Antiques and Collecting: When the Irish Devotees Illuminated Christian Works; Richard Edmonds Discovers the History and Romance of Irish Painting

The Birmingham Post (England), December 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Antiques and Collecting: When the Irish Devotees Illuminated Christian Works; Richard Edmonds Discovers the History and Romance of Irish Painting


Byline: Richard Edmonds

Irish painting and its painters began to achieve some sort of prominence with the spread of Christianity when the early monks - many of whom were painters - settled along the Northumbrian and Irish coasts.

The illuminators worked with devotional patience in the monastic scriptoria, achieving miraculous illustrated pages and working under difficult conditions in religious foundations sited in Ireland and Europe.

The Book of Durrow is a case in point, equal in beauty to my mind to the better-known Book of Kells. Decorative pages painted on vellum used colours in green and brown in a strapwork design reflecting (for the monks) colours of God's earth which surrounded them daily.

Early illustrated books contained limnings (from the word 'illumination'). These were the portrait miniatures set into the text of old illuminated books and they provided an important link between the words written on the page and a visual image which helped the faithful who may well have been illiterate.

Limnings were an important link between the early gospel books and the elaborate miniatures which appeared at the Elizabethan court and which in turn led on to the glories of 18th-century 'painting in little'.

Early miniatures were painted on card or vellum and, considering that the first artists mixed white of egg and white pigment with gum arabic before adding their colours, it is surprising that these things have lasted until today, managing to retain meanwhile their brilliance.

Miniature painting on ivory was the deluxe way of having your likeness reproduced for a friend or a lover to wear around their neck or to carry in a pocket. The small oval portraits set in tiny gilt metal frames were probably copied from a larger portrait by a visiting artist, who would move from one country house to another taking his fee and accepting bed and board along the way.

Although Richard Cosway, the English 18th-century miniaturist, was not Irish and therefore not exactly part of this week's column (which is dedicated to Irish art and Irish painters) it was, nevertheless, Cosway who showed the way forward for other miniaturists, many of whom, such as Bernard Lens (1682--1740) came to England in order to thrive.

Cosway, who was a perfectionist, used watercolour painting as the first stage in a miniature. This was to achieve the extraordinary translucent effects for which he is famous. The colours were floated onto the surface of the sheets of ivory which had previously been heated with a hot smoothing iron between sheets of paper.

Later, the sheets were finally rubbed down with a pumice stone, until Cosway obtained what he called 'a dead grave' effect. His methods were copied by countless English and Irish miniaturists, many of whom could well have trained with him.

There are some seriously beautiful large portrait studies, landscapes and miniatures in Ireland's Painters (1600--1940) by Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin (Yale: pounds 40). As I write this column, I'm looking at, among a hundred beautiful images, nine pastel portraits of men of fashion from the Perceval family painted in the late 17th century by Henrietta Dering-Johnston - a Huguenot refugee who married very well in Ireland.

But as this fine illustrated book moves from the 'swagger portraits' of the 18th century through wellknown and virtually unknown artists to the abstract canvasses of Jack Yeats (brother of the poet W B Yeats) you have a complete spread of painters, situations in which they worked, and biographical detail which makes the book invaluable for those who find information in this area difficult to come across. …

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