Head to Head

I recently had the pleasure of attending the opening of a new exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery. Launched by Sheila Pratschke and curated by contemporary artist Vivienne Roche, Head to Head brings together selected works of sculpture from the Arts Council and Crawford collections, in addition to new work by Roche herself. Situated within the Crawford’s beautiful sculpture gallery the exhibition is at once a revisitation or continuation of Heads, the Arts Council’s touring exhibition, and a welcome intervention into the gallery space.

Peter Murray (Director, Crawford Art Gallery) chats with artist and curator Vivienne Roche and her nephew, the Munster rugby player Stephen Archer, at the launch of Head to Head.

Peter Murray (Director, Crawford Art Gallery) chats with artist and curator Vivienne Roche and her nephew, the Munster rugby player Stephen Archer, at the launch of Head to Head on 14 May 2015. Brian Bourke’s Portrait of a Girl (1988) can be seen in the foreground.

Arranged on their original pedestals, the sculptures on display mostly date from 1988 when the Arts Council commissioned a number of artists to respond creatively to the head as subject and to engage with ‘the endless pursuit of the ideas, dreams, meanings and feelings that seem to have their seat there’ (Heads 1). Among them are fine works by Kathy Prendergast, Brian Bourke, Conor Fallon, Marjorie Fitzgibbon, Joseph Butler, and Monica Frawley, as well as two pieces each by Roche and the great Joseph Higgins. The impetus for this new exhibition was supplied by Roche’s own Stephen Archer: Tight Head Prop (2014) around which Head to Head has formed.

What is striking about the works on display is not simply the variety of treatment of their subject but also the manner in which they have been arranged in the gallery space. While Joseph Higgins’ two bronzes command the room and operate as dependable, fixed poles, Frawley’s Snake Woman (1988), for instance, appropriately sits close to the restless and sublime Laocoon and His Sons (c.1816), a plaster cast of the Vatican original overseen by Antonio Canova. Likewise, Roche has elected to continue this relational placing of works by siting her own Victim (1988) alongside Samuel Forde’s monumental oil painting Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828).

Victim (1988) by Vivienne Roche and Samuel Forde's Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828).

Victim (1988) by Vivienne Roche displayed before Samuel Forde’s Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828) creates a curious relationship.

Roche’s Victim has its origins in photographs of the Tollund Man and a child killed in the Bhopal disaster (1984). Set immediately in front of Forde’s final work, the two enter into a curious relationship as the blank yet magnetic abstraction of Victim aligns provocatively with a fallen figure at the base of the painting. This figure, one of Satan’s cohorts, is sketched out in umber and was left incomplete upon Forde’s own death from tuberculosis aged 23. Only tonally described, the vague form lacks a head within its helmet as it falls back into the viewer’s space. The resonance with Roche’s piece, an almost featureless study in calm and dignity, is emphasised by this common thread of victimhood and of senseless death.

The dialogue between works within a gallery context can often be serendipitous and perhaps that is the case here between Roche and Forde. The exchange between these two works separated by 160 years and facing off in a space for which neither was intended supplies some of the thrill of such contemporary intervention. Thus, ostensibly an exhibition that (re)engages with a traditional subject, through its careful yet unforced curation Head to Head is more than the sum of its parts.

Head to Head runs at Crawford Art Gallery until 25 September 2015.

Michael Waldron

Cork Exhibition 1852

A year on from our Visions of Tragedy exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery and Samuel Forde’s legacy is still being remembered.

Niall Murray

Medal of the National Exhibition, Cork, 1852 (personal collection)

“The Darkest Hour is That Before the Dawn”

As the inscription on the souvenir medal above hints, the aim of the 1852 National Exhibition in Cork was to help lift the country out of the doldrums of the barely-concluded Great Famine, whose effects would be seen and felt for generations.

The event was staged in the corn market at Anglesea Street, with the Corn Exchange building (in later years, Cork Municipal Buildings, destroyed in the December 1920 burning of Cork) converted for use as part of the exhibition venue. image While not quite matching the glazed luxurious surroundings of the crystal palace that a year earlier held the first such grand-scale event, London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, the Cork event did take some inspiration from that pioneering display. With a temporary extension to the Corn Exchange hall, designed by architect John Benson…

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Samuel Forde, ‘an ornament to his native City.’

