Painting a catastrophic victory

Published in Featured-Archive-Post, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Volume 22

Above: The one-on-one combat on the right (detail left) shows Murchad taking on Jarl Sigurd of Orkney and killing him. Shortly after, Murchad lost his own life, but not before he slew 106 of the enemy. (Isaacs Art Center, Hawaii Preparatory Academy, Kamuela)

Above: The one-on-one combat on the right (detail left) shows Murchad taking on Jarl Sigurd of Orkney and killing him. Shortly after, Murchad lost his own life, but not before he slew 106 of the enemy. (Isaacs Art Center, Hawaii Preparatory Academy, Kamuela)

History painting—the most important, albeit conservative, manner of European painting—was occasionally subverted in Ireland for anti-establishment purposes. James Barry’s St Patrick Baptizing the King of Cashel (1763), Daniel Maclise’s Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854) and John Mulvany’s Battle of Aughrim (1885) all show the inherent versatility of the genre in presenting alternative views of history. When memories of the Battle of Clontarf were reawaken-ed in the post-Union era, the production in 1826 of Hugh Frazer’s massive Battle of Clontarf, at the height of Emancipation agitation, was inevitably seen as ideologically inflected. Although little is known of Frazer’s political views, or those of whoever commissioned the painting (if indeed it was commissioned), it would be unthinkable not to interpret political intent from the timing and content of the image.

History paintings that commemorated momentous events prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion were uncommon, but in Frazer’s mind, it would seem, The Battle of Clontarf was conceived as a revanche not only for Aughrim and the Boyne but also for the audacity of the Vikings in the first place. Given further waves of invasion, culminating in centuries of foreign occupation of Ireland, the multivalent victory at Clontarf was a reveille and led to the event being repurposed in the post-Union period. Notwithstanding victory, the deaths of Brian, Murchad and Tairdelbach—potentially three generations of high-kings—resulted in political instability at the time, but lent itself to calls for national definition in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Equally, Frazer (not known as a radical) selected a subject potentially acceptable to audiences of different political persuasions, on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The Battle of Clontarf might be described as a catastrophic victory, but Frazer’s painting depicts a stage in the battle when all three were alive, holding out the promise not only of victory but also of the continuation of the line, and the preservation—nay, triumph—of Gaelic Catholic Ireland. Battles that have compromised outcomes allow for nuanced readings and were often later re-invoked as rallying calls for recovery. Defeats that lead to bigger victories, and victories that lead to ultimate defeats, lend themselves to fertile myth-making. The battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and the Little Bighorn, for example, were subsequently massaged to function as integrating narratives in the building of the American nation. The productions of major paintings that accompany the rewriting of their histories give added potency to their messages.

In 1825 Frazer was one of the first to call for the formation of a national school of painting, although he saw nothing untoward in basing it on the English model. Twenty years later Thomas Davis conceded: ‘We have Irish artists, but no Irish Art’, noting in his ‘Hints for Historical Painting’ that ‘for any good painting, the marked figures must be few, the action obvious, the costume, arms, architecture, postures, historically exact, and the manners, appearance, and rank of the characters strictly studied and observed’ (Literary and historical essays (Dublin, 1846), p. 169). Deep-rooted hierarchism privileged History painting above all others. And like any trained History painter, Frazer read his annals and texts, and the painting is indeed quasi-infor-mative about aspects of medieval warfare—the hand-to-hand combat, the deployment and battle lines—although other aspects, such as the appearance of the arms and armour and the topography of the battlefield, were unknowable 800 years later. Moreover, in time, the Victorian version of History painting tended towards a form of archaeological exactitude—a factual reconstruction—not evident in this slightly earlier painting. In many ways, therefore, Frazer’s Clontarf is a blend of genres, and is closer to panorama painting. (In 1787 the Irish artist Robert Barker painted a perspectively correct 360° view of London, and exhibited it in a rotunda, thereby creating the first panorama.) By eliminating the central focal point on which History painting was constructed, the eye of the viewer was also drawn to the peripheral corners of the picture plane, creating a dramatic unfolding of narrative.

The elaborate preparation and choreography, the chants and war-songs and ritualised manoeuvres meant that battles were highly performative events. All this is palpably suggested in the painting. Nevertheless, the inclusion of so many figures, and such a complex narrative, clearly challenged Frazer’s technical abilities. And so the sun, breaking through the storm clouds, is a device that functions aesthetically but also covers a multitude of deficiencies: it obliterates parts of the field and allows Frazer to be at times meticulous and detailed, and at others atmospheric and evocative. The dichotomous handling extends the sense of space and conveys the impression of unlimited action, of a battle that had infinite ideological possibilities.

Lack of evidence, lack of ma-terial knowledge or lack of skill are all debatable, but we can determine the moment Frazer enters the fray, so to speak. The one-on-one combat on the right shows Murchad taking on Jarl Sigurd of Orkney, and killing him. Shortly after, Murchad lost his own life, but not before he slew 106 of the enemy, it is said. The age and physique of the semi-nude combatant enabled Frazer to display his classical training, as well as imbuing Murchad with a heightened sense of valour, in that his physical prowess alone was sufficient to defeat his armoured opponent, thereby bringing honour to the Irish and contributing to the martyr myth.

Frazer’s Clontarf asserts Ireland’s superior civilisation: Gaelic versus Viking, and Christian versus heathen. And its appearance in 1826 was, in effect, a declaration that the time had come to address the destiny of the nation. Galvanising historical images that inspired action were seen as rallying calls in the present, and many recognised the need to create images of hope and incitement. And if out of trauma came resolve, the resuscitation of Clontarf in the early nineteenth century was proleptic. Indeed, sixteen years later Clontarf was designated for O’Connell’s aborted ‘monster meeting’, banned by authorities who were more than cognisant of the significance of the site. Given its size, scale and treatment, this was no innocent image, then, but a re-positioning one, designed to press powerful memories into contemporary political use.

Niamh O’Sullivan is Professor Emerita of Visual Culture, and curator, at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac.

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