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The Art of Concealment

Margaret Kelleher

Aloysius O’Kelly, Art, Nation, Empire, by Niamh O’Sullivan, Field Day, 358 pp, €40.95, ISBN 978-0946755424

In The Irish Times of October 2nd, 2010, an article headed “The great Irish painting that turned up on eBay” provided readers with the engrossing story of the rediscovery of John Mulvany’s The Battle of Aughrim – missing for almost a hundred years and the subject of a seven-year search by art historian and professor of visual culture Niamh O’Sullivan, author of the Times article. The Battle of Aughrim, she told readers, was last seen in Denver, Colorado in 1914. “In 2003 I travelled there, to try to track it down, but to no avail. Earlier this year I saw the painting on eBay, for sale as an American military painting. I knew immediately what it was. Seeing something flash before you that you have been searching for over seven years is a heart-stopping moment.”

Art, Nation, Empire is the outcome of a much longer project of dedicated cultural retrieval by O’Sullivan; some readers may have had the good fortune to visit the retrospective exhibition on O’Kelly, Representations: Painting, Politics and Popular Culture, curated by O’Sullivan for the Hugh Lane Gallery in 1999. If not, the elegant reproductions of plates along with the illustrated catalogue of O’Kelly’s exhibition record in this handsome volume (produced by Field Day with assistance from AIB) offer a rare opportunity to encounter the stunning range of his work alongside O’Sullivan’s highly illuminating reconstruction of his life and career.

The reconstruction of O’Kelly’s biography can, ultimately, only be partial. The subject’s own “penchant for secrecy” (which included noms de plume, altered birth dates and other disguises) posed major obstacles in this regard and one can only guess at the many frustrations and cul-de-sacs that confronted O’Sullivan along the way. Throughout his career, he was overshadowed by his more notorious brother James, journalist and IRB activist, and a long-term MP for North Roscommon (and a similar overshadowing by James occurs on occasion, and almost inevitably, early in this volume). However, key biographical details can be ascertained for the younger Aloysius: that he was born in Dublin in 1853, moved to London with his mother and siblings in 1861 following the early death of his father, was mentored by his mother’s brother, the sculptor John Lawlor, and moved to Paris at the age of twenty-one, where he was accepted as a student at the highly competitive École des Beaux-Arts. In these early chapters of the study, gaps in personal biography are more than compensated for by O’Sullivan’s reassembly of the social and political networks inhabited by the O’Kelly brothers which, in their early years in Dublin and London, included John Devoy, James Clancy and Joe Clarke. The insights into 1870s and 1880s Paris as “satellite city of radical Irish nationalists” are especially compelling and provide a lively parallel to the narrative of O’Kelly’s tutelage in ethnographic realism by Gérôme and Bonnat (Chapter 2, “Making of an Artist”).

O’Kelly’s celebrated work as special correspondent for the Illustrated London News (ILN) in the early 1880s forms the subject of Chapter 3, “Against the Grain”, the longest chapter in O’Sullivan’s study. The majority of the illustrations attributable to O’Kelly appeared between May and December 1881, at the height of the Land War, and constitute, as she notes, “his most deliberate intervention in Irish politics”. O’Kelly’s status in the paper was such that he secured a striking number of “double-page spreads” for his work – six in 1881. O’Sullivan provides useful contextualising comments here: “the double-page illustration was printed on a tougher rag paper that encouraged a sense of permanence and engendered a culture of collection, thereby counteracting the ephemerality usually associated with newspapers”. Nor was the circulation of his work confined to Ireland: reproductions of his illustrations appeared in the French L’Univers Illustré in 1881and in the American Harper’s Weekly, the latter only weeks after the illustrations’ first publication in ILN. And as O’Sullivan recounts in the conclusion of the chapter, a notable collector of O’Kelly’s work was one Vincent Van Gogh, who purchased a remarkable number of his illustrations in the years 1882 and 1883; eleven of which now survive in the Amsterdam museum collection.

While the number of ILN illustrations gathered in this chapter is impressive, their sequence is somewhat bewildering, and the relative positioning of illustration and commentary is at times difficult to follow. One would have welcomed more sustained and extensive treatment of specific illustrations, with attention to (and perhaps facsimile reproduction of) their original context since the interrelation or juxtaposition of visual engraving with the preceding or subsequent news reports (including the journalistic accounts provided by O’Kelly himself) was fundamental to their original impact. On the other hand, the examples gathered here allow O’Sullivan to move to persuasive conclusions regarding the distinctiveness of O’Kelly’s illustrative work, functioning not “as an illustration of political events, but as a political intervention in and of itself”. Most compellingly, she demonstrates how his work communicates the force of the crowd: for example, “The State of Ireland: Arrested under the Coercion Act – A Sketch at Roscommon Railway Station” (ILN, December 3rd, 1881) highlights “an organic solidarity, subduing individual characteristics in favour of a group identity” which “paradoxically” avoids depriving the crowd of agency but instead locates power in “the concerted nature of the action”. Strikingly for the times in which we live, economist Morgan Kelly, in his heartsinking diagnosis of the Irish economy in The Irish Times of November 8th, 2010, remarked that “the gathering mortgage crisis puts Ireland on the cusp of a social conflict on the scale of the Land War …”