Over the course of our research for The Samuel Forde Project some of the particulars surrounding the death of the artist himself have eluded us. Most sources agree that his death from tuberculosis occurred on 29 June 1828 at the tender age of twenty-three. Obituaries referred to in these sources, however, do not appear in contemporary newspapers in and around this date. And small wonder, as it has recently come to light that our boy Sam lived for one month longer than previously thought!

Chasing up on our new lead, I recently visited the Local History archive in Cork City Library. The helpful staff arranged for me to view the microfilms for two local newspapers active at the time of Forde’s death: The Freeholder and The Constitution (or Cork Advertiser). Quickly getting the hang of the microfilm reader controls, I felt a bit like Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief (1993) as I scanned through the requested materials. Skimming over Naval reports, columns on female education and rheumatism (unconnected), advertisements for barouchettes and apprentice apothecaries, the movements of Lady Bantry and her Newenham nieces, and transcripts of the King’s speech (in this case George IV, not George VI!), I finally happened on the object of my search: the death notice of Samuel Forde.

'Where's the microfilm, Mike?'

‘Where’s the microfilm, Mike?’ Detective work at the Local History archive of Cork City Library.

The Freeholder, ‘Printed and Published (for Subscribers only) by JOHN BOYLE,’ was the first of the two newspapers to report of Forde’s death. The notice, which appears in the Thursday, July 31, 1828 issue, reads as follows.

We have to announce, and we do it with very melancholy feelings, the death of SAM FORDE, a distinguished young artist, whose short life gave promise of an eminence in his profession at a future period, which would have shed a lustre on his native City, and have immortalized his name.  The picture “The Fall of the Angels,” in the recent exhibition, fully bears us out in our observations, and that picture has now acquired additional value by the premature death of this interesting boy. It is unfinished, and we do hope most sincerely, that the purchaser of that sketch, will never let a brush be put to it—but that it may be preserved as a relic of youthful talent and intellect, seldom or never surpassed. While deploring his early fate, his family have reason indeed to be proud at the name he has left behind.

This announcement, which does not specify on which date Forde actually died, was soon followed by a notice in the ‘Deaths’ section of The Constitution of Saturday, August 2, 1828.

On Tuesday last, at his lodgings, Sunday’s Well, Mr. SAMUEL FORDE, a highly gifted and talented young Artist. Though scarcely arrived at manhood, yet, as a Painter, giving such proof of the wonderful power of his imagination, as the labour and study of years could alone be expected to have developed. His unfinished picture of “The Fall of the Angels” at the last Exhibition—and of which we made distinguished mention at the time—is in itself an almost imperishable record of his genius—sufficient to have placed him in the first rank of his profession, and to give assurance, that had PROVIDENCE spared him, he would have been an ornament to his native City. He was of extremely delicate habit from his childhood—with manners the most retiring and diffident, and a sensibility even to painfulness: his family have truly reason to deplore his early demise.

By far the most prominent obituary in the newspaper (the others featured merely comprising one sentence), this and the previous notice are filled with telling detail and appreciation. While it is still little comfort to note that Forde’s life was tragically short, a fact not lost on the obituary writers of the time, based on these notices we can now confirm that Samuel Forde, the young artistic prodigy born in Cork on 5 April 1805, died in the city’s suburb of Sunday’s Well on Tuesday, 29 July 1828.

Noted in the 1840s as having been buried on the south side of St Finbarr’s churchyard under a stone inscribed ‘Henry Murrough’, Forde’s place of burial still eludes us. While we hope that one day we will find the necessary evidence to confirm where his mortal remains rest, we remember him fondly today on this, the (real) 186th anniversary of his death. As those who remembered him on the days following his passing, his unfinished Fall of the Rebel Angels (as it is now known) remains a testament to his great ambition, skill and vision, the ‘imperishable record of his genius.’ Hanging among the very casts he studied as a boy and untouched but for the conservationist’s brush, this monumental painting is the true artistic masterpiece of Cork’s ‘Golden Age’ and rightfully forms part of his native city’s public art collection at the Crawford Art Gallery.

Michael and Shane

29 July 2014, feast day of Martha of Bethany

‘The Master is come, and calleth for thee’ (John 11:28)

The 'imperishable record of his genius', Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828) in its current location in the Crawford Art gallery amongst the very casts studied by Samuel Forde.

The ‘imperishable record of his genius’, Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828) hanging in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Samuel Forde: Visions of Tragedy… and that’s a wrap!

It’s been a few months since we posted an update here and what a busy few months it’s been!

