A Medieval High Cross – Out of Place

I was intrigued by this advertisement in the current edition of the Irish Arts Review (March – May 2020). Morgan O’Driscoll is based in Skibbereen, West Cork and specialises in Irish art. Paul Henry (1876 – 1958) fought an uphill battle in his own lifetime to get his work recognised. In 1911 Paul Henry and his wife Grace exhibited in Leinster Hall, Dublin. One critic commented that the Henrys: ‘ . . . seldom rise above the dead level of mediocrity and too often fall below it . . . ‘  In that exhibition was a work, The Potato Diggers: it didn’t sell until the 1930s. In 2013 it was included in a sale by James Adams & Sons, Dublin – and fetched €400,000! Just a decade ago, a Paul Henry might have been expected to sell for a few thousand – now, 40 years after his death, he’s a star!

Paul Henry painted by his wife Grace in 1899

So why am I intrigued by the O’Driscoll advertisement? Take another look – the title of the painting is given as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg. I have taken an interest in Irish medieval High Crosses, and published a few articles on them in this Journal. In particular, this one – The Wonders of Monasterboice. Here’s a couple of photos from that post: the left one is an image of the west face of Muiredach’s Cross taken in the early years of the twentieth century – when the carving appears to be more clearly defined than it is today – and on the right is Finola, giving scale to the same cross just a couple of years ago. This cross – named after Abbot Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923AD – is one of the finest in the country, standing 5.5 metres tall.

Looking at a detail from the Paul Henry painting (above), there is a remarkable similarity between the ‘Lough Derg’ cross and Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice. So – I hear you suggest – are they twins? Not exactly: in fact, through the medium of painting, one cross can be in two places at once! There is no ‘Celtic Cross’ at Lough Derg, so our artist has taken Muiredach’s Cross and placed it in his picture. Why?

At this point I can’t resist showing you this antiquarian drawing of Muiredach’s Cross (above), probably dating from the eighteenth century, although I haven’t been able to find the author of it. It’s fascinating that all the elements of the cross are portrayed: the central figure in the roundel – presumably Christ – the various figures on the  panels above and below and on either side, and the two cats on the base looking very much like comfortable fireside moggies. But look how all the images have become stylised: medieval has been transported to Georgian neo-classical!

Baccanale – an example of a 1782 copperplate engraving by Marco Carloni, Rome

Before we explain Paul Henry’s stretching of the truth, let’s consider something else: there are a few Lough Dergs in the country, but the most famous – and the one most likely to be depicted by an artist who is showing off Ireland might be Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, which I covered in this post, also from two years ago.

Lough Derg, showing the pilgrimage site of Station island, and the surrounding landscape

It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to see the setting of Lough Derg, with its fairly low-lying hills, in the background of Paul Henry’s painting. And where is that little tower house on the spit of land behind the ‘Celtic Cross’? Well – maybe it’s here:

This painting by Paul Henry is known as Grace O’Malley’s Castle: it is picturesquely situated at Kildavnet, in the south-east corner of Achill Island, County Mayo, which Paul and Grace first visited in 1910. So inspired were they by the landscape and the apparently idyllic simple way of life that they remained on Achill for a decade. Here’s another view of the O’Malley castle by Paul Henry:

So the ‘Celtic Cross at Lough Derg’ is, in fact, a medieval high cross from Monasterboice, County Louth, and it is set against the stunning scenery of Achill, County Mayo. We can’t blame Morgan O’Driscoll (or anyone else who can be identified) for giving the painting a misleading name. It seems that originally the work was just titled ‘Celtic Cross’: here are some insights from Paul Henry’s biographer, Brian Kennedy, in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 1989 / 1990 –

. . . Henry was egocentric and occasionally used artistic licence with historical facts in the same way he might have done in a painted composition . . .

. . . In 1917 the Irish Times thought he was developing a decorative treatment of the landscape whereby his imagery was not realistic but was symbolically Irish . . .

And the following is from Paul Henry: With a Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, by S B Kennedy, Paul HenryYale University Press, 2007: it tells us that the painting was clearly known as ‘Celtic Cross’ in 1924, and was in the collection of Seán T O’Kelly, Ireland’s second President (between  June 1945 and June 1959). When sold by Adams in 1984 the painting had acquired the additional wording . . . at Lough Derg . . .

. . . 611 Celtic Cross 1924. Oil on board 24 x 22 (61 x 56). Signed ‘PAUL HENRY’ . . .

Private collection. Prov: Sean T O’Kelly; sale, Adams, Dublin 19 July 1984. Lot 86, as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg, repr. Irish Travel, vol 7, no 10, June 1937 repr. on front cover. Almost certainly a composite composition . . .

As with most artists – who need to earn a living – Paul Henry willingly accepted commissions. He was successful in selling ‘popular’ work to railway companies and the Irish Tourist Association (above – 1920s and 30s).

A “Lough Derg” design is mentioned in the Railway Company’s letter (above). Below is another – for British Railways: this is more likely to be the Lough Derg on the Shannon.

Has this helped to unravel the enigma of Paul Henry’s Celtic Cross at Lough Derg? Whether or not you are convinced, I’m sure you would like to have the painting hanging on your wall – me too! Although it would be so much better if it could go permanently into a public collection The sale is coming up in April . . .

 

4 thoughts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.