Painting With Light

What are we seeking right now? If social media is right, it’s distraction. But also beauty, comfort, reassurance… With that in mind, I have created a video slideshow of some of my favourite stained glass windows.

I could have used a totally different selection and perhaps I will do another one sometime. Meanwhile, this took me all day to do – learning how to do stuff like this seems to get harder as the years roll by. Funny how that works.

The music is Sí Beag Sí Mór by O’Carolan and it’s played beautifully by Susan Nares on the harp – thank you, Susie! Susie made this recording for Robert’s Swantonstown Sessions (have you checked in there yet?). The stained glass I’ve chosen is by Harry Clarke, George Walsh, Hubert McGoldrick, Murphy Devitt, Mayer of Munich, Joshua Clarke and Co., Thomas Denny, William Dowling, Richard King, Watsons of Youghal, and Earley and Co. For much more on Irish Stained Glass, including some of the artists I have chosen, have a glance over this page.

Here it is – I hope you enjoy it.

Mosaics and Maharajas Revisited – Part 2

East Window

The more I look into the Church of the Ascension in Timoleague the more fascinating it becomes. In the first  post I concentrated on the mosaics and the story of the Maharaja but in this one – a substantial re-working of the original 2016 post – I look mainly at stained glass and architecture.

As we shall see, the windows were produced by the most famous British stained glass artists of their day. Taken as a whole, in fact, the architecture and decoration of this singular church leads us directly to Augustus Pugin, one of the giants of the Victorian Age, and locates it in the highest echelons of the Gothic Revival Movement. This hidden gem is even more of a jewel than I suspected!

A portrait of Pugin in, appropriately, stained glass. This window is in the Pugin-designed Catholic church in Tagoat, Co Wexford and is by George Walsh

Who was Augustus Pugin? Born in 1812, son of a French emigré draughtsman and an English mother, Pugin trained in his father’s workshop, becoming proficient in design and drafting by aged 9. Conversion to Catholicism and a visit to Nuremberg in Germany convinced him that the greatest expression of church architecture was High Gothic and he set about challenging, and ultimately revolutionising, the prevailing design norms of the Victorian period. He was incredibly prolific and influential, such that today when we think about Victorian architecture and gothic revival, we are really thinking about the work of Augustus Pugin – even though he died in 1852 at the early age of 40.

The signature of the Warrington Stained Glass Company on the East Window, dated to 1865 

Pugin designed several churches in Ireland (mostly Catholic), especially in Wexford, where you can follow the ‘Pugin Trail’. (I don’t know who wrote the Wexford Pugin Trail brochure, but it is one of the best explanations of his style and influence that I have read.) While he did NOT design the Church of the Ascension, his influence is everywhere in evidence, along with the use of some of his favourite suppliers – Minton for the mosaics and encaustic tiles and Warrington for stained glass. Later windows by Lavers Westlake and Co, Mayer of Munich and London, and Clayton and Bell follow the traditional patterns for stained glass and add immeasurably to the beauty and interest of the interior.

Church interior looking east

Hallmarks of gothic revival: a beautiful hammer-beam ceiling, tall pointed windows with simple Y tracery, everything to lead the eye upwards

The art of making stained glass in the medieval style had been lost and during the 18th century colour was mostly painted directly on the glass using an enamel technique. But part of the gothic revival ethic was to base manufacturing technology as closely as possible on the original so there was also a re-discovering of real stained glass processes where the colour was fired directly into the material and sections of glass were separated by lead. This art was revived in the 19th century by artists and craftspeople who studied medieval glass and learned through trial and error how to make it again.

Window by Thomas Willement, originally in the east wall before the chancel was added

One of the first to experiment was Thomas Willement, known as the Father of Victorian Glass, and when the church was completed in 1811, it contained several of his windows. The things is, these were quite plain, as befitted the Church of Ireland ethos of the time, where the emphasis was on an unadorned interior that did not distract from concentration on the Word. Nevertheless, we see the start of a pattern here of ordering stained glass from the foremost British manufacturers of the time. The Willement windows now on the west (entrance) wall were originally in the east wall but were moved when the church was renovated in 1865. They consist of diamond-shaped quarry glass with a decorative border pattern. A third Willement window is situated in the North Transept beside the organ. I can find only one other documented Willement window in Ireland, in Sligo.

