I n the upcoming single-owner sale, 44 Fitzwilliam Square: Works from the Estate of the Late Patrick Kelly, Sotheby’s is offering major works by rare Irish artists such as George Mullins, Robert Crone, John Butts and William Ashford, who were fundamental to the development of the landscape genre in Ireland. During the 18th century in Ireland, landscape painting developed to such an extent that it became the leading genre, and is still considered a climax in its art history today. Undoubtedly the most significant contributor to this development was the influence of the Continent, which manifested itself in several ways.
One way was through Irish artists’ access to Netherlandish, French and Italian prints, drawings and paintings in the Dublin Society Schools’ collection. As patriotic consciousness was developing among the Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry, it resulted in the setting up of cultural organisations like the Dublin Society (1731) and the Royal Irish Academy (1755). Parliament encouraged art and industry by voting sums of money to the Dublin Society, and thus the State became involved in promoting art and industry in a manner close to the approach of Continental states.
The Schools were close to the école Gratuite de Dessin in Paris, in that instruction was mainly directed towards young tradesmen. The Schools were the medium through which young Irish students were introduced to Continental art, by means of copying original master prints, drawings and paintings. In this way, the Italian Renaissance and Northern European Baroque and Rococo masters of landscape were presented to impressionable young Irishmen. John Butts is an exemplary product of these Schools, whose work was much inspired by the Old Masters, and especially by Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa.
The Grand Tour was also central to the dissemination of the Continental classical tradition. Rome was the chief point of Continental contact, and by the mid-century there was a considerable Irish coterie there composed of sculptors, painters, antiquarians and dealers. Robert Crone lived there between 1755-1767, briefly studying under the English painter Richard Wilson. His earliest painting is A View of the Forum signed and dated 1759, depicting a composite view of Roman ruins in the typical Grand-tourist manner. This experience, as well as the influence of the Roman Campagna, are clearly evident in his Wooded Classical Landscape, with Figures Relaxing and Gardening by a River.
Irish art patrons such as the Earl of Milltown, the Earl of Charlemont and the Earl Bishop of Derry also set off on Grand Tours to collect pictures and objets d’art for their homes back in Ireland. Their tastes were classically defined and not only their houses, but the parklands themselves, were moulded and planted in imitation of Claude’s paintings and the landscapes of Italy. The Irish gentry’s taste for the classical played an important role in the development of the Irish landscape tradition through their patronage, such as the four signed upright Italianate landscapes which George Mullins painted for the Earl of Charlemont’s House at Marino in Clontarf, Dublin. Mullins was one of this small group of native-born Irish painters, active in Dublin in the 1760s and 1770s, who transformed the art world in Ireland. Despite his significant influence, very few securely attributed works by him survive, consequently making the recently re-discovered River Landscape with a Group of Figures by a Waterfall an important and extremely rare masterpiece.
Another way the aesthetic tendencies of the Continent would have come to Ireland was via English mediation. In the 18th century, Dublin was the second city of the two kingdoms, with all the economic and social advantages that implies, and there were significant cross-currents between the two. William Ashford is a prime product of these cross-currents: he travelled to Ireland aged 18, and was to become the leading landscape painter working there in the late 18th century.
View of Killarney was painted in the 1770s when he and another Irish artist, Thomas Roberts, were competing to redefine the landscape school by the direct observation of Ireland’s scenery. The lakes of Killarney represented the ultimate destination for those seeking a wild Irish landscape and a paragon of Edmund Burke’s definition of The Sublime. Ashford’s direct response to this landscape is what gives the work such vitality, but it is also elegant and reminiscent of the classical tradition expounded by artists of the previous generation.