A NATIONAL TREASURE: Daniel Maclise (1806–70), The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (c. 1854)

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2019), Volume 27

By Marie Bourke

The monumental history painting The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (pp 36–7) by Daniel Maclise has an iconic status at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI). Maclise captures the marginal moment of Strongbow’s marriage to Aoife, which became regarded as an event of political and symbolic importance in marking the establishment of the Norman foothold in Ireland and the fulfilment of her father Diarmait Mac Murchada’s pledge to Strongbow. The artist recreated it as a significant event.

Frescoes for the new Houses of Parliament

Maclise was one of six artists selected to provide frescoes for the new Houses of Parliament in London. The Cork-born artist, of Scots Presbyterian background, trained at the Cork School of Art. His early drawings of Sir Walter Scott brought acclaim, following which he moved to London, becoming an outstanding student and teacher at the Royal Academy and an influential figure in the Victorian art world. His identity combined both Irishness and Britishness and, as an artist, he would contribute to articulating a new sense of British identity. The Westminster Fine Arts Commissioners, who managed the decorative scheme, chose The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife in 1847 as a suitable subject to represent the theme ‘The acquisition of the countries, colonies and important places in the British Empire’. The painting that Maclise subsequently created was ambiguous in its interpretation.

The canvas attracted attention when it was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1854, accompanied by a lengthy title. History painting was significant to the Victorians, because it had the power to uplift and educate, often with a moral theme or lesson. Audiences would have appreciated Maclise’s superb figure drawing, intricate detailing and pictorial composition, together with vignettes like the woman with outstretched arms (detail, front cover), which alluded to his knowledge of Old Master paintings and German art.

Irish annals and histories

The artist’s interest in antiquarianism would have made him aware of Irish annals and histories, including Gerald of Wales’s Expugnatio Hibernica (1189), ‘The Song of Dermot and the Earl’ (c. 1225), available as a prose summary by George Carew, and Geoffrey Keating’s seventeenth-century account. He knew of John Speed’s History of Great Britain under the conquest of the Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans (1632). The most likely source for his painting, however, was The history of Ireland (1837) written by his friend and compatriot Thomas Moore (1779–1852), whose Irish melodies he had illustrated (1846).

Using Moore’s description and employing his own sense of drama, Maclise set the scene outdoors in an oval-shaped composition in the aftermath of the battle and massacre in the taking of Waterford in August 1170. At the centre is a round tower and ruined Gothic church with a doorway incised with a ringed cross, where the nuptials of Strongbow and Aoife are blessed by a bishop, flanked by her father (detail, p. 21). On the right, armed Norman barons fly their colourful banners of Strongbow, Fitzgerald, Fitzstephen, le Gros, de Cogan, Prendergast and Mountmaurice (detail, p. 17), balanced by their musicians on the left. Antiquarian and other devices conveyed the complex relationships between Celt, Viking and Norman. The city of Waterford, with its dead and wounded, forms the backdrop. In the foreground are the under-equipped Irish chieftains and warriors, skilfully and sympathetically depicted by Maclise, their banners lowered, bodies decorated with tattoos, harp silent, being mourned by a group of traditional Irish keeners in black. A figure points toward a grave-slab at the bottom of the painting decorated in late Viking Urnes style with an Irish inscription, ‘OROIT DO MACL’ (‘Pray for Maclise’), forming a direct tribute to George Petrie’s The Last Circuit of the Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise (c. 1845), in which he used the same device.

Many interpretations

The work allows for many interpretations. It was created during the early Celtic Revival, at a time of antiquarian interest that sought to reveal the cultural achievements of Ireland’s ancient past during an era of growing European interest in history. Executed shortly after the Famine (1845–50) and the unsuccessful Young Ireland rebellion (1848), it may convey a non-sectarian nationalism drawn from Maclise’s familiarity with Thomas Davis’s writings advocating an Irish cultural nationalism and Repeal of the Union. It may also have been conceived as a grand theatrical spectacle symbolising the political union between Britain and Ireland brought about by the Act of Union of 1801. The artist’s research into architectural details and his knowledge of antiquarian artefacts and costume etc. produced a technically accomplished work with some anomalies, inaccuracies and an absence of Celtic ornament. Nonetheless, the picture’s rich visual panorama and powerful narrative, with its wealth of detail (see the botanic art) and heightened realism, literally draw the viewer into the painting.

Maclise never completed the subject in fresco and the oil did not end up in Westminster. While the Fine Arts Commissioners were prevaricating, Lord Northwick stepped in and purchased the painting. In 1879, when Sir Richard Wallace joined the NGI board, he gifted The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife to the Gallery, stating to Director Henry Doyle: ‘I have always felt that this masterly painting of our great Irish artist ought to find a permanent home on Irish soil’ (Minutes, 6 November 1879). It would overtake Joseph Patrick Haverty’s popular The Blind Piper (1841) to become an iconic Irish painting. Thus in 1896, when Denis Murphy edited the Annals of Clonmacnoise, he directed readers of the 1170 entry to ‘a fine painting by Maclise in our National Gallery of the marriage of Strongbow and Eva’.

This magnificent canvas continues to arouse scholarly interest: exhibitions (London in 1972 and Cork in 2008), a symposium (2000), a conservation project (2010–13), various interpretations and numerous publications. With its vast scale (3m x 5m) and dramatic location in the NGI Shaw Room, it is an unmissable national treasure!

Marie Bourke is a cultural historian, formerly of the National Gallery of Ireland.

FURTHER READING

M. Bourke, The story of Irish museums 1790–2000 (Cork, 2011 & 2013).

E. Mayes, M. Lydon & S. Mancini (eds), The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife: conserving a national treasure (Dublin, 2017).

R. Ó Floinn, ‘Antiquarian influences in The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’, in J. Hawkes (ed.), Making histories: proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Insular Art, York 2011 (Donnington, 2013).

J. Turpin, ‘Maclise and the Royal Academy’, in P. Murray (ed.), Daniel Maclise (1806–1870): romancing the past (Cork, 2008).

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