Ballyfin houses an outstanding collection of paintings which traces the development of Irish art from the mid-seventeenth century to today. Works by many of the leading figures of Irish Art, as well as paintings and drawings of Irish subject matter by continental and American artists provide for a fascinating exploration of Ireland’s art, history, topography and social life, reflecting both the splendour of the Great House and also the humble life of the cottage.
The family portraits showing generations of the Cootes were recently reinstalled, having left the house some ninety years ago and make for a sensational display on the grand staircase. The works on show in the State Rooms and bedrooms give an account of Irish painting focusing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Downstairs meanwhile, the bar and treatment rooms are filled with more modern works ranging from twentieth-century Irish masters such as Mainie Jellett and Louis le Brocquy, to young artists at the beginning of their careers including Michael Canning and Blaise Drummond; throughout the house the creative spirit of Ireland is made dazzlingly evident.
Although born in Birmingham, WILLIAM ASHFORD spent his entire career in Ireland, having arrived in 1764 under the patronage of Ralph Ward, the head of the Ordnance Department. From 1767 Ashford showed at the Society of Artists in Dublin where his early exhibits consisted of flower pieces and still-lives; an attractive, if rather naïve, example in this genre, A Group of Flowers (1766), is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. It was not until 1772 that he showed his first landscape, winning the second-placed premium from the Dublin Society (just behind Thomas Roberts). The following year he won the first prize.
After Roberts’s early death Ashford established himself as the pre-eminent painter of the Irish landscape, with Jonathan Fisher being his only serious rival. His long and productive career saw him win extensive patronage from the nobility – the Duke of Leinster and the Earls of Drogheda and Bessborough and Viscount FitzWilliam.
Ashford was a close friend of the Earl of Aldborough, ‘the architect earl’, and painted his house at Belan on at least three occasions. In one of the largest of all eighteenth-century Irish landscape paintings, which now hangs above the great Italian chimneypiece in the Saloon at Ballyfin, Ashford shows the house set in its demesne, adorned with pavilions and animated by elegant company. Ashford and his patron enjoyed a warm and symbiotic relationship, with the peer visiting the artist’s studio and accompanying him on horseback in search of views to paint. Ashford was a witness to Aldborough’s will and even visited him in prison, while Aldborough facilitated Ashford’s election as a burgess of his town of Baltinglass. Given the closeness of this friendship, it is perhaps not surprising that Ashford reserved one of his best performances for this monumental landscape recording a house he knew so well.
In contrast to the vast view of Belan is a charming small painting of 1784, in Ashford’s middle period. It shows a humble dwelling in the foreground next to a ford in a stream. In the background, at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains, can be discerned the mansion of Ballyfin. This is the eighteenth-century home of the Wellesley-Poles rather than the later house built for Sir Charles Coote in the 1820s. Ashford’s canvas now sits on an easel in a corner of the Library, an important document in the story of Ballyfin’s evolving history.
MICHAEL FARRELL can be seen as Ireland’s first Pop artist, though, unlike many of his more ironically detached peers in New York and London, he deployed the idiom of Pop as a powerful tool of political engagement.
Born in Kells, County Meath, he trained at St. Martin's and Colchester School of Art from 1956 to 1960, and, clearly precocious, he met with early success. Farrell won a Laureate at the Paris Biennale des Jeunes in 1965 and also several awards in Italy. He exhibited extensively in Europe and also the United States. Back home, he exhibited with the Exhibition of Living Art; the Oireachtas and at the Dawson and Taylor Galleries.
Unusually, Farrell was equally at home in abstract and figurative works. In the former he often is inspired by patterns found in Celtic decorative arts – though his Pressé series, based on the motif of a French lemon press, verges on the still life – in the latter he explores a complex of issues surrounding myth, politics and identity with characteristic elegance and humour.
Not afraid of the big themes of Irish history, from which others have shied away, his work has explored the Great Famine and, notably, the Troubles in the North though somehow he always brings a certain suavity and wit even to the most momentous or painful themes. Although from 1971 he lived much of his life in France, Ireland, and its post-colonial status, was never far from his art, as is most apparent in his famous Madonna Irlanda series of 1977.
