George Petrie, MRIA, 1790–1866
George Petrie was born in Dublin in 1790. He was educated at Samuel Whyte’s school in Grafton Street, Dublin, and at the drawing school of the Dublin Society. He developed particular interests in art, music and archaeology.
As an artist, he concentrated on landscape painting. He mainly used watercolours, but he also produced sketches in pencil, indian ink and sepia wash. He was admitted as a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1828, the same year in which he was elected to Membership of the Royal Irish Academy. He exhibited artworks annually at the Royal Hibernian Academy until the early 1850s. The National Gallery of Ireland holds a collection of his watercolours and antiquarian drawings bequeathed by Margaret McNair Stokes, Hon. MRIA (1832–1900).
The Royal Irish Academy holds a set of Petrie’s watercolours depicting Dublin buildings and streetscapes (RIA, 12 Q 14–27). This series of ‘Views of Dublin’ was created by George Petrie in 1821. They include the City Hall, Christ Church cathedral, St Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin Castle chapel and record tower, Parliament House on College Green, Theatre Royal, Carlisle Bridge and the Custom House, Sackville Street, the Pro-Cathedral, the Rotunda and Lying-in Hospital, King’s Inns, and the Four Courts. These watercolours formed the basis of a ‘Views of Dublin’ exhibition in the Academy Library in 2016. The exhibition also showcases some of the wide range of engravings based on drawings by Petrie that were used to illustrate topographical and travel guide books in the mid-nineteenth century.
The Academy Library also holds Petrie’s manuscript ‘Journal of a Tour to Longford and Sligo’ that contains neat pencil sketches, copies of inscriptions and notes on travel (RIA, MS 23 L 44). The work is unsigned, but has been identified as that of George Petrie, and is dated 1837. A small number of sketches preserved among the Ordnance Survey drawings and memoirs held by the Academy are also attributed to Petrie. The drawings and watercolours attributed to Petrie in the Academy collections have been digitised. Thumbnail images can be viewed on the Academy’s online catalogue of prints and drawings.
Petrie was elected to the Council of the Royal Irish Academy in 1830 and thereafter devoted much of his time and money to building up an Academy library and museum of Irish antiquities. He organised the purchase of treasures such as the cross of Cong and the autograph manuscript of the second half of the Annals of the Four Masters (now RIA, MS 23 P 6–7), amongst many other Academy acquisitions. The establishment of a new library and museum exhibition space at 19 Dawson Street in the early 1850s was the culmination of decades of work by Petrie and his fellow Academy members. It provided tangible evidence of a collaborative commitment to the preservation of the Irish historical record and Irish antiquities. The museum artefacts were transferred to the National Museum of Ireland after it opened in 1890 while the Academy retained its manuscript treasures and research library. Irish language manuscripts acquired in the years of Petrie’s active involvement with the Academy remain as a core part of the library collections. His portrait, painted in oils by J. Slattery, hangs in the Academy library.
From the 1830s, Petrie became very involved in the publication of the Academy’s Transactions and Proceedings, contributing numerous articles himself as well as editing material by other authors. He was concerned with the visual aspect and readability of the Academy’s publications in addition to the academic content, and introduced a new typeface (still known as the Petrie A type) for use in printing Irish language material. The best known use of this Gaelic fount was in John O’Donovan’s edition of the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, first published between 1848 and 1851, but it was also used in printing Irish language text in the Ordnance Survey of County Londonderry, vol. 1 (1837), in the Academy’s Transactions from 1839, and in the publications of the Irish Archaeological Society.
Petrie also designed a new device for the seal of the Royal Irish Academy. The pattern of shamrocks, incorporating the Academy’s heraldic shield and motto, enclosed within a circle, was used as the Academy’s logo in all of its publications from 1839 down to the early twenty-first century.
Petrie was also concerned to reach a wider audience and he initiated and contributed to the popular weekly Dublin Penny Journal, in 1832–3. The magazine continued until 1836 but Petrie was no longer involved after it was sold to a new owner in 1833. Clearly believing in the value of writing material of cultural significance for a wide audience, Petrie established a similar magazine entitled the Irish Penny Journal in 1842, but it ceased publication after a year. These were non-political, non-religious, cultural magazines, featuring a variety of illustrated articles on Irish history, topography, archaeology and mythology.
Between 1833 and 1842 George Petrie was employed by the Ordnance Survey of Ireland where he oversaw the topographical department. He coordinated a team of researchers that included linguists such as John O’Donovan and Eugene O’Curry and artists such as William Wakeman and George Victor Du Noyer, who inspired one another to document and record many overlapping aspects of Ireland’s archaeology, topography and history.
Throughout his varied career, George Petrie encouraged high standards of research, writing, and artistic endeavour, working with a range of institutions, utilising diverse media, and collaborating with a wide variety of talented people, in pursuit of Irish academic scholarship.
Marie Bourke, The story of Irish museums, 1790–2000: culture, identity and education (Cork, 2011)
David Cooper, ‘Petrie, George’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography (9 vols, Cambridge, 2009), vol. 8, pp 81–4 (dib.cambridge.org)
Aloys Fleischmann, ‘Petrie’s contribution to Irish music’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 72C (1972), pp 195–218 (Available on jstor.org)
David Greene, ‘George Petrie and the collecting of Irish manuscripts’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 72C (1972), pp 158–63 (Available on jstor.org)
Dermot McGuinne, Irish type design: a history of printing types in the Irish character (Dublin, 1992; 2nd ed. 2010)
Peter Murray, George Petrie (1790–1866): the rediscovery of Ireland’s past [with essays by Joep Leerssen and Tom Dunne] (Cork & Kinsale: Crawford Municipal Art Gallery & Gandon Editions, 2004).
Joseph Raftery, ‘George Petrie, 1789–1866: a re-assessment’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 72C (1972), pp 153–7 (Available on jstor.org)
Walter G. Strickland, A dictionary of Irish artists (2 vols, Dublin & London, 1913). (libraryireland.com)
Elizabeth Tilley, ‘The Royal Irish Academy and antiquarianism’, in James H. Murphy (ed.), The Irish book in English, 1800–1891. Oxford History of the Irish Book, 4 (Oxford, 2011), pp 463–76
Paul Walsh, ‘George Petrie: his life and work’ in Próinseas Ní Chathain & others (eds), Pathfinders to the past: the antiquarian road to Irish historical writing, 1640–1960 (Dublin, 2012), pp 44–71.
National Library of Ireland. Sources for the history of Irish Civilization
Royal Irish Academy online catalogue of Manuscripts
Royal Irish Academy online catalogue of Prints and Drawings