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A Sentimental Lot

11 December 2013

The Irish, as is well known, are a sentimental people. And nothing brings their sentimentality to the fore so much as the subject of emigration. Yet there is nothing new to this phenomenon: the Irish were ever a nomadic people. In 1816, for example, a parliamentary committee investigating the state of London’s police learnt the parish of St Giles alone contained six thousand Irish migrants. And from that time onwards the departure of native sons and daughters was abundantly marked, through lachrymose pictures like Henry Doyle’s Emigrants Leave Ireland (1868) or ballads such as Percy French’s Mountains of Mourne of 1896.

One might therefore imagine that after centuries of exporting generous quantities of her surplus populace to other countries Ireland was now accustomed to waving the farewell hankie. This is far from being the case: of late The Irish Times, which with its unofficial title of