Entre Ici et Arles is a monumental work by Farrell which dominates the bar. Dating from 1990 it show Vincent Van Gogh painting at Arles in the South of France not far from Farrell’s own home at Cardet. There is certainly an element of self-identification here with the tragic life of the earlier artist.
GEORGE BARRET (c. 1732-1784) was born in the Liberties of Dublin the son of a cloth merchant and won early success, painting both the estates of the Irish aristocracy, including Castletown, County Kildare, and also the wilder scenery of Wicklow which was coming into fashion for its Sublime and Picturesque qualities. Unsatisfied with the prospects for patronage at home, Barret moved to London in the 1760s where his talent was acknowledged with his election as one of the first members of the Royal Academy. Working in a decorative version of the classical idiom, his landscapes are often redolent of the lush greens of his native land.
Perhaps the greatest Irish landscape painter of the eighteenth century, THOMAS ROBERTS (1748-1777) was born in Waterford in 1748. Tragically he was to be dead a mere 28 years later. Having suffered from consumption for several years, he left Ireland for Portugal in the hope of recovering, but died in Lisbon in 1777. Roberts’s art combines careful observation with a delicate deftness of touch. His handling of light is particularly admired and his skill in this area may be attributable to the practice (unusual at the time) of painting out of doors. Only about sixty-five pictures by Roberts survive including this attractive example showing mares and a foal in a wooded landscape which is dated 1773.
Compared to artists of the eighteenth century, later Irish painters delighted in anecdotal detail. This is apparent in a delightful evocation of rural life in early nineteenth-century Ireland by JOHN GEORGE MULVANY (c. 1766-1838) who was one of the original members of the Royal Hibernian Academy. It shows assorted figures outside an inn, near Carlingford Lough. The inn sign shows a cat playing Irish pipes while in the distance can be seen the Mourne Mountains.
A more coldly empirical view of the Irish landscape is apparent in the work of BARTHOLOMEW COLLES WATKINS (1833-1891). Here he shows figures at work piling peat into stacks; the scene is set in the mountains of Connemara near Letterfrack. The subject matter and particularly the way in which the shapes of the peat stacks echo the mountains anticipate later Irish artists such as Paul Henry.
Born in Dublin, WILLIAM LEECH (1881-1968) spent much time on the continent, particularly in Brittany, painting in a softly impressionist style, sometimes influenced by Japanese prints. A quietly lyrical, rather private, persona underpins his art. In this ravishing watercolour he depicts his wife the artist Elizabeth Kerlin who was to feature in some of his most important figurative works. Its intimate charm is appropriate as it was painted on the couple’s honeymoon.
Like several of his most talented contemporaries, BRIAN MAGUIRE (b. 1951) works in a loosely expressionist gestural style. Since he came to prominence in the 1980s he has been seen as one of the most interesting of all recent Irish painters. Perhaps his most notable series is the work with which he represented Ireland in the São Paulo Biennial. Direct, though generally non-didactic, political comment is often close to the surface of his work, though here a more personal encounter is clearly the subject of a powerfully expressive canvas.
A highly distinctive mixing of the figurative and landscape traditions characterises the art of HUGHIE O’DONOGHUE (b. 1953), one of the leading painters at work in Ireland today. His is a wholly original exploration of the intersection of the everyday and the mythic. Bellacorick, inspired by a County Mayo river, reflects the artist’s explanation that a particular location could inspire not a landscape but a figurative summation of an Irish place.
STEPHEN LOUGHMAN (b. 1964) is one of the most interesting of the younger generation of Irish artists. His work, rather mysterious in feel, has extended the range of the landscape tradition by exploring areas which have not hitherto been seen as fitting subjects for depiction. Finite of 2004 shows an elegant parkland landscape devoid of human presence. The presentation is cinematic, the mood somewhat anxious.