In the second half of “Against the Grain”, O’Sullivan moves to a fascinating and highly informative analysis of the production processes of pictorial journalism and the “political print”. Launched on May 14th, 1842 by laxative magnate Henry Ingram, the Illustrated London News progressed from sales of 26,000 for its first issue to 100,000 by 1847. Behind the scenes operated complex processes featuring artist, draughtsman and engraver, the role of the draughtsman comparable in part to that of the translator who “reformulates” the ideas of the artist, and the wood engravings carried out by specialist dynasties. O’Sullivan’s cogent description of the engraving process is worth reproducing at length:

The engraver worked on hard, close-grained wood, made from box-tree, cut in traverse slices about an inch thick; the slices were then racked and seasoned in gradually heated rooms (ideally for five years). When ready, the boxes were trimmed, bolted together with brass nuts and bolts, polished, drawn in reverse, or transferred upon, and the lines set across the joins, before dismantling. The ILN was a veritable image factory: because a full-page illustration could take weeks to engrave, several engravers were put to work simultaneously on single images. Thus, a bolted-block process was devised by the Illustrated London News to minimize the time involved in the production process.
The block was thus separated, piece by piece, into three-and-a-half by two-inch blocks, as fast as the draughtsman finished that section. In such instances, the engravers never saw the whole of the drawing together, as harmony, coherence and aesthetic considerations were sacrificed to the imperative of getting the paper out on the street. Some illustrations, therefore, look considerably better than others. The consequences of several engravers working on a single illustration are fundamental to any reading of it.

Not surprisingly then, as O’Sullivan concedes, the deduction of political views from illustrations is not easy, nor can the perspective or responsibility of an individual artist be easily fixed given the complex process of authorship and reproduction. While there are moments in the chapter, and more frequently later in the volume, where O’Sullivan seems overly anxious to underline the oppositional character of O’Kelly’s politics, her negotiation of the technological and political dimensions of O’Kelly’s ILN work leads to the following more nuanced conclusion:

It would seem that O’Kelly’s skill lay in creating an interpretative aporia, in which he could produce images which appeared compatible with the views of his journalistic masters and the readership of the ILN, on the one hand, and on the other, also satisfied his political comrades … Although the most convincing explanation would seem to be that the ambivalence inherent in images allows them to be read dialogically, making them palatable to audiences of different persuasions, it is remarkable that he got away with it quite so effectively.

O’Kelly’s acclaimed oil painting, and arguably his masterpiece, Mass in a Connemara Cabin (first exhibited in Paris in 1884 and immediately acclaimed) is the main subject of O’Sullivan’s other chapter on his Irish career, “The Connemara Crucible”. Here her reading firmly rescues the painting from piety for politics and also restores the dynamism inherent to the work: its colour coding, positioning of characters and chosen subject of the youthful curate’s final blessing “as prelude to a climax, rather than a climax in itself”. The following discussion of O’Kelly’s other Connemara paintings is less satisfactory and more rushed, with the proliferation of historical background threatening to swamp the visual material; even a putative chronological sequence would be helpful in tracing the evolution of his Irish work and the analysis tends towards some over-idealisation in arguing for the “politically redemptive” quality of these images.

Having earned the position of special correspondent at the ILN, O’Kelly appears to have suddenly abandoned it, reappearing as illustrator for the Pictorial World in the Sudan in 1884. Once again, significantly more information exists regarding James O’Kelly’s part in the Mahdi “holy war” against the British in Sudan, and O’Sullivan’s narrative also includes some engrossing sidebar information regarding journalist Edmond O’Donovan, son of John, who died there in 1883, along with intriguing glimpses into Hiberno-Egyptian affairs of the period. The extent of Aloysius’s contact with the Mahdi or “embeddedness” remains unclear; inferring from the illustrations themselves, O’Sullivan favours an interpretation that he was drawing behind Mahdi lines, though this remains inconclusive, and the consequent arguments for O’Kelly’s “exceptionality” as a result are not fully secured.

