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Picturing the People

Catherine Marshall

In the Lion’s Den; Daniel Macdonald, Ireland and Empire, by Niamh O’Sullivan, Quinnipiac University Press, 2016

When Niamh O’Sullivan published Aloysius O’Kelly; Art Nation, Empire in 2010 she threw down a gauntlet to all writers of art history in Ireland through the depth of research and analysis she was prepared to bring to her subject. The task required her to delve into the archives of the Illustrated London News and other illustrated journals of the second half of the nineteenth century, material which she has been able to put to good use again in her role as curator of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at the University of Quinnipiac. At that time her work on the Illustrated London News alone would have merited a dedicated book. O’Sullivan, however, had taken on far more than that. In looking at the career and work of Aloysius O’Kelly (c 1853-1936) she was faced with a family background of artists and revolutionaries, members of the Fenian movement, connections to the Land League and a sibling elected as an MP for Roscommon, not to mention the artist’s own role as embedded journalist in the wars of the Mahdi against British imperial authority in Egypt and the Sudan in the early 1880s. Most difficult of all for a researcher were O’Kelly’s frequent changes of name and identity as he ducked and dodged the scrutiny of the anti-Fenian establishment while continuing to work and exhibit in Ireland, Paris, Brittany, London and New York. It took years just to establish the date and whereabouts of his death because of his various aliases and the picaresque careers of family members, but where others had shied away, O’Sullivan battled on, adding a wealth of knowledge and research to the history of Ireland and England and providing a new gloss on orientalist studies. The result, on that occasion, was a magisterial book that moved effortlessly between art history, orientalism, colonial studies and detective work that involved archives in different countries and different languages. No other work of Irish art history before or since has managed to meet that level of scholarly detection and breadth.

Did she know, then, when she turned to her most recent project – In the Lion’s Den, Daniel Macdonald, Ireland and Empire ‑ that she would have another multi-faceted mystery story on her hands? The facts about Daniel Macdonald as assembled by Walter Strickland, later by Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin and most recently by Nesta Butler in Vol 2 of The Art and Architecture of Ireland, are straightforward and minimal. The fact that those earlier writers pointed to a name change, from MacDaniel to Macdonald, during the artist’s short life must certainly have triggered alarms in her experienced head but O’Sullivan knew that however difficult unravelling the story might prove to be, it  had to be done. Macdonald was responsible for one of the most important paintings in the history of Irish art, not just in the nineteenth century but for all time.

The painting in question, An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store, is not Daniel Macdonald’s greatest painting, nor is Macdonald the greatest Irish artist of his generation when measured against the criteria usually applied to painting, but this work is unique. Alone it carries the weight of an event that changed the course of Irish history for ever, the greatest natural disaster to hit Europe since the Black Death. Moreover, Discovering the Blight is undoubtedly the painting that first drew Niamh O’Sullivan to his work in her role as curator of a museum dedicated to the Famine. Painted and exhibited in 1847, at the worst period of the Great Hunger, there is no other known painting about the blight that contributed to the deaths of over a million people and the virtual destruction of a culture through traumatic loss, emigration, dislocation, loss of mother tongue and the erosion of an age-old native tradition that was painted by an Irish artist while the event was still unfolding. An even more important contributory factor in this catastrophe was Ireland’s position as a subjugated country in an enormous global empire. For an artist trying to establish himself in London, that meant that the people to whom he might look as potential purchasers of his work were implicated in the tragedy it depicts.

