Irish rural interiors in art

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

Irish rural interiors in art
Claudia Kinmonth
(Yale University Press, e58.80)
ISBN 9780300107326

Traditionally, most mainline historians have made little use of visual sources when analysing Ireland’s past. This began to change in the early 1990s. A number of publications, such as Raymond Gillespie and Brian Kennedy’s Ireland, art into history (Dublin, 1994), appeared that used visual images to illuminate Irish historical issues. Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish country furniture (1993) was part of this trend. Finding her research into furniture hampered by the fact that only a limited number of chairs, tables, cradles and beds had survived into the late twentieth century, she turned to the neglected area of Irish genre painting to fill in the gaps in her understanding of how individual pieces of furniture were sited and used in households. This aroused her interest and she began to seek out similar paintings to see what they could show about the daily life of ordinary people. Searching through the storerooms of galleries and the back numbers of newspapers and periodicals, she turned up over 300 images which form the basis of this large, lavishly illustrated and consistently fascinating book.
Although called Irish rural interiors, it covers a much wider range of subjects than that. As might be expected, furniture gets a good deal of attention, but there are also chapters on ‘Women and work’, ‘Weddings and wakes’, ‘Holy days and holidays’, ‘Pubs and shops’ and ‘Health and education’. Almost every page contains images, most of them in colour. Some pictures occupy a full page, so that the detail they show can be fully enjoyed by the least historically minded reader.
The range of images Kinmonth draws on is huge, coming from illustrated magazines, book illustrations and private sketchbooks as well as publicly exhibited watercolours and formal oil paintings. These images form the core of the book, but the stories they tell are supplemented by a similarly wide range of written sources, many of them travellers’ tales but including gallery catalogues, reports from government officials, private diaries, memoirs, biographies, magazine articles and newspaper reports. These sources enabled the author to identify most of the artists whose work she uses. Many were foreigners, especially English, who were drawn to paint in Ireland, mostly in the west, by the qualities of light and landscape but who were driven indoors by the weather and stayed to paint what they saw there. One such group were the London-based artists Francis W. Topham, Alfred Downing Fripp and Francis Goodhall, who visited the west of Ireland in 1844. According to Goodhall’s Reminiscences, they based themselves in Galway and visited the Claddagh, where they paid local people to pose for them. A rumour went around that they were up to no good. A mob gathered, but two local priests rescued them. One, Fr John Rooney, was interested in art, and Goodhall gave him paint and brushes and wrote to him with advice. Father Rooney later exhibited five times at the Royal Hibernian Academy, though only one of these pictures has yet been identified.
For much of the nineteenth century the market for art in Ireland was limited, so many professional artists would have hoped to sell in Britain. Kinmonth makes the interesting point that this was in some ways an advantage, as artists were more inclined to represent what they saw truthfully and less inclined to sentimentalise than was the case with similar, more marketable, English images. Kinmonth uses her sources, both written and visual, to identify and discuss lifestyles and customs once so commonplace as to be unremarkable but today gone forever. I, for one, did not know that Irish country furniture was often painted—usually blue; that dressers to show off a family’s dishes and spoons were common in the poorest houses but that there were no wardrobes, so that clothes were hung from ropes stretched across the room; or that in many households well-polished saucepan lids were hung on walls as decoration.
With such a rich plum pudding of a book, it is difficult to decide which plums to pluck from it. The chapters on ‘Holy days and holidays’ and on ‘Pubs and shops’ are especially rich, partly because they are accompanied by some wonderful images. Daniel Maclise’s delightful Snapp-Apple Night or All-Hallow Eve in Ireland from 1833, with its glowing pub interior filled with people having fun, and Samuel Watson’s Donnybrook Fair (1842), with its teeming mass of men, women and children buying, selling, sight-seeing, drinking and fighting, bring us into the public experience of Irish people before famine darkened the scene.
The chapter entitled ‘Women and work’ promised to be especially interesting, dealing as it does with lives so often hidden and discounted. But these expectations were a little disappointed. The treatment of the most important part of women’s work—care of the house, washing, baking, child-rearing—is rather perfunctory, probably reflecting the lack of interest by the—mostly male—artists. There is much more discussion of the commercial aspects of women’s work, such as spinning, weaving, lace-making and the care of pigs and poultry.
Kinmonth is at her least effective when she goes from describing the material culture on display in her pictures to the task of explaining general trends and developments. For example, she deals extensively with spinning and spinning-wheels across the nineteenth century with little reference to the fact that spinning had become a marginal activity in which few women engaged by 1900. But this is a minor criticism of what is, overall, a masterly piece of work. There are gaps, of course, but they are more the fault of the sources than of the author. For example, one would have liked more on rural interiors from areas outside the west, but these places did not attract artists to paint them. Kinmonth herself also points out that she is a pioneer and that many of the topics on which she touches, such as the spread of shops, the availability of factory-made cloth for dresses, the presence of pedlars and the wares they sold, await further elucidation.
The omens are good. Irish genre paintings are suddenly in fashion. Apart from Kinmonth’s book, 2006 saw the publication by the Crawford Gallery in Cork of Whipping the herring, the catalogue of its recent exhibition of images of everyday life, and of A time and a place by the National Gallery of Ireland, the catalogue of its exhibition of two centuries of Irish social life. These books provide a treasure-trove of images for historians to use. There is also the hope that the interest that these exhibitions and books arouse will lead to the discovery of many more forgotten images so that the researchers of the future will be encouraged to follow where Claudia Kinmonth has so splendidly led.

E. M. Collins is a former history teacher and the author of several history textbooks.

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