Treasure in a Country Church – Samuel Forde

Recently I stumbled across a reference to paintings that had been moved from Skibbereen Cathedral to a small country church – St Barrahane’s Catholic Church in Castlehaven on the road between Skibbereen and Castletownshend. The paintings were moved because the large church in Skibbereen was undergoing renovation. 

While some records indicate that this may have been in the 1840’s or 1850’s, in fact the more likely date is that they were moved to facilitate the 1881 to 1883 major re-furbishment in the Skibbereen Cathedral in which a semi-circular chancel was built to accommodate the altar, with stained glass windows behind it. However, it is possible that the paintings were not hanging behind the altar, but on a side wall, in which case the date of 1840s would be correct since this was when the side galleries were added. What we do know is that they were painted in 1826 over the course of three days in November.

Forde’s Self-Portrait (Portrait of the Artist). Image: © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Photo: Dara McGrath

We know this from the artist’s diary. And the artist? None other than Samuel Forde, the re-discovered Young Raphael of Cork, who died two years later at the tragically young age of 23. While Forde had never been totally forgotten, he was hardly a household name. But a few years ago, two brilliant young researchers, Michael Waldron and Shane Lordan stopped to contemplate his unfinished masterpiece, Fall of the Rebel Angels, in the Canova Casts Hall in the Crawford Gallery in Cork, and were overwhelmed with a desire to know more about its creator. This led them on a journey they could never have predicted, to curating an exhibition, writing the catalogue for it, and becoming the experts on Samuel Forde.

Sketches by Forde, shown in the Samuel Forde Project blog. The photographs are by Michael Waldron and the sketches are © Crawford Art Gallery

Along the way, they wrote a blog about their discoveries, and I refer you to that blog for their charming and engaging account of their initial encounter with Forde and their growing sense of him as the least-known member of a golden circle of Cork nineteenth century artists, a circle that included Daniel Maclise and John Hogan, preceded and influenced by James Barry. The blog also documents what is known about ‘our boy Sam’ as they came to call him, his life circumstances, his influences and his untimely death. Michael and Shane have also written on Forde for the Irish Arts Review.

A detail from the Fall of the Rebel Angles, from Michael and Shane’s article for the Irish Arts Review, Winter 2013. © Irish Arts Review

Incredibly, the triptych is the only finished painting we know of by Samuel Forde, apart from his self portrait. Most of his other extant work consists of sketches, studies for his Fall of the Rebel Angels, a monochrome ‘bodycolour’ (a type of watercolour) and of course his great but unfinished Fall. We know he painted theatre sets and also ceilings, but none of these have survived.

A Vision of Tragedy by Samuel Forde. This is a mono ‘bodycolour’ and may have been designed for a theatre wall or ceiling. Read more about it here. It is reproduced with permission, © Victoria and Albert Museum

The triptych was commissioned by the church in Skibbereen, who asked another painter to do it. But that painter was more comfortable with miniatures, so passed on the commission to Forde, who produced it in one enormous and sustained burst of energy, using the skills he had acquired as a theatrical set painter working with distemper.

The central scene is the Crucifixion, flanked by Mary on the left and Patrick on the right. The Crucifixion is assured and emotive, depicting Christ on the cross with the Three Mary’s (his mother, her sister Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene – based on John 19:25). The Virgin Mary has collapsed into the arms of her sister, while Mary Magdalene weeps at Jesus’s feet.

To their right is a figure that is interpreted as John, although John is usually depicted as young and smooth-faced. This figure, however, is bearded, elderly, and strikingly apparelled in a turban and long red robe. Perhaps Forde’s influence here is one of Tintoretto’s Crucifixions, in which a similarly turbaned figure is presented.

In looking for a possible model for the turbaned figure in Forde’s Crucifixion, I came across this Tintoretto. We know that Forde as a boy studied and copied classical paintings from books of prints 

The Mary painting on the left shows her as she is in the crucifixion scene, but with a crescent moon and a snake under her feet. The snake represents evil, of course, and is a common element of Marian imagery – take a look at the next grotto or church statue of Mary that you come across. The moon is from Revelations 12:1And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. This is the same verse, by the way, that describes the fall of the angels – a subject that was to occupy Forde as he worked on his great unfinished canvass.

 

St Patrick is shown in his episcopal robes, with snakes slithering away, carrying his crozier and wearing his bishop’s mitre. Close examination of the canvass reveals that the Mary and Patrick paintings were intended to to be framed as ovals (as with his self-portrait) rather than rectangular. They were, apparently, conserved in the 1970s but look as if they may need some attention again.

What a treasure to discover in a small country church! If Samuel Forde had lived there is no doubt his career would have been as illustrious as that of his contemporaries Maclise and Hogan. Michael and Shane hope that more of his works will turn up in the future. Meanwhile, you can view Fall of the Rebel Angels in the recently and marvellously revamped Canova Gallery at the Crawford, and marvel that in quiet Castlehaven, by a series of circumstances, there exists such a testament to the Young Raphael of Cork.

 

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