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…


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