Our last blog post looked forward to the Year of Samuel Forde at the dawn of 2014. Since then we have co-curated the first ever exhibition of the artist’s work. Entitled Samuel Forde: Visions of Tragedy, the exhibition ran from 17 January until 22 March at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Complementing this, the gallery played host to a diverse programme of associated events from free guided tours and candlelit drawing workshops to literary themed performances and lectures.


In addition to these and following the publication of our Irish Arts Review article (Winter 2013/14), we wrote and published a fully illustrated 50-page gallery guide, the first ever book devoted to Forde. Not only that but we were also interviewed for an Irish Examiner arts spotlight and taught a six-week short course of our own design for Adult Continuing Education (UCC). Entitled The Athens of Ireland: Art and Artist’s in Cork’s Golden Age and employing a joint lecture/tour format, it ran alongside the exhibition from 30 January until 6 March and explored the wider world of Samuel Forde and his contemporaries.

Samuel Forde: Visions of Tragedy gallery guide (only €7 at the Crawford Art Gallery shop) and information card.

Samuel Forde: Visions of Tragedy gallery guide (only €7 at the Crawford Art Gallery shop) and information card.

Since 22 March, we are thrilled to note that the Crawford Art Gallery has continued the exhibition in modified form. While many of Forde’s beautiful preparatory drawings and supporting sketches have been quite rightly placed back into conservation storage, his self-portrait, figural and compositional studies, and monumental Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828) remain on display. The modified hang also adjoins a new exhibition of the work of another Samuel born in 1805: Samuel Palmer. After the wonderfully positive responses and exposure we couldn’t be happier to see our own Samuel’s work continuing to be celebrated and interacting with that of other artists!

The Samuel Forde Project began in August 2012 and with the extraordinary support and encouragement of the Crawford Art Gallery over the intervening twenty months we have achieved more than we could ever have dreamed for our boy Sam. It has truly been a passion project for both of us and something that has retained its own magical vibe which continues to excite. Coming into this project neither of us had any major experience of this kind of collaboration or, indeed, curation. We knew, however, that Forde’s story had to be told and his work to be seen!

Encouraged not only by our friends, families, curator Anne Boddaert, director Peter Murray, and the exceptional staff and ‘Friends’ of the Crawford, we also saw in our good friends and colleagues Dr Carrie Griffin and Dr Mary O’Connell an exemplary model for collaborative research. Their approach to the Finding Charles Clark project and their generous advice meant we knew we could do Forde justice! Drawing on our own backgrounds in history, art history, and literature, we researched this project in our spare time despite two very busy schedules. Collaborative research of course brings its own challenges, but playing to our respective strengths we have learned a great deal from others but most especially from each other – from approaches to research and writing to teaching practice and event management.

The Samuel Forde Project has been the greatest of gifts and while our dear boy Sam still enjoys the limelight, it is time for his two assistants to return to their solo projects and individual research. This is not the end of the road, however… The Athens of Ireland Project is too tantalising a prospect with Samuel Forde being just one of its extraordinary players!

That’s (not) all folks!

Shane Lordan and Michael Waldron

Raise a glass to the Year of Samuel Forde!

2013 has been an incredible year for us here at The Samuel Forde Project and for reviving the memory of Samuel Forde himself on the 185th anniversary of his death.  This year we have discovered so much more than we could have dreamed, delivered papers and lectures, participated in the Bealtaine and Heritage Week national festivals, published an article, and even got Forde’s name into a national newspaper! As such we would like to take this opportunity to thank the Crawford Art Gallery, the Friends of the Crawford, Irish Arts ReviewIrish Examiner, RCB Library, Triskel Arts Centre, ACE UCC, and all of you for your wonderful goodwill, continued interest, and valued support as we embark on our next phase!


We begin 2014 preparing  to launch one of the major goals of this project, the very first solo exhibition of Forde’s work which opens at the Crawford Art Gallery in just a few weeks’ time. We also have associated events and a six-week short course in the works which are designed to run alongside and compliment the exhibition. Ultimately it is our dearest wish that 2014 will also see the creation of a permanent and lasting memorial to one of Cork’s greatest and forgotten sons. So watch this space and enjoy the Year of Samuel Forde!

From me and Shane, and on behalf of our dear boy Sam, very best wishes for a very happy new year!

Samuel Forde's Self-Portrait (Portrait of the Artist). Image: © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Photo: Dara McGrath.