The inherited view of Daniel Macdonald or Daniel McDaniel as he was first known was that he was born into an artisan family in Cork city, whose father was known as a minor painter, cartoonist and writer, among other things. O’Sullivan found this to be, at best, an economical version of the truth. At worst it might signify an attempt to marginalise an artist who dared to represent the unpalatable. By following the vicissitudes of the family from flight and concealment after the Jacobite failure in Scotland, through death at sea and various family adventures, she discovered that the family were blue-blooded Scottish aristocrats who had a very direct claim to the lordship of the Western Isles of Scotland, a claim that his father, James McDaniel, later Macdonald did not manage to pursue as far as O’Sullivan has now done. She further reveals that far from humble artisans, Macdonald counted among his three siblings, another artist, his sister Jane, a brother who was a well-known Wesleyan minister, and another brother, Denis, who rose to become a distinguished doctor, inspector-general of the Royal Navy hospitals and fleets and recipient of a knighthood. Perhaps more importantly for a growing artist, O’Sullivan delved into the hub of intellectual activity that Cork boasted, to reveal that Macdonald senior enjoyed close friendships with leading writers, folklorists, antiquarians and wits of the day such as Thomas Crofton Croker, William Maginn, the painter Daniel Maclise, Richard Dowden and others and was, himself, a regular contributor to the Cork Literary and Scientific Society and a businessman before becoming an artist himself.  

Macdonald raised some of the other uncomfortable aspects of colonisation too in his paintings, notwithstanding the fact that he hoped to make a living as an artist in London and had to graft to find patrons in a social climate that showed little sympathy for the situation in Ireland. Yet, for reasons that Niamh O’Sullivan tries heroically to reveal, we cannot be sure of why he remained so independent of the establishment with which other, more established and better known expatriates from Cork compromised rather than alienate buyers of their work.

It is fascinating that despite a not inconsiderable trail of documentary evidence about Macdonald, very little was known about him until this publication. That cannot be attributed solely, perhaps not at all, to his name change which, if anything was likely to excite curiosity rather than the opposite, nor to his early death, before his thirty-second birthday, although that truncated his career before it had a chance to fully develop. It is, in fact, much more likely to derive from dismissals of his work as naive by earlier writers such as Crookshank and Glin and from the politics of his work. To be seen as both naive and from Cork, in the eyes of certain writers, was a bit like being, like Oscar Wilde’s Ernest, guilty of carelessness. His work received little national coverage in Ireland, and although he was well received in his native city and in London, where within a year of his arrival in 1844 Prince George and Princess Mary of Cambridge sat for portraits by him, the unique contribution that Macdonald made to Irish history and visual culture has never been adequately recognised until now. 

Crookshank and Glin were aware of Macdonald’s famine painting An Irish Peasant Family discovering the Blight of their Store, which they describe as “his most dramatic picture … one of the very few contemporary paintings recording the tragic years of the Great Famine …” (Crookshank and Glin, Ireland’s Painters, 2002), and later they reference it again, this time declaring that is was “as far as we know, the sole surviving contemporary depiction in oils of the disaster”. Unlike Niamh O’Sullivan they do not attach any particular importance to this fact, or wonder why others had not also painted it. Instead they pass on immediately to talk of other things. A painting of such a subject by a “naive” artist did not find an easy place in their account of Irish art from 1600 to 1940, although they did show some interest in his pre-famine painting of Eagle’s Nest, Killarney (1841), with its fashionably dressed visitors and his portrait of General Sir Rowland Smyth in Uniform (c 1845). It has taken a new generation of art historians to penetrate the shield of exclusivity surrounding the canon of western art that accorded importance to academically trained artists (which Macdonald was not) and valued a hierarchical approach to history, which Macdonald did not practise.

As O’Sullivan rightly points out, Macdonald is important precisely because he was an outsider to that tradition. It appears that his only training was received from his father, who was self-taught. Neither the son nor the father found it necessary to adopt the mores of classical strait-jacketing to their artistic expression. Yet Daniel Macdonald was skilful enough to represent a range of subjects in a manner that neither doffs a cap to the powermongers nor patronises the ordinary people of the country. His paintings of life around him in Co Cork, whether he is recording the visits of polite society to well-known landmarks, exploring the rich culture of folklore, rural sports and faction fighting, or showing the trauma of poverty and eviction, mix the different classes in Cork society with a degree of subtlety that is not compatible with naivety. It allows him to travel where peers like Daniel Maclise, more successful but more bound by the rules, could not follow.

