The walls of the National Folklore Collection are home to a unique collection of art which often goes unnoticed. Acquired by the Irish Folklore Commission and its successors, the collection comprises a selection of paintings of which some were bought and commissioned, but which were mostly gifted by the Commission’s network of contacts throughout the world. In this brief glimpse into the Collection, our blog will take a look at two British women artists – who both relocated to and died in Ireland – whose work made its way onto our walls.
Pattern at Glendalough by Maria Spilbury Taylor
Maria Spilsbury Taylor (1777–1820) was born in London to Jonathan Spilsbury, an engraver and drawing-master at Harrow School, who would instruct his daughter in art. Her father also instructed the daughters of the Tighe family in Rossana, Co. Wicklow and so Maria lived there briefly as a child. Maria exhibited in the Royal Academy from the age of fifteen. In 1808, she married the Protestant minister John Taylor, and moved to Ireland in 1813 on the invitation of the Tighes. They arrived at a time of Protestant evangelical activity in Ireland, and were both devoutly religious, embarking on missionary activities while in the country. It was here that she would complete three paintings of a pattern at Glendalough, one of which is held in the National Folklore Collection.
A ‘pattern’ is a Roman Catholic feast day in honour of a saint. The word ‘pattern’ itself derives from ‘patron’, as in ‘patron saint’. The pattern taking place in the painting is that of St. Kevin – who founded the monastery at Glendalough – which took place annually on the third of June. By the time this painting was created, Irish Roman Catholicism had been quelled by the Penal Laws and the locals had taken to celebrating the pattern as a secular event in the ruins of churches.
Spilsbury Taylor depicts an innocent affair of vendors and games such as horse-shoe throwing and skittles. Glendalough Tower and its surrounding mountains are exaggerated in height with the ruins of the church diminished and overgrown. Other sources such as Joseph Peacock’s 1913 painting of the same event (now in the Ulster Museum), give testimony to a darker side of these festivals: ‘faction fighting’ or mass brawls. Peacock also depicts the harassment of female vendors. As a result of faction fighting, the event would later be suppressed by Cardinal Cullen in 1862. It has been claimed that the sprouting of greenery on the ruins of Glendalough is a nod to the growth of evangelical Protestantism in Ireland. Maria Spilsbury Taylor died in Ireland in 1820, having suffered the miscarriage of her sixth child. This painting was a gift to the collection and was presented to them by friend of the Commission, John Maher – an art collector, and former Comptroller and Auditor General of Ireland from 1944–49.
Evicted by Lady Elizabeth Butler
Lady Elizabeth Butler (née Southerden Thompson, 1846–1933) was a renowned British war painter famed for her large scale battle scenes. However, as a woman, she was never permitted to step foot on a battlefield, and would paint soldiers in their uniforms with their weapons in her studio post-battle. In her 1922 autobiography, Lady Butler said
‘I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism.’
Nevertheless, her battle paintings were famed for what people perceived as their patriotism. Consequently, Lady Butler had exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, as well as having had paintings purchased and commissioned by the British Royal Family.
Lady Butler moved to Ireland following her marriage to Major William Butler, a senior British Army officer. Major Butler was Irish, born to a modest Catholic family in Golden, Co. Tipperary, and had been struck by the brutality of an eviction he had witnessed, as well as the famine in his youth. Though a British Army Major, he was fond of Parnell and also a firm supporter of Home Rule. Both Elizabeth and her husband were sympathetic to the suffering of the poor and the Irish cause. Following her move to Ireland, this became a theme in her paintings which would tarnish her reputation in later years.
The painting Evicted is based on Lady Butler’s own experience of an eviction in Delgany, Co. Wicklow. Lady Butler arrived as the Royal Irish Constabulary were leaving, to find a woman searching the ashes of her home, in the hopes of finding any of her belongings intact. Lady Butler began the painting in situ, including the RIC leaving in the background of the work. The woman in the painting would become the only female protagonist in her paintings.
When Evicted went to auction in 1890, the then British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury remarked that the painting provoked the desire within him to participate in an eviction “whether in an active or passive sense”. Due to its Irish sympathies, the painting never sold. It was left to her daughter, Lady Gormanston, with whom Elizabeth lived for the remainder of her life, following the death of her husband William. The Irish Folklore Commission purchased the painting from Lady Gormanston, who is to have said that she could never hang the painting in her home, as Gormanston Castle was itself the home of a landlord.
Casey, Christine, and Bo Almqvist. Amharc Oidhreacht Éireann: Folk Tradition in Irish Art… Dublin: University College Dublin, Dept. of Irish Folklore, 1993.
Usherwood, Paul, and Jenny Spencer-Smith. Lady Butler, Battle Artist, 1846-1933. Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989.
Wynne, Catherine. Lady Butler: War Artist and Traveller, 1846-1933. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 2019.
Yeldham, Charlotte. Maria Spilsbury (1776-1820): Artist and Evangelical. Routledge, 2017.