The neo-classical painter Robert Fagan was born in London and spent the greater part of his career in Italy. But he never forgot his Irish heritage and in 1801 painted this picture, Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia. The work has often been considered a response to the previous year’s Act of Union, the effect on Ireland suggested by the harp’s broken strings. And the painting is replete with other references to the old country, not least the wolfhound, the pages of text headed by the words ‘Erin go bragh’ (Ireland forever), the thatched cottage and, of course the green gown – worn rather negligently – by the sitter. The proposal has been made that she was a Margaret Simpson, mistress of Henry, thirteen Viscount Dillon, a notion strengthened by the carved nude female reclining luxuriantly on the harp. This is not Ireland as later nationalists would represent her, but serves as a fitting symbol for the cosmopolitan splendour of the country’s culture during the long 18th century which is being so wonderfully celebrated at present in Chicago’s Art Institute.
This ends a week of marking the exhibition Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 which runs until June 7th. The Irish Aesthete reverts to customary coverage from tomorrow.
In 1797 James Wyatt designed a hall bench for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, a set then being made for the house by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Their distinctive features such as the splayed saber legs and corresponding arms gave the benches so widespread and long-lasting an appeal that the design was subsequently copied, not least by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton which produced the example seen here at some date between 1829-42, in other words three or four decades after the original. Above it hangs Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Lady Maria Conyngham commissioned, along with those of her mother and sister, in the mid-1820s by George IV who hung the three in his bedroom in St James’ Palace, London (Lady Conyngham, it will be remembered, was his last mistress). Following the king’s death the pictures were transferred to the Conyngham family residence Slane Castle, County Meath where they remained until sold at the start of the last century. This portrait is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York while the Williams & Gibton bench belongs to the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.
As a regular visitor to Powerscourt, County Wicklow surely Edmund Burke must have been inspired in his emerging concept of the sublime by the landscape in this part of the country. Certainly aspects of the Powerscourt estate would appeal to many artists, not least the waterfall – the tallest in Ireland – which was painted many times. But the setting of the house, designed in the 1730s by Richard Castle, also proved irresistible, not least to George Barret who was encouraged by Burke to look directly at nature for greater authenticity in his art. On the other hand Barret’s view of Powerscourt, dating from 1760-62 cannot be regarded as altogether authentic: he has exaggerated the height and proportions of the Sugarloaf Mountain in order to provide the work with more drama.
When this walnut desk and bookcase entered the collection of Chicago’s Art Institute in 1957, it was catalogued as having been made in England c.1710, even though an article published a year before in Antique Collector had suggested an Irish provenance. However after half a century in the Institute’s collection, a pencil inscription was discovered on the bottom of the lower-right drawer bearing the words ‘John Kirkhoffer/fecit/1732’. Believed to have been born in Germany, by this date Kirkhoffer had moved to Dublin where he worked as a cabinet maker: a not-dissimilar piece attributed to him and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London is reputed to have belonged to Dean Swift. However, the discovery of the inscription makes the Chicago example at present the earliest signed and dated example of Irish furniture.
A monteith is a large bowl usually made of silver with a scalloped rim: the bowl would be filled with ice and water, and wine glasses would be cooled and rinsed in this, their stem bases suspended in notches around the rim. Now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, this example was made in Dublin by Thomas Bolton in 1702-03 at the request of Sir Richard Cox, Lord Chancellor of Ireland at the time of William III’s death. It was one of the prerogatives of the office that the holder could keep the Great Seal of Ireland when a monarch died: Cox had his melted down and used to create the monteith seen here. It carries both his arms and those of James Butler, second Duke of Ormonde who was then Lord Lieutenant, contained in foliate cartouches on the vessel’s fluted sides. One clever detail: the scalloped top can be removed, thereby transforming the piece into a regular punch bowl.
A portable harp produced by Dublin craftsman John Egan around 1820. Responding to a wave of interest in ancient Irish tradition encouraged by authors such as Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan (whose 1806 novel The Wild Irish Girl is essential reading) and musicologist Edward Bunting, Egan created these light gut-strung instruments with rounded sound boxes that could be easily carried and played by ladies in their drawing rooms. Often, as in this instance, they were painted green and decorated with appropriate motifs like gold shamrocks. In the Chicago exhibition, the harp rests on top of a mahogany Pembroke table made in Ireland c.1740-60.
The Irish Aesthete wishes a Happy St Patrick’s Day to all readers.
James Caulfeild, first Earl of Charlemont as painted in Rome by Pompeo Batoni in 1753-56. Lord Charlemont is universally admired as both a great Irish patriot, and as one of Ireland’s most discerning art patrons in the 18th century. It was he who commissioned Sir William Chambers to design the exquisite Casino for his estate at Marino on the outskirts of Dublin as well as his residence in the capital, Charlemont House. Charlemont was among the group of Irish Grand Tourists who first recognised the abilities of Batoni as a potraitist and commissioned likenesses from him. Many of these pictures are now in American collections: that Joseph Henry of Straffan in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland; Ralph Howard, later 1st Viscount Wicklow in the J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky; and Robert Clements, later 1st Earl of Leitrim in the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. Batoni’s portrait of Lord Charlemont remained with the family until the death in 1934 of the childless third Countess. She bequeathed the portrait to her niece Olivia John, wife of the second Earl of Ypres and in turn the latter’s son, Viscount French offered it for sale at Sotheby’s in April 1957. After passing through various hands, it was bought by Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon in 1973 and a year later entered the collection of the Yale Center for British Art.
As some readers are no doubt aware, in the coming days the exhibition ‘Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840’ opens at Chicago’s Art Institute. Featuring more than 300 items including painting, sculpture, and furniture as well as bookbinding, ceramics, glass, metalwork, musical instruments and textiles, the show is a celebration of the country’s cultural achievements during what has come to be known as the long eighteenth century. An exhibition of this kind has never been held anywhere before and all the items are on loan from private and public American collections: a reflection of how much of Ireland’s heritage has been lost to its country of origin. Over the next week the Irish Aesthete will be posting every day from Chicago and featuring a succession of the exhibits. To begin, here is how the show itself starts: a wall covered with one of James Fennell’s marvellous panoramic photographs offering a view of County Wicklow from the steps of Russborough.