Samuel Forde’s Self-Portrait (Portrait of the Artist). Image: © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Photo: Dara McGrath.

Dates for the Diary:

15 January 2014, seminar paper – Visions of Milton and Moore in the work of Samuel Forde

17 January – 22 March 2014, exhibition – Samuel Forde (1805-1828): Visions of Tragedy

30 January – 6 March , short course – Athens of Ireland: Art and Artists in Cork’s Golden Age

The mysterious case of Eliza and Mr B—

Over the course of our research a host of background players have emerged into our own growing lexicon of names. We have come to know the likes of William Forde, Edward Penrose, Thomas Deane, William Crawford, James Morgan, William Willes, and William Edward Gumbleton to name but a few. There are, however, those who remain a little more obscure and elusive. One of the joys (and frustrations!) of research is the passing references we find to the partially identified people in the lives of our subjects. For us here at The Samuel Forde Project, there are two such cases, those of Eliza and Mr B—.

From the earliest research we conducted on Forde we came to know of a portrait of his simply entitled ‘Eliza’. He had written about it in his diary in 1826 but no further information has been forthcoming. We speculated that the sitter may well be the daughter or wife of a patron of Forde’s but with the Penroses having only an Elizabeth and a Bessie, we felt we might be searching for a needle in a haystack! That is, until just recently when we discovered the name of another of Forde and his friend Daniel Maclise’s patrons, or more specifically, that of his daughter.

President of the Society of Artists in Cork, Robert O’Callaghan Newenham (1770-1849) was a man of considerable standing who was an architect, artist and banker. His daughter, Eliza Newenham (d.1851), married the architect Sir Thomas Deane (1792-1871), becoming Lady Newenham Deane and bearing three children, including Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1828-99). The family renovated a Georgian home at Dundanion in the Blackrock suburb of Cork in 1832 – the grounds of which I played in as a child (!) – and commissioned Forde’s classmate John Hogan (1800-58) to provide a sculpture for it. It seems likely, given the artistic leanings of her family, that the Eliza of Forde’s portrait is that of Lady Deane prior to her marriage. This may be one part of the case closed but where is that portrait now? And who is our other elusive figure, Mr B—?

Edward J. Harding (1804-1870): Lady Elizabeth Deane (née O'Callaghan Newenham) (d.1851) and her daughters, Susanna Adelaide (1837-1919) and Olivia Louise (b.1838), before Classical columns, foliage and red drapery.

Edward J. Harding (1804-1870): Lady Elizabeth Deane and her daughters, Susanna Adelaide and Olivia Louise.

In an anonymous memoir written of Forde in 1845 (some seventeen years after his untimely death), the biographer mentions a commission which came to the artist in 1827. This was for the creation of a large-scale triptych for the newly-built cathedral at Skibberreen, County Cork. However, as our biographer relates, it was “the distinguished Mr B—” to whom the church originally turned when seeking an artist. Seemingly an “excellent architectural designer, and a miniaturist painter”, when it came to painting he was apparently “too much a man to undeceive his hospitable friends, or disturb their faith in his abilities.” Our mysterious Mr B—, thus, appears to have subcontracted Samuel Forde for the commission as, no doubt, he had by then gained a reputation for working rapidly in the manner of the theatre but also to an appropriately large-scale.

As to the identity of Mr B— (whom we must thank for his lack of suitability for the task outlined above), a chance glimpse of a name in a list of Cork artists has led us to suspect him to be the younger brother of the portraitist, miniaturist and illustrator Adam Buck (1759-1833). Frederick Buck (1771-1833/1840) was a miniaturist himself of uneven talent, practicing in Cork in this period, and catering to the demands of officers serving in the Peninsular War who were stationed at its busy imperial port. Given the details Forde’s biographer imparts, in addition to his use of the initial ‘B’ to conceal the artist’s identity, it is entirely probable then that Frederick Buck is our elusive Mr B—.

Frederick Buck (1771-1833/40): Miniature Portrait of Joseph Gibson, 68th Light Infantry (d.1816). © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Frederick Buck (1771-1833/40): Miniature Portrait of Joseph Gibson, 68th Light Infantry. © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

What has struck us most about these little investigations is the wonderful, obscured web of relationships and ties which characterise a great age in the history of our city. In a place where you can still frequently be asked ‘who are your people?’, ‘where are you from?’, or ‘do you know such and such?’, taking a closer look at the now indistinct lives of those who once walked the same streets as we do today, can offer up very telling nuggets of detail in our quest to better understand Cork’s golden age.