O’Sullivan describes the An Irish Peasant Family discovering the Blight of their Store as “harrowing”, although it was not seen as such by some of the contemporary reviewers she cites. What is surprising is that it carefully avoids the levels of horror that O’Sullivan herself has deftly analysed in the Illustrated London News and other news periodicals, although to those as informed, as she is, about the million or so deaths already recorded by the time this picture was painted, the horror can be readily intuited. What is clear, of course, is that the so-called “fine art tradition” was so in thrall to the centrality and dignity of the human form, and so bound by its own rules of decorum, that it could not embody the kind of abjection that was required. Goya is the only artist who managed to portray human suffering on this scale and he, unlike Macdonald, did not have a colonial authority to cope with. Artists sympathetic to the Irish situation, like John Hogan and RG Kelly, were all too aware of what befell the careers of those identified with the Irish nationalist or Catholic cause and chose to avoid overt reference to it. Artists of Macdonald’s generation and background found themselves obliged to pretend that the famine wasn’t happening or to, at best disguise it, as Daniel Maclise did in his monumental painting of the Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. Given that situation, Macdonald’s achievement in this painting is remarkable, especially as O’Sullivan reminds us in the first paragraph of the book, he was only twenty-seven and this was the painting with which he chose to introduce himself to London art lovers. The family it depicts, all three generations of them, are facing certain death, in this, the third year of failure of their crop. O’Sullivan is of the view that one of them – the grandmother ‑ has already died and is represented as a black shrouded figure standing at the very centre of the composition, although she may also represent that folkloric figure “The black stranger walking the roads” who gave her name to Gerard Healy’s 1945 play.

There are strange stylistic dips in Macdonald’s paintings that are immediately obvious if you compare the difference in integrity in his handling of the central figure in The Fighter (1844) with that of the man throwing the bowl in Bowl Playing (1842) or with the foppish portrait image of Rowland Smyth (c 1845). If we think of the fighter and the Rowland Smyth images, painted within a year of each other, as representing two classes in Irish society or two aspects of masculinity, it is immediately clear that Macdonald is excited by the fighter. Indeed while a superficial reading of this might allow the viewer to dismiss it as a swashbuckling image of a street fighter, O’Sullivan correctly identifies it as having a “confrontational force” quite untypical in Irish art, and being the antithesis of the drunken Irish brawlers that populate the paintings of Erskine Nicol. Moving from those important subject pictures to his Eviction painting of c 1850 or even to the earlier Sidhe Ghaoithe or Fairy Blast (1841) it could be argued that Macdonald’s natural affinity with the poor surfaces through the dignity he affords them. It is abundantly manifest in his deliberate choice of subjects, and although his depictions equally avoid the sentimentality usually associated with Victorian painting and the racism of Erskine Nicol’s popular paintings of Irish peasants, Macdonald’s attitude is expressed in the restraint and decorum he affords the family in the unsigned Eviction painting of 1850, which O’Sullivan attributes to him. Even when painting a subject of lawlessness – Tasting the Poitin in Ireland (1844) ‑ Macdonald avoids the usual bawdiness and persuades the viewer that this is a necessary cash-generating activity that might keep the landlord at bay, but at great risk to the family who engage in it.

It is that kind of quiet support for the downtrodden and their folk culture that makes Macdonald unique in Irish art in his generation. There is no need to claim genius for him and it is hard to see him as a prodigy as O’Sullivan does, despite his early precociousness. His treatment of space and anatomy reveal all too clearly his lack of formal training despite O’Sullivan’s efforts to link his work to the classical sculptural casts that he had available to him in Cork. His courage and honesty in his treatment of the Irish poor more than compensate for such minor flaws. O’Sullivan is to be congratulated for bringing him forward as the major figure he is, and not least for the level of knowledge that she brings to each telling detail. Who else in the art world knew that the poitín-maker is wearing one shoe only because his day job as a turf-cutter required this luxury but he couldn’t afford its partner? If this work does not attain the breadth of O’Sullivan’s Aloysius O’Kelly book it is only because it is an exhibition catalogue and has a different job to do.

1/5/2016

Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol. V,  Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.

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