A more substantial critical engagement is advanced in O’Sullivan’s treatment of O’Kelly’s Orientalist paintings, the subject of Chapter 6, “The Irish Orient”. Here O’Sullivan usefully situates O’Kelly’s work in the wider context of Orientalism and the debates which that term has engendered (though engagement with the more specific issue of Irish Orientalism, as advanced in recent work by Joseph Lennon, Julia Wright and others, is regrettably absent). When the chapter moves to its treatment of the paintings themselves, the analysis is especially rich in tracing their compositional echoes, for example behind O’Kelly’s famous The Harem Guard lie works by Gérôme and Girardet and, throughout O’Kelly’s work, the influence of his former master’s doctrine of “transparent illusionism”. The excellent standard of the volume’s reproductions is especially visible in these chapters, including O’Kelly’s accomplished oil version of the mosque of Ezbek, Cairo and the aforementioned harem guard. In the closing pages of the chapter, O’Sullivan engages much more assuredly with recent debates concerning Orientalist art as a means of reappraising the significance and complexity of O’Kelly’s particular ethnographic realism: whether “meticulous rendering of detail” can ever be more than “an act of imperialist condescension”, being an especially relevant question for his work. It would perhaps have been more effective if such debates had structured the chapter from the beginning, given O’Sullivan’s continuing – and not always convincing – emphasis on O’Kelly as an artist painting “largely against the grain”.

O’Sullivan’s next study concerns O’Kelly’s longstanding links with Brittany, which he visited repeatedly from the 1870s. The extent of the artistic community present in Brittany in the period is quite astounding, with over a hundred artists located in Pont-Aven in the 1880s. O’Kelly’s Breton winter landscapes present a powerful contrast to the dark interiors in his other work, while his sojourns in Brittany also produced some of his most compelling portraits including The Head of a Breton/Vendéan of Finistère and Girl in a Meadow. O’Kelly’s “peopling” of his Breton paintings is, as O’Sullivan illustrates, especially effective, encouraging the viewer “to engage with the social issues and ways of life of the time”. His flirtations with Impressionism, which he “never fully absorbed”, can also be traced in his outdoor scenes unlike the more “traditional academism” of his indoor scenes, which is deployed frequently in his career to complex effect. The difficulty in dating O’Kelly’s paintings returns in force in this chapter given the related challenge that his work does not reveal a clear stylistic progression – “some later interiors being considerably more conservative than some earlier, more avant-garde landscapes”; however the analysis of his Breton paintings as a whole is well argued and produces a fuller understanding of the nature of his artistic achievement as portrait and genre painter.

The “art of concealment”, as deliberately deployed by O’Kelly, is the subject of O’Sullivan’s final chapters on his later life. Here she conclusively argues for his identity with one Arthur Oakley (or more correctly one of the number of artists named Arthur Oakley); this answer serves to expose a deeper unanswerable riddle: why was he at such pains to conceal the identity of some of his work or to render so difficult its authoritative attribution? What is clear throughout this engrossing narrative is the immense research undertaken by O’Sullivan so that, lingering questions notwithstanding, this is by far the fullest account of O’Kelly’s life and career that exists to date. Her extensive footnotes, many of which signal further suggestive avenues for enquiry, testify to the scope of her investigation and detective work undertaken in Ireland, France and the United States.

In 1895 O’Kelly moved to the United States, though once again he did not stay still for long; in 1897 he returned to Ireland to stand, unsuccessfully, for election as MP for South Roscommon. His subsequent return to America and career there is reconstructed by O’Sullivan from his relationship with galleries, academies and clubs, and his exhibition record. Two notable aspects of his American work that are brought to light are his painted versions of Huckleberry Finn, most likely commissioned by Edward Windsor Kemble, Twain’s illustrator, rather than Twain himself, and O’Kelly’s work for Michael Logan’s bilingual journal The Gael. (Interestingly, in the 1920 census, O’Kelly declared his mother tongue as Irish.) Returning to Brittany in his later years, he “churned out” paintings which, as O’Sullivan notes, served in the years after his death to undo the reputation secured by his more accomplished Breton works.

By way of conclusion, is there more to be said of Aloysius O’Kelly? In addition to reconstructing his biography and career, this volume provides a detailed exhibition record which contributes much to an understanding of his reception-history and is a further landmark achievement by O’Sullivan. One last intriguing dimension which may be glimpsed in this study, usually in footnotes, is the ownership history of his work and related mysteries: the rediscovery of Mass in a Connemara Cabin some hundred years later in Scotland in the Little Island parish of St Patrick’s; the reputed donation of The Harem Guard to James O’Farrell of Strokestown, Roscommon to secure political favour; Van Gogh’s extensive purchase of O’Kelly illustrations and so forth. It may be that O’Sullivan’s work on O’Kelly is not over, and we look forward to future discoveries.


Margaret Kelleher is Director of An Foras Feasa: the Institute for Research in Irish Historical and Cultural Traditions, at NUI Maynooth. She is the author of The Feminization of Famine (published by Duke UP and Cork UP, 1997) and co-editor (with Philip O'Leary) of The Cambridge History of Irish Literature (2006). She has published widely in the areas of nineteenth-century Irish writing, Irish literary history, and women's writings.  She is the national representative for Ireland on the European Science Foundation's Standing Committee for the Humanities, and is chairperson of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (IASIL). Her current research project is a study of bilingual culture in nineteenth-century Ireland.

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