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Beranger’s painted people himself and others

Dr Peter Harbison, MRIA, takes a closer look at Gabriel Beranger’s watercolours in the latest Library blog post.

The Library of the Royal Irish Academy houses the greatest collection of watercolour drawings by the Dutch-born artist Gabriel Beranger (c.1729-1817). His adult years spent in Ireland provide us with the most extensive treasury of eighteenth-century coloured views of the country’s ancient monuments. These are found in one large volume (3 C 30), and two smaller post-card-size albums (3 C 31-32), as well as a few separate strays which, together, open up for us a delightful world of the past which is full of pleasant surprises.

Beranger himself was not just an artist, he also had a warehouse full of artist’s supplies in Dublin’s South Great George’s Street, and when patronage of his work declined in the 1780s, his friends were able to get him a job as assistant ledger-keeper in the Exchequer Office ‒ until he married a well-off wife who was able to keep him for the rest of his life in a style to which he would doubtless always like to have been accustomed.

Lithograph portrait of Beranger (JRSAI, Vol. II, 1870-1)

After his death in 1817, he was forgotten about, as his drawings were in private collections unknown to the public. But one man who rescued him from oblivion was none other than the great antiquarian polymath physician Sir William Wilde (1815-1876) whose talents ‒ listed on a plaque on the outside of his former home at No. 1 Merrion Square ‒ went far beyond his parenting of the poet-playwright Oscar. Wilde was only two years old when Beranger died, and therefore never met him, but he encountered people who did, and was able to give a lively description of the artist, as follows:

‘The good old Dutchman was spare in person, of middle height, his natural hair powdered and gathered into a queue; he had a sharp well-cut brow and good bushy eyebrows; a clear, observant, square-ended nose, that sniffed humbug and took in fun … Well-shaven, no shirt to be seen, but his neck surrounded with a voluminous neckcloth, fringed at the ends, a drab, rather Quaker-cut coat and vest for household purposes, and when out on sketching excursions he had on a long scarlet frock-coat, yellow breeches, top boots, a three-cocked hat, and held in his hand a tall staff and measuring tape’ [Wilde’s Memoir of Beranger (1880), 28]

Gentleman, possibly Beranger, sketching Three Rock Mountain, Co. Dublin (MS 3 C 30/76)

Wilde was quite right in pointing out Beranger’s pleasure in portraying himself, usually from behind, and in various poses ‒ sitting down on a bank reposing with his measuring stick and accompanied by his often present mongrelly dog in front of Athlumney Castle, Co. Meath, gesticulating to fishermen in the shadow of the Ormond Castle of Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, or out hunting with his gun and faithful hound at Carrigrohane Castle, Co. Cork. He took particular pride in showing himself off as he stands in awe of dolmens in the environs of Dublin, at Loughlinstown or Mount Venus, and admiring a pair of well-dressed friends who are measuring the dolmen at Kiltiernan, the trio (as also at Loughlinstown) straight out of a Mozart opera, with which they were contemporary.

Athlumney Castle, Co. Meath (MS 3 C 30/7)

Carrigrohane Castle, Co. Cork (MS 3 C 30/34)

Cromlech, on the lands of Loughlin’s town, 7 m[iles] from Dublin (MS 3 C 30/84)

Cromlech on the south side of Kilternan hill, 2 miles from Killgobbin (MS 3 C 30/45)

Beranger also shows himself at work sketching an open landscape on top of the Three Rock Mountain in the hills south of Dublin, or at Rathcroghan, the famous Roscommon home of the mythical Queen Medhbh, the instigator of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. But he was also something of a ladies’ man, and he does occasionally represent himself chatting to charming young women (chaperoned by his dog), as he admires the Tempietto at Templeoge, for instance. But lest he be accused of flouting the Sixth Commandment, he also paints himself pointing out to the lady’s husband the beauties of their fine Dublin suburban home.

View at Temple-oge (MS 3 C 31/1)

There is one atmospheric view of the Grand Canal in Dublin where he introduced a man, woman and child going for a stroll along the bank, but this is unlikely to be Beranger himself as he is dogless and ‒ as far as we know ‒ never had any children. Beside Carrick Castle, in Co. Meath, he portrays two women, one holding a baby, and beside them a man with a stick accompanied by what looks like a child, but the absence of the identifying canine probably precludes us from recognising the figure as Beranger himself. In one or two instances, he accompanies himself with a basket, perhaps for his picnic which would probably have involved a bottle of wine, of the kind he produced one day when it started to rain on an outing to Glendalough.

View of the Grand Canal, taken between the first bridge and the first lock looking towards Dublin (MS 3 C 31/4)

View of the castle of Carrick on the river Boyne, county of E[ast] Meath (MS 3 C 31/17)

Beranger may not always have worn the three-cornered hat prescribed by Dr Wilde. Other characters, some of whom may conceivably be himself, wear a round hat of one sort or another. It is Sir William’s wife, better known as the poetess ‘Speranza’, who gives us the best description of the other people who Beranger brings in as ‘accessories’ as she calls them (even when he is adding them to pictures copied from the work of other artists) :

Gentlemen in the long-skirted scarlet coat, and ladies with the slim trailing gowns and the large hats and feathers of the period; peasant women also, in the red petticoat, blue over-skirt, and white headkerchief… which costume has probably remained unchanged in Ireland for centuries. These figures give life and spirit to Beranger’s sketches [Wilde’s Memoir of Beranger (1880), 143-4].

She also adds the haughtily amusing comment that the animals which Beranger occasionally adds to his pictures ‘are of a deplorable kind, quite unworthy of modern cattle shows and competition prizes’!

View of two more of Dalkey’s castles, the old church and church yard (MS 3 C 31/22)

It may be mentioned en passant that no oil paintings by Beranger survive, though he was asked to do one of Westport House in Co. Mayo which, if he did, hasn’t survived. But his sketching of Ireland’s antiquities in the 1770s and 1780s carried out at the behest of his great patron William Burton Conyngham who, incidentally, was the Academy’s first Treasurer, was very much in keeping with the plein air habit of oil-painters of the period who began illustrating Ireland in the 1770s, men like Thomas Roberts and Jonathan Fisher, as revealed by William Laffan in an article in the September 2007 issue of the English art journal Apollo.

Dr Peter Harbison, MRIA

View our online exhbition : Beranger’s Ireland: eighteenth-century watercolours by Gabriel Beranger, c.1729-1817′