Don’t stop the presses… we’re now available in print!

After just ten months of blogging, tweeting and talking, The Samuel Forde Project has taken its first leap into print! Yes, that’s right, we’re an equal opportunities outfit here and so if you go down to the newsagent’s today, you’re sure to get a nice surprise. We did just that recently where, as expected, we found an article of ours, “A Vision of Tragedy,” making an appearance in the winter issue of Irish Arts Review.

Now available: Irish Arts Review, winter issue (November 2013 - February 2014)

Now available: Irish Arts Review, winter issue (November 2013 – February 2014)

It is absolutely thrilling for us to realise one of the major aims of this project and to finally see Samuel Forde’s artworks adorning the beautifully designed pages of such a high quality publication. And this is just our first step, so keep your eyes peeled for future publications on our golden boy!


Published four times a year and read by 40,000 worldwide, Irish Arts Review is Ireland’s leading art and design magazine and has just been named ‘Magazine of the Year’ at the Irish Print Awards 2013. The winter issue (November 2013 – February 2014) is now available in major newsagents (including Eason and Porter in the Republic of Ireland). “A Vision of Tragedy” is also currently available to read online as the featured article from the current issue.

Many Marys and the art of St Barrahane’s

On the small and picturesque Castlehaven peninsula in West Cork sits the small and picturesque church of St Barrahane’s. As you walk up the brightly-lit nave, flanked on either side by simple yet elegantly-decorated stained glass windows, the eye is drawn to the altar and the three large, darkly coloured paintings above it. They catch the eye not just for their lifesize scale, but for their contrast with the white marble of the altar and the clean bright lines of the church interior. For Mike and me, their attraction was the artist – our boy Sam. These are the three paintings he records working on through the night in November 1827 for the cathedral in Skibbereen, and for which his anonymous biographer in the Dublin University Magazine of 1845 says he was sought out.

Painted Crucifixion for Skibbereen, from two o’clock, November 8, to half-past two o’clock, November 10. Painted in light and shadow, glazed with sienna and lake.

Samuel Forde's religious triptych at St Barahane's Church. Photo by Shane Lordan.

Samuel Forde’s religious triptych at St Barahane’s Church, Castlehaven. Photo by Shane Lordan.

The commission was originally given to a ‘Mr B-‘ [possibly Frederick Buck (1771-c.1840)], noted for his ability as a miniaturist but now confronted with covering ten feet of canvas. He is said to have conferred with Forde about the paintings, possibly because of his reputation for working at scale and speed, and over the course of the two nights the latter worked in Skibbereen itself to finish them.

The pictures, from left to right, have been identified as St Brigit, the Crucifixion, and St Patrick. They are executed using a muted yet colourful palette. We say the woman is Brigit, following previous identifications of her as such, and because the corresponding portrait of Patrick (complete with fleeing snakes) would make this a logical choice. The height at which the paintings hang makes it hard to discern much detail, but the woman appears to be standing on a crescent-shaped object that looks like a pair of horns. In between them lies a brown object we cannot make head nor tail of!* It seems quite an unusual depiction to us, and we’re eager to figure it out!

Samuel Forde's Saint Brigit (1827) © St Barahane's Church, Castlhaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Samuel Forde’s Saint Brigit (1827) © St Barahane’s Church, Castlehaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Samuel Forde's Saint Patrick (1827) © St Barahane's Church, Castlhaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Samuel Forde’s Saint Patrick (1827) © St Barahane’s Church, Castlehaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

The Crucifixion scene is striking and mysterious, in a way. Christ is not high above his attendants, as might frequently be expected, and is flanked by a turbaned man wrapped up in a cloak who watches the group of women mourn. It is possible that this man is John, following Christ entrusting his mother to the disciple he loved in John 19.26, ‘Woman, behold your son’. The group of three women are surely the three Marys of John 19.25: Mary the mother of Jesus, her sister Mary the mother of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. The latter is the woman with uncovered red hair huddled over Christ’s feet. Mary Magdalene was frequently misidentified with the unnamed sinner of John 12.3-8 who washed Christ’s feet and dried them with her hair. Throughout the centuries she was depicted with uncovered flowing hair which usually fell over her shoulders, in contrast to the other Marys of Christ’s following who generally wear dark hair under scarves or headdresses. Patrick appears in full episcopal regalia, complete with a very papal-looking tiara. He carries his crosier and an object we cannot yet identify in his left hand, while raising his right in a sign of benediction.