John Henry Newman (1801 -1890) by Sir John Everett Millais. Newman’s Oxford Movement advocated for the return of ‘Catholic’ beliefs and rituals to the Church of England, paving the way for the changes advocated by the Cambridge Camden Society. Newman converted to Catholicism, became a Cardinal, and was recently canonised

The renovations of 1865, which added a chancel, vestry and south transept were all in line with the new thinking about church architecture and liturgy promoted by Newman, Pugin and the Cambridge Camden Society. The emphasis was now to be on the Eucharist and the altar, rather than on the pulpit, and this involved adding a chancel to accommodate the altar. God was to be glorified through sumptuous decoration – a radical change in how a church interior should look, and one that did not meet with immediate acceptance among all clergy and parishioners. Regarding that sumptuous decoration – we’ve already looked at the mosaics so let’s turn our attention now to equally arresting figurative stained glass, a departure from the simple and unobtrusive Willement windows.

The Presentation, East Window

We’ll start with the East Window, the work of Warrington. William Warrington was one of the leading stained glass artists of his day. There are very few Warrington windows in Ireland (I have found 12 others in Gloine.ie, although that only records Church of Ireland windows) since he was producing windows before the wholesale adoption of stained glass by Irish churches, so the parishioners of the Church of the Ascension were ahead of the curve on this. Like Pugin, Warrington was a student of the gothic style and he strove to reproduce glass work as closely as possible to medieval models. He had trained with his father as a painter of armorial shields, an influence that can be seen in his designs. He wrote a book in 1848 on The History of Stained Glass, but fell afoul of the Cambridge Camden Society (or CCS) who had set themselves up as the arbiters of taste in all things related to church architecture. Partly this was the outcome of class prejudice: the CCS, all university educated men, did not believe that a “mere artisan” should be allowed to have an opinion of what they saw as their own exclusive preserve.

supplicants

Detail from The Raising of Dorcas, East Window

By any standards, this is a beautifully executed window. According to the Wikipedia article, Warrington’s figurative painting strives towards the Medieval in its forms, which are somewhat elongated and elegant, with simply-painted drapery falling in deep folds in such a way that line and movement is emphasised in the pictorial composition. His painting of the details, particularly of faces, is both masterly and exquisite.

Raising Dorcas

The Raising of Dorcas, East Window. In this story, from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter prays over the dead body of Dorcas, who returns to life

This is all clearly visible in the East Window, a confident set of three lights depicting the Crucifixion in the centre, Raising Dorcas on the left and the Presentation in the Temple on the right. Note the use of heraldic motifs above the main panels, and the tall medieval-style spires of foliage, all typical of Warrington glass.

East Window heraldic

The crucifixion iconography, unusual for a Church of Ireland church, was all too much for the Bishop of Cloyne when he came to consecrate the new chancel in 1861. Cloyne Cathedral itself was a true medieval building but much simpler in its interior decoration. The Bishop obviously had less sympathy with this new style of highly decorated church interiors and objected in particular to the East window, which he viewed as far too Catholic in its influence. In common with many of his Protestant contemporaries he probably felt that stained glass windows were an unwelcome intrusion into this sacred space, but might have been able to tolerate a Bible scene such as that of the Good Samaritan.

On the cross

He refused to conduct the consecration unless the window was covered in a cloth. The cloth, apparently stayed up a long time, and when it came down the window continued to attract opprobrium – it was even attacked and broken on at least one occasion! It’s hard now to understand now how such a beautiful piece of devotional art could have inspired an over-the-top reaction like this, but the High Church movement involved such a total transformation of liturgy and architecture that it took many people a long time to adjust to it.

Jesus Walking on the Sea

The Sermon on the Mount by Lavers and Westlake

Three sets of two-light windows in the nave are by Lavers, Westlake and Co, yet another of the London-based stained glass firms that responded to the huge demand for gothic-revival glass windows in 19th century Britain. The artist who designed these windows, Nathaniel Westlake, was another scholar of stained glass, publishing a four volume work, A History of Design in Painted Glass, and also a decorative painter of wall and ceiling panels. He was considered one of the leading exponents of stained glass art with a style considered to be Pre-Raphaelite. He worked with William Burges for a while – the one who designed every aspect of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork – who recommended him to the firm of Lavers and Barraud. In 1868 he became their chief designer and was responsible for much of the success of the firm, which captured a large share of the booming stained glass industry. Unlike Warrington, however, Westlake did not clash with the CCS, probably because his partner, Lavers, was a member of that society.

Loaves and Fishes detail

A detail from the Lavers and Westlake Loaves and Fishes window showing Westlake’s Pre-Raphaelite tendencies

The three windows by Lavers and Westlake are in the nave on the north and south walls and date from 1883. Those on the north wall depicts the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and the Sermon on the Mount. That on the south wall is of Jesus Walking on the Water.

