Drawing ahead – An Irishman’s Diary on writer and painter Samuel Lover
Samuel Lover: Self-portrait in pencil. Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London
‘Poet, painter, novelist and composer, who, in the exercise of a genius as distinguished in its versatility as in its power, by his pen and pencil [he] illustrated so happily the characteristics of the peasantry of his country that his name will ever be honourably identified with Ireland.” So states a memorial plaque in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, to Samuel Lover who died 150 years ago on July 6th.
To what extent his name is honourably identified with Ireland today, or even indeed to what extent it is remembered at all, are moot points. Later generations of nationalists accused him of creating that egregious creature, “the stage Irishman”, for the amusement of English audiences.
Lover was born at 60 Grafton Street in February 1797 and went to a school run by Samuel Whyte at what is today Bewley’s café. His father was a member of the Irish stock exchange. The boy showed an early aptitude for music and art and was a childhood prodigy in both. He entered his father’s office at 13 but music, drawing and theatre were of much greater interest to him than business, much to his father’s disapproval.
By 18, differences with his father led to his being disinherited. With his mother’s help, he struggled for a few years, studying music and painting. He was fortunate to attract the help of John Comerford, one of the leading miniaturists of the day. Lover’s own miniatures soon won attention at the Royal Hibernian Academy’s (RHA) annual exhibitions and gained him important patronage; by the late 1820s, he was secretary of the RHA.
He continued to pursue his musical interests during this period, contributing songs and stories to various Dublin magazines. One of these songs, Rory O’More, proved very popular in both Britain and Ireland. Many more similar songs followed (eg, Widow Machree and Molly Carew) – lively, humorous and often about love and courtship. He composed some 300 songs in all; a few, such as Molly Bawn and The Four-Leaved Shamrock, are probably still known.
Rory O’More and Andy Rooney have been seen as stage Irishmen and Lover was criticised for creating them
His miniature of Paganini, exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, in 1833, brought his artistic talent to the attention of the English public and he moved to London the following year. However, it was not as a painter but as a songwriter and novelist that he was to become well known in Britain. He moved in the foremost literary and artistic circles in London and was involved in the literary magazine Bentley’s Miscellany with Charles Dickens.
He had already published Legends and Stories of Ireland in 1831. Rory O’More, originally a song, became a popular novel in 1836, and an even more popular novel, Handy Andy, followed in 1842. It was to prove his most enduringly popular work. The main character is anything but “handy” (“Andy Rooney was a fellow who had the most singularly ingenious knack of doing everything the wrong way”) and the broadly humorous tale, set among the Irish gentry and their tenants in the first half of the 19th century, follows his blundering misadventures.
Rory O’More and Andy Rooney have been seen as stage Irishmen and Lover was criticised for creating them. No doubt the criticism is justified but Lover could be seen as having genuine – if condescending – affection for them and they do emerge triumphant in the end. WB Yeats defended him in this regard, saying that his characters had been the cause of much misconception and that the fault lay more with the readers who assumed they were representative than with the author who created them.
Perhaps because he did so many things so well, he failed to be pre-eminent in any of them
Lover toured Britain and America with his “Irish Evenings”, a mixture of poems, songs and sketches. These proved enormously popular and made him some money but the touring probably took a toll on his health. He also wrote plays, a comic opera, further non-fiction and reverted to painting in his later years. Due to failing health, he spent his final four years in Jersey, where he died at Saint Helier.
Perhaps because he did so many things so well, he failed to be pre-eminent in any of them, as the Athenaeum said about him, but it paid him the following glowing tribute: “[He] passed so softly and unassumingly along the various paths of life trodden by him that nobody was offended, and as he trod on nobody’s heels, and no one had especially to get out of his way, he created no jealousy. He seemed to communicate his own sweet temperament to all around him and . . . had no enemy secretly or publicly.”