Samuel Forde's Crucifixion (1827) © St Barahane's Church, Castlhaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Samuel Forde’s Crucifixion (1827) © St Barahane’s Church, Castlehaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Although no one in the church could tell us much about the paintings, even that they were by Forde, we were very glad to hear from the sacristan at St Barrahane’s that the congregation is very proud of the artworks decorating their church, recognising their antiquity and the need to preserve them. Overall they seem in fair condition; there is some obvious damage on Brigit’s portrait and the Crucifixion, while all three suffer from warping around their edges where they were re stretched and re framed in the 1970s (we think), after being brought to attention by Davis and Mary Coakley, authors of Wit and Wine: literary and artistic Cork in the early nineteenth Century. Looking closely at the top of each canvas you can see that they were originally framed with a curved top, in the style of Forde’s self portrait and indeed the style he seems to have worked into his other paintings. A full appraisal would require them to be taken down — no mean feat. So for now we hope to get some high resolution photographs taken of them and these should inform us better.

We don’t know at what point they were moved from the cathedral in Skibbereen to St Barrahane’s, but we have deduced that they must have been commissioned to decorate the new cathedral itself – opened in 1826. They pose a bit of a mystery to us, and it will be exciting work pinning down their history. We can already envisage hunting through the diocesan archives in an effort to learn more about them!

*Since our visit to St Barrahane’s, and thanks to some high-quality images by Dara McGrath, we’ve made some progress decoding ‘Brigit’s’ accompaniments. The ‘pair of horns’ is probably a crescent moon, a common way of depicting Mary in Catholic art, following Revelations 12:1 which describes a woman ‘clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head’. Mike has suggested the brown object beneath the woman’s feet is a serpent, quite similar in fact to that in Peter Paul Rubens’s The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse (c.1623). Such heavy Marian imagery fits well with how Brigit, the ‘Mary of the Gael’, is represented in Irish art, and certainly from the period in the early nineteenth century when Irish Catholicism was beginning to assert itself openly. Her pairing with Patrick also develops as an artistic feature in line with the growth of Nationalism at the same time. However, despite the serious damage to the left-hand portrait, a comparison of the solitary female figure with Christ’s mother in the central scene reveals them as one and the same person. Their faces are the same, even down to their expressions, and the clothes are identical. It is more likely then that Forde’s triptych should be read as Mary, Crucifixion, and Patrick. We still hope to uncover something of the original commission in the diocesan archives that would confirm or deny this interpretation, but for now it seems (at least) that Forde’s most complete surviving works just got a bit more interesting!!

Don’t stop to scream: The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan!

It’s always the witching hour here at Castle Forde but, for the day that’s in it, we thought we’d spook things up a notch with this eery slice of Samuel’s brilliance.

Samuel Forde's The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan (c. 1828, sepia ink on paper). © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Photo credit: Dara McGrath.

Forde’s The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan (c.1828, sepia ink on paper). © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Photo credit: Dara McGrath.

Forde’s The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan (c.1828) is a sepia ink study once owned by the first principal of Cork’s School of Design, William Willes, and now held in the permanent collection of the Crawford Art Gallery. Depicting the eighth century Persian prophet Hashim Al-Muqanna (considered by some to be a heretic), Forde’s piece appears to illustrate these lines from Lalla Rookh by the Irish poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852):

There, on that throne, to which the blind belief

Of millions raised him, sat the prophet-chief,

The great Mokanna. O’er his features hung

The veil, the silver veil, which he had flung

In mercy there, to hide from mortal sight

His dazzling brow, till man could bear its light.

Lalla Rookh (1817) is an oriental romance consisting of four narrative poems – “The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan,” “Paradise and the Peri,” “The Fire-Woshippers,” and “The Light of the Harem” – which are framed by a prose tale centring on the titular daughter of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. While the historical Al-Muqanna is said to have worn the veil to, either cover his beauty, or hide his ugliness, Forde’s depiction of the prophet’s literary counterpart, Mokanna, wields all the mystery, presence and Burkean sublimity that the subject demands. It also attests to, on the one hand, Forde’s art education in Cork and study of the Canova Casts (particularly the Belvedere Torso, below), and on the other, his avid interest in literature and literary themes for his art… oh, and his penchant for throwing some mystical terror your way, of course!

Belvedere Torso (1816, plaster cast) © Crawford Art Gallery. Image: Dara McGrath.

Belvedere Torso (plaster cast) © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. Image: Dara McGrath.

Now you know there’s no point in hiding under the covers when something goes bump in the night… Don’t stop to scream!! It’s: The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan! (whoo-ooooo!!)

Halloween, 31 October 2013

From Sophocles to Shakespeare… a Vision resurfaces!

It’s all systems go here at Samuel Forde HQ and, as many different aspects of the project are taking flight and shape all at once, here’s the inside track on one of them to whet your appetite for what is yet to come… Enjoy!!

Over the course of our research, Shane and I have found tantalising references to some of Forde’s lost works. These include ceiling paintings in buildings which are long since gone, portraits whose whereabouts are unknown, and a mysterious work enticingly titled A Vision of Tragedy. This last is a piece we have been in pursuit of from the very earliest phase of the project and which has, until recently, eluded us.

The first reference we found to A Vision of Tragedy came from our boy himself. In a transcribed entry from Forde’s own diary dated 15 June 1826, the then twenty-one-year-old artist reflects on the germ of an idea caught from literature:

—Began the design for the ceiling of the theatre. Finished the portrait. The idea of the ‘Vision of Tragedy’ was caught from Milton: –

‘Sometimes let gorgeous Tragedy

In sceptred pall come sweeping by,

Presenting Thebes or Pelop’s line,

Or the tale of Troy divine.’

The first thought was Tragedy sweeping on, while the bards are realised to view the wonders of her power, and the distance was to be the arena of some tremendous catastrophe drawn from the far times of the earth. It by degrees altered to the form in which I painted it in the cartoon.”

As you can imagine, this certainly piqued our interest but, as with other diary reflections, we wondered if it were a piece that the often harried and struggling artist ever managed to fully execute. In this entry he alludes to a cartoon (preparatory drawing) which he had developed from his initial idea. Further research corroborated that Forde did in fact commit his vision of the ‘Tragic Muse’ to paper but as to its composition or whereabouts we could not be sure. A dictionary entry from a century ago confirmed to us that he did indeed finish a sketch of the subject which, from another written source, we discovered to be a full-scale monotone study. These two sources supplied us with another vital piece of information: not only had it been exhibited in Cork in 1852, twenty-four years after Forde’s death, but in 1913 it was known to be in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, when we searched the V&A’s online catalogue we could not find what we were looking for…

Months have passed since we discovered and compiled this information, made enquiries and waited for responses, but to no avail. That is until the morning of our project’s first anniversary when an email appeared in our mailbox. Through back channels and friendships between institutions the moment we had waited for had arrived: not only did we receive confirmation that Samuel Forde’s A Vision of Tragedy still exists and remains in the V&A Collection but we also caught our first glimpse of the work itself – and, my goodness, was it worth the wait!

A preparatory sketch of a kneeling figure (Crawford Art Gallery) ultimately used in Forde’s Vision of Tragedy. Photo by Shane Lordan.

A preparatory sketch of a kneeling figure (Crawford Art Gallery) for Forde’s A Vision of Tragedy (1826). Photo by Shane Lordan.

Currently in storage at Blythe House in Kensington, London, A Vision of Tragedy (which can be viewed online here) is a work of intellectual, technical and aesthetic flare by the hand of a young artist who was on the cusp of a very promising career. Depicting the Muse of Tragedy conjuring tragic acts and inspiring a host of great tragedians, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, this preparatory work for a never-executed painting is nothing short of visionary in its own right. On a personal level, Shane and I were both astonished and exhilarated by the composition which was beyond what either of us could have expected – in fact, we had shared quite a different idea of what it might look like. Having finally seen it we were a true vision of revelry as, quite wonderfully, it confirms so many of our suspicions that Forde possessed a great visual and verbal literacy and hoped to combine these in works of true scale, intellect, ambition and artistic vision. Intriguingly, we have learned that Forde was known to have said that “If I exhibit ‘Tragedy’, I will write under it–Painted by Candlelight.” To our knowledge, it is also the only work by Forde to have left Ireland – having been presented to the V&A by the nephew of Mr Justice Willes – and what a home to have found!

Still reeling from this discovery we are now planning how best to proceed from here but one thing is for certain: Shane and I are on a mission to see Forde’s A Vision of Tragedy in person! Watch this space…