Loaves and Fishes Detail

Jesus Walking on the Sea
Upper, detail from the Loaves and Fishes. Lower, Jesus Walking on the Water

The final window on the south wall is also a two-light one by the firm of Mayer, possibly the busiest stained glass company of all and actually still in business under the name Mayer of Munich. The founder, Franz Mayer, started a company dedicated to “…a combination of fine arts, architecture, sculpture and painting…”. This firm was officially recognised by the Vatican so it was very popular with Catholic churches and there are many examples of Mayer windows throughout Ireland. In 1865 the firm opened a London branch, which supplied this window in 1888.

Christ Healing the Centurion’s Servant, a window by Mayer of Munich and London 

There are three more windows in the south transept, all by the firm of Clayton and Bell, a very productive Victorian stained glass studio. The first is a two light window, dating from 1890 and it depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd and the Light of the World (below). These two images were very much stock-in-trade with all the stained glass studios. The Light of the World was particularly popular – take a look at this post to see just how popular: The First Viral Sensation: How a Pre-Raphaelite Painting Inspired a Generation

But it’s the other two Clayton and Bell windows, the last to be installed, in 1903, that I find irresistible; indeed they are indeed among my favourite windows anywhere. The artist was George Daniels, whose work is unmistakable. According to David Lawrence:

George Daniels (1854-1940) was perhaps the greatest and most prolifc of all the free-lance cartoonists of the later Gothic Revival period. His style is influenced by late mediaeval and Northern Renaissance sources for both figures and ornament. From around 1880 to 1920, he supplied hundreds of cartoons to the Clayton & Bell studio in London and, from 1895 to 1914, to Mayer & Co. Daniels had a wonderful drawing ability. The vigorous style of his figures and drapery are always particularly characteristic and his compositions are exemplary.*

They illustrate two aspects of Christ, Christ the King (above) and Christ Condemned (below).

There are several more noteworthy features of this fine little church (the pulpit, the carved wooden furniture) but I think I will leave it at that for now. I’ve learned a lot about the Gothic Revival Movement through this exercise, and about some of its chief practitioners. I’ve been struck, as the reader might be, at how British (rather than Irish) the influences are in this church, but that of course was very much a function of the times. At some point I will write about the enormous Catholic church that dominates the village, with a view to showing how the great era of Catholic church building in Ireland finally led to an emphasis on Irish architecture and Irish artisans. For a very brief word on that, you can read my post A Tale of Four Churches.

Timoleague. On the left are the ruins of the medieval friary, the Catholic Church dominates the hilltop, and the Church of the Ascension is behind the green building on the far right

For now, I will leave you with a detail from George Daniel’s magnificent Christ the King, with all that gorgeous golden hair.

*Stained Glass Windows in Six Roman Catholic Churches, County Offaly November 2010

Mosaics and Maharajas Revisited – Part 1

We have a particular reason for re-publishing this 2016 post, one of our personal favourites, this week. The church urgently needs conservation and this West Cork gem is in danger. The group trying to save it is looking for help. If you feel like donating, here’s the link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/west-cork-hidden-gem

But no matter if you donate or not, you will love this little church and its amazing features and we encourage you to visit it when you can.

What follows is a substantially re-written version of a post originally published in Feb 2016

———–

This week when we were passing though Timoleague I had a fancy to see inside the Church of the Ascension as I had heard it was ‘worth a look’.  Understatement of the century! What we saw was astonishing, beautiful, and overflowing with history and stories.

The key is kept at the Post Office on the main street – just ask

This Church of Ireland building is typical of the simple gothic revival style favoured by the funders – the Board of First Fruits. (Read more about this almost-forgotten organisation in a post from the always excellent Irish Aesthete.) Built from the ruins of an earlier (probably medieval) church it was consecrated in 1811 but enlarged later in the 19th century. The pointed-arch windows and the square tower with louvre vents are unremarkable features on the exterior, but open the door and step inside and you enter another world.

The mosaics are the most obvious (although by no means the only) glory of this church. Designed to commemorate members of the Travers family (yes, the same Travers whose memorials dot the walls of St Fin Barre’s) they cover the entire interior of the church, apart from the hammer-beam ceiling in the nave. They incorporate motifs in several traditions – Christian, Jewish and Islamic.

Above the west doorway is the Ascension scene – the apostles are rather conventional but I love their colourful robes and the flower borders. Below them is an angel font, similar to a pair in St John’s Catholic Church in Tralee, made of Carrera marble, with yet more mosaic detail.

Members of the Travers family are named in mosaic around the walls – Robert Valentine Travers of the Munster Fusiliers was only 22 when he fell at Gallipoli.

The mosaic tiles were made by Minton, as were the encaustic tiles on the floor (below). Minton is known for its bone china but in fact it was also was the leading producer of British ceramic tiles during the 19th century.

In the chancel, above the marble altar, the ceiling is covered in mosaic, as are the walls, some of which have been gold-leafed. The richness of the detail and the vision that dictated such a glorious conjunction of imagery and colour is jaw-dropping, and mark this little provincial church as part of the influential Oxford Movement of the Victorian era that aimed to return ornamentation and beauty to spaces of worship.

This is the great High Church and Low Church debate. A group called the Cambridge Camden Society promoted a return to gothic architecture: the classical style was seen as pagan, while the great gothic cathedrals of Europe represented the apex of Christian architecture. (More about this in Part 2, which will concentrate on the stained glass and the architecture of the church.)

Installing mosaic is a time-consuming and expensive process – this one involved importing artisans from Italy and the parishioners eventually received help from an unexpected quarter. The final series of installations was paid for by an Indian Maharaja!

The Pelican is a Christian symbol of sacrifice – the pelican was believed to provide her own blood to her young when no other food was available

Madhav Rao Scindia was the Maharaja of Gwalior. He was wealthy and looking for places to  spend his money. What, you don’t believe that? Just read this story about the fabulous and secret treasure chambers of Gwalior. No, I jest – in fact, he was a highly-educated ruler who did much to modernise his state but he was only 9 years old when he inherited the title from his father, pictured below leaving his palace in state.

The Maharaja of Gwalior Before His Palace, C 1887 by Edward Lord Weeks

The British appointed as his surgeon and tutor an Irish doctor from Timoleague – Dr Martin Crofts. A long friendship grew, based on mutual respect (and shared tiger-hunting expeditions) and it is said that Crofts saved the life of the Maharaja’s son. 

The Maharaja in his prime

When Crofts died suddenly in 1915, after only a year of retirement, and was buried in Timoleague the Maharaja funded the completion of the mosaics as a memorial to his friend and mentor.

Thus, a tiny and obscure church in Timoleague invokes not only a great architectural movement but, like the memorials last week, echoes of the Empire and an unlikely international friendship. But this is not the last of the story – in the next post we will explore the other glory of this little church, the stained glass windows. In their own way they also link Timoleague to the great artistic trends of their age.

A detail from one of the windows

Part 2 is here.

Leaving for the Hunt at Gwalior by Edwin Lord Weeks

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 . . .

 

Scenery and Antiquities – W H Bartlett in Nineteenth Century Ireland

William Henry Bartlett was one of the foremost geographical illustrators of his day and he travelled the world producing images for his publisher, George Virtue. He came to Ireland at least twice, as witness his illustrations for Ireland Illustrated, published in 1831 and for Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland in 1841.

Dunluce Castle By Bartlett and a recent photograph. While accurate in architectural detail, Bartlett also manages to convey the impression of the wildly romantic, remote and craggy location in a way a photograph simply fails to do

Bartlett’s method was to do a sepia wash painting, as detailed and accurate as possible, and this was then engraved by the expert engravers employed by Virtue – he used the same ones as Turner. But Bartlett was also an artist, not content with reproducing only in a factual manner. Like other artists of the period he strove to convey an impression, particularly of monumental scale and wild romanticism.

The results for his Irish engravings are wonderful indeed – and important, since they enable us to compare what he saw with what remains today. Some of his illustrations are so exact that comparison with a modern photograph shows that the object of the drawing has survived in much the same condition for almost 200 years.

St Canice’s Cathedral, then and now

Others allow us to see what is no longer visible on the ground – the Old Baal’s Bridge, in Limerick, for example, was demolished by 1830, so Bartlett’s pictures of it are an essential reminder of this picturesque and unusual structure.

A colourised version (not sure when this was done) of Bartlett’s Old Baal’s Bridge in Limerick, and the bridge that is there today

Although he illustrated streetscapes and contemporary buildings, Bartlett had a particular fondness for antiquities. Wherever he could, he selected scenes that contained ruins of abbeys or castles or ancient monuments such as high crosses.

He also, almost incidentally, has left us many scenes of daily life or of special occasions, such as the women washing clothes at the Old Baal’s Bridge, or the Pattern in Connemara.

I have provided comparison shots for Bartlett’s illustrations wherever I have them, and have limited myself to a few of the better-known places in Ireland. The writers of Scenery and Antiquities, N P Willis and J Sterling Coyne, also deserve a post of their own at some point, so I can see that we will be re-visiting this book in the future!

King John’s Castle in Limerick, and below is Bartlett’s original engraving of the Old Baal’s Bridge

 

1950s Ireland

1950 happened 70 years ago – obviously. My earliest substantial recollection of the 50s era was a visit to the Festival of Britain, London, in 1951: I was five years old, and the memory has lasted. Incidentally, that year also saw my very first day at school, a traumatic experience from which I have never fully recovered – but that’s a story for another day!

I suppose that the seeds of an interest in building and engineering structures must have been in me then, because it is the architecture of that Festival that has stayed with me – and which probably influenced me in my own later career. Not that I ever designed a Dome of Discovery, or a Skylon – more’s the pity, but I think I have always related to the throwing off of tradition and the embracing of new and exciting shapes and colours which came out of the Festival. I believe we are overdue a revival of that bravado to lift our spirits once again.

I was pleased to find these contemporary picture postcards of the 1951 Festival of Britain: everything is exactly as I remember!

In the words of the Festival’s Director-General, Gerald Barry, it represented “a tonic to the nation” after twenty years in which Britons had successively endured economic depression, total warfare and acute post-war austerity. However, the Festival of Britain was the product of a left-wing government and it has been said that Churchill (then leader of the opposition) held the view that the whole venture was “three dimensional socialist propaganda”. I’m not sure that this is really true, as he attended the Festival and evidently spent all day riding up and down the escalators – then a novelty – with great delight! I also remember those escalators: we called them moving stairs (I still do – just like I still call the cinema the pictures). Finola clearly remembers riding on Ireland’s first moving stairs, in Roche’s Department Store, Dublin. But that was 1963; today’s post is all about the 1950s, but in rural Ireland.

The Half Door, an image from rural Co Clare by Dorothea Lange

On a recent trip to Dublin we visited Ireland’s Museum of Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks. We went specifically to see an exhibition: Ireland in Focus: Photographing Ireland in the 1950s. This features “rare images of forgotten Ireland” by three world renowned documentary photographers, one from France and two from North America. Each of them visited Ireland during the 1950s to record a traditional way of life that was perceived to be vanishing as the twentieth century progressed. For anyone interested in Ireland and its recent history, this is not to be missed: it runs until April. In this post I shall show some examples of the work of one photographer: Dorothea Lange. The others will get a showing in future posts.

Dorothea Lange, a portrait taken by her husband Paul S Taylor on the Texas Plains in 1935

We had already been introduced to Dorothea Lange as my good friend John (also an expert photographer) recently gave us a copy of a book of her Irish photographs. Sponsored by Life Magazine, she visited the western seaboard in 1954, staying for several weeks in County Clare. She took over 2,400 photographs, which are now fortunately archived in the Oakland Museum of California. In the introduction to the book Dorothea Lange’s Ireland Eliott & Clark Publishing, Washington, 1996, Daniel Dixon writes:

. . . Dorothea Lange was not an avid reader. But among the few books which became her favourites was a description of the sort of culture that drew her attention time and again throughout her career, a rural society where customs, beliefs, and the way of life itself were tied to the soil. The book was called The Irish Countryman. Written in 1937 by a young anthropologist from Harvard, Conrad Arensberg, it documented and analyzed the social and economic traditions of Irish rural life and discussed how they were affected by religion and superstition. In it, Arensberg located the family farm at the hub of this complex system and explained how each generation placed an overriding importance on ‘keeping the family name on the land’ . . .

Why is it that we are so drawn to old photographs? Lange’s pictures paint a view of rural life in Ireland that is barely a lifetime away – yet it seems far longer ago. But, living in rural Ireland today, we can so easily relate to those times and – most probably – regret that they have passed. Of course, if we lift the veneer of nostalgia, we know that life was harsh, then and – for all the problems of this world – it is so much easier now. We doubtless have regrets principally for the loss of the people that are portrayed; moments preserved for all time on film, but that can never be recaptured.

Quite apart from the people, we do like to see how places have changed. These images of 1950s Ennis, now a sizeable county town, hark back to simpler times, for sure, in Lange’s work:

You won’t see every one these pictures in the exhibition – I have taken some from the book. They all complement each other. But it’s all only a small part of what Dorothea Lange recorded. What of the several hundred other images? At least they are kept safe, although not available on line. Lange was born in 1895 and succumbed to cancer in her seventieth year, 1965. A few months after her death the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective of her work. It was the first one-person retrospective by a female photographer held at MoMA. She is remembered far more for her images of the Great Depression years in the American West than she is for her visit to Ireland, but here we should be grateful for her documentary work that has added to our records of Irish rural life in the last century.

Top – Tulla, Co Clare; above – going to the Creamery, Co Clare, 1954. Below: Dorothea Lange in Ireland