denied encouragement in his native Cork, enlisted in the British army and travelled to America and to the West Indies, returning to Ireland after the American War of Independence.

British naval officer Edmund Augustus Porcher's modest watercolour of a small country church may be easy to pass over - but don't - it is St Colman's Cathedral, in Cloyne, Co Cork, still in use and once served by Bach's great contemporary, George Berkeley, philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne from 1733 until 1752, shortly before his death in Oxford the following year.

WILLIAM TURNER DE Lond, identified by Desmond Guinness as the book went to press as the artist of George IV at College Green, a painting of the king's visit to Dublin in 1821, catches the atmosphere of that occasion. The picture is great theatre and vivid social history, and provides the book's cover. It is also the subject of an excellent essay by Laffan who refers to its "great sense of actuality" and "feeling of direct reportage".

From gentleman antiquarian Col William Burton (later Conyngham) to Susanna Drury, the 18th-century pioneering artist who painted the Giant's Causeway, to architect Francis Johnston, artist William Brocas and evocative watercolourist Mildred Anne Butler, the landscape of Ireland from each of the provinces; images, stories, lives lived and entire social worlds lost forever yet remaining alive to all who view these eclectic topographical views combining to evoke the legacy celebrated and explored throughout Painting Ireland.

• Painting Ireland - Topographical Views from Glin Castle, edited by William Laffan, is published by Churchill Press (€45)