It must be conceded that the unassertive landscapes of County Offaly have never been a great source of inspiration to painters, most of whom just made a quick stop at historic Clonmacnoise before dashing on to record the West of Ireland.
Yet, others took the trouble to look more closely (or were paid to do so) and found inspiration in its lush farmland, bogs and woods, slow rivers, rolling hills and ancient ruins. Happily, their numbers have grown in the recent past.
The Cotton Map
The first, and in my opinion the finest, artistic image of Offaly is the Cotton Map of 1565. Prepared to assist the Elizabethan Plantation, this is an imaginative creation more akin to Harry Potter’s ‘Marauder Map’ or Robert Louis Stevenson’s chart of Treasure Island than a realistic cartographic exercise. One wonders if its unknown compilers ever visited Offaly or were relying on travellers’ tales.
Beautifully rendered in colour washes it is a work of art in itself and shows an almost entirely sylvan landscape through which wandering tracks connect isolated castles and towers or long vanished villages such as Cannakill at the foot of Croghan Hill. Broad rivers run through wooded valleys and the Slieve Blooms look almost as impenetrable as the Alps. Few villages are noted, the most prominent settlements being the Wild West frontier forts of ‘Dinain’ (Daingean) and ‘Proctectour’ (Portlaoise).
It is almost like looking at a conjectural map of the Upper Amazon prepared by an early explorer as it is well-nigh impossible to reconcile the landscape which it depicts with what we know of it today. Yet there is a curious and intriguing continuity which excites the mind.
For those seeking a romantic vision of the county therefore, I suggest a journey to this almost mythical land but for a more rational analysis you will find none better than in Andrew’s and Loeber’s scholarly essay.
The Lure of Antiquity
While the aristocracy were educating themselves by viewing the ruins of Rome on their Grand Tour, others began to realise that the relics of previous cultures were nearer to home. One of the first beneficiaries and promoters of this vogue was the Huguenot, Gabriel Beranger (1725-1817) who popularised an interest in the art and antiquities of Ireland. The ancient and extensive monastic site of Clonmacnoise was to be one of his first destinations. He was accompanied on his 1779 visit by the Italian artist Angelo Maria Bigari (1772-?) whose drawings of St Finian’s Church are probably the first accurate images of the architectural heritage of Offaly.
The pair were followed in 1821 by the father of Irish antiquities George Petrie PRHA (1790-1866) who had been commissioned by George Brewer to contribute drawings for a new guide to the antiquities of Ireland.
Petrie made drawings and etchings of Banagher, Birr Castle and Clonmacnoise and in 1838 worked up his earlier sketches into one of the most famous paintings of the Gaelic Revival ‘The Last Circuit of Pilgrims at Clonmacnoise’ now in the National Gallery. With its round towers, ruined churches and castle, high crosses and weeping colleens all lit by a lurid sunset, it soon became one of the most enduring images of Romantic Ireland.
In the late 1940s, Clonmacnoise was to be the subject of an atmospheric pencil drawing by the superb topographical artist Raymond Piper RSUA (1923-2007) to illustrate Richard Hayward’s four volume guide to the provinces of Ireland.
From the end of the 18c. onwards the local aristocracy began to feel more secure in their social and economic position and this rising confidence was manifested in the improvement of their estates and mansions.
In order to record their properties and presumably impress their friends, those with drawing skills such as Lord Bloomfield sketched his improvements to Loughton House, Moneygall in 1835 and Lady Beaujolais Bury made watercolours of Charleville Forest in 1842. William Magan of Clonearl House near Daingean had no such skills and employed the noted artist Edwin Hayes RI (1819-1904) to draw his now demolished house.
The highlights of the genre however are the three paintings commissioned in 1801 by the first Lady Charleville to record the idyllic landscape she had created along the banks of the River Clodiagh at Charleville. Her chosen artist was William Ashford (1746-1824) and his three paintings showing the Lake, Gothick Dairy and Weir, one of which is now in the National Gallery of Ireland, are as accomplished and charming as any of the works of the other great landscape painters of the period Thomas Roberts and George Barrett.
From the early 19th c. to the beginning of the 20th c. few artists of note recorded their impressions of Offaly, exceptions being the Sussex painter Sir John Ibbotson (1789-1869) who made a sketch of Philipstown (Daingean) around 1850 and the Scottish artist Harold J. Graham (1858- 1929) whose watercolour of Leap Castle dates from 1906.
However, from the 1970s onward an interesting cohort of accomplished artists began to be inspired by the landscape and architecture of Offaly.
A particular favourite of mine is the work of the aristocratic Irish-Italian painter Don Nicolo d’Ardia Caracciolo ARHA (1941-1989) who lived for a while in the 1970s in Rosemount House outside Moate from where he produced a delightful series of paintings of the north Offaly landscape of deep green farmland and woods with an occasional glimpse of a church spire.
West Offaly was the inspiration for one of our foremost landscape painters, Brian Bourke ARHA (1939- ) who often cruised the Shannon and painted its low lying callows. In 2012 he took a studio in Belmont Mills and painted his much acclaimed series ‘Model Airplanes over Belmont’.
Arguably the most accomplished architectural draughtsman of our time, John Nankivell (1941-) has found the architectural heritage of Ireland a particular inspiration and created enduring images of the gentle decay of its once proud country houses. Offaly is privileged to have been the location for several of his atmospheric pencil drawings and his renditions of Charleville, Cuba Court, Leap, Rathrobin and Gortnamona are unlikely to be equalled.
Today an array of local artists have begun to explore aspects of the Offaly landscape and as only artists can, deliver new and insightful responses.
David Fox paints the alien world of the motorways which traverse the county. Willie Redmond sees beauty in the faces of the cutaway bogs. Lady Alison Rosse and Jock Nichol delight in the bleak moorland of the Slieve Blooms.
Recognizing how its symmetrical shape dominates East Offaly, the photographer Veronica Nicholson has produced her’ 36 Views of Croghan Hill’ in emulation of the 19c. woodblock prints of the Japanese master, Hokusai.
Paul Moore has turned his camera on the landscape of the county in all its changing seasons and his images are deservedly popular.
Subject matter itself does not guarantee great art. It is the skill and insight of the artist which reveals beauty or meaning. These talented locals are helping us to better appreciate aspects of our landscape or architecture of which we may not have been aware up to now and they deserve our support and encouragement.
This article is way of opening a conversation and contributions on the subject can be sent to Fergal MacCabe via email@example.com.
If you would like to contribute a blog get in touch with us.