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.

 

Eleventh Hour

I write this at 11am on the 11th November 2018 – exactly 100 years since the ending of The Great War. I have been aware of the significance of this moment of remembrance since my childhood: wherever we were at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we had to stop what we were doing and be silent for two minutes. This – and the horrors of war – have been in my psyche forever.

Growing up in Britain there was always that awareness of the two world wars, and the losses and sacrifices that they caused: every town and village has its war memorial, giving the names of those who died. That first – Great – war also affected Ireland but, until quite recently, it seems those Irish people who died because of it have received scant commemoration. But – as always in Ireland – once you begin to turn over the stones you do find the history; today’s post looks at just a few examples of memories and commemorations of the 1914 – 1918 conflict.

Firstly, the poetry. Yeats wrote of war poets – “We have no gift to set a statesman right.” I think he was wrong – poets and artists are probably most able to express emotions about war and its outrages in ways that others can approach and embrace. Francis Ledwidge, although an ardent Irish nationalist, states that he . . . joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions . . . Only a poet, surely, could describe an army as feminine. Ledwidge gave his life in pursuit of the cause: he was blown to pieces at Ypres on 31 July 1917. A year previously his friend, Irish patriot (and poet) Thomas MacDonagh, was executed (for his part in the 1916 rising) by soldiers in the same uniform that Ledwidge was wearing. The irony is only compounded by the fact that the poet’s Lament for Thomas MacDonagh can be seen now as Ledwidge writing on his own fate:

He shall not hear the bittern cry
in the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
  
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
  
But when the dark cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

Last week saw the opening of a new exhibition at the Cork Public Museum – Cork 1918: Victory, Virus and Votes. There are photographs, posters and artefacts – all very well displayed – telling the story of the involvement of people from Cork in the Great War, the political fallout from the War and the aftermath of the world wide Spanish Flu epidemic which claimed millions of victims. It’s a must-see exhibition and congratulations are due to Dan Breen and his dedicated team at the museum for bringing it to fruition at this appropriate time. The images above and below are from the new exhibition.

Today Finola is thinking about her grandfather – Sgt William Owen Roberts – who served in the Welsh Fusiliers and had a distinguished military career which included the Boer War and the Chinese Boxer War. He served in the Great War and was captured and interned in Germany and Holland. He contracted and died of the Spanish Flu on 15th November, 1918 – just a few days after the end of the conflict – at the age of 39. His grave is in The Hague.

There can be only a few families not affected by the wars of the twentieth century. My own Uncle Jack died in a prison camp in the 1940s, while my mother’s mother was a victim of the flu epidemic, dying in 1918 and effectively orphaning my mother (aged four) and her three siblings, as their father was away serving in the army.

Tucked away in burial grounds around Ireland are the graves of those who died in Europe between 1914 and 1918 in that awful war – and of those who died subsequently as a result of injuries and mental stress arising from the war. We mark them out on our travels around the country. The graves – erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – are of a distinctive uniform design, originated by the architect Edwin Lutyens (who also designed the great Thiepval Memorial in France, the largest Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world, inscribed with over 72,000 names). The sheer magnitude of that number – people of whom no trace is left other than a name carved on stone – is bewildering. The image below of Thiepval is courtesy of the CWGC.

Ireland does now have its own dedicated national war memorial to commemorate the Irish men and women who died during the First World War. The idea was first mooted in 1919 but took years to gestate. Lutyens was commissioned to design formal gardens in Islandbridge, Co Dublin, in the early 1930s, and construction work was largely completed in 1937, following by the establishment of trees and landscaping, an essential element of the design. The 1939 – 45 war in Europe delayed the opening of the memorial, which languished and suffered from decay and neglect for years after that. It wasn’t until 10th December, 1980 – following restoration by the Office of Public Works – that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens were formally dedicated, and they are now maintained to a high standard. As a point of interest, the gardens include classical pavilions – ‘Bookrooms’ – designed to house the memorial record illustrated by Harry Clarke and inscribed with the names of the 49,400 Irish soldiers lost during the Great War. The image of the memorial gardens below is by Diego Lopez Sebastian. The ‘tailpiece’ is a Harry Clarke Illustration from Ireland’s Memorial Records.

For us, perhaps it’s those tucked-away and often forgotten graves in the corners of Irish cemeteries that are the most poignant. We know that each one tells a story: we can’t know that story – but hopefully there is always somebody who does know – and who passes on the memories to future generations.

Above: two tucked-away West Cork war graves. The left-hand picture has an example, lower left, and is at Abbeymahon Graveyard, Courtmacsherry. On the right is an example at the ancient burial ground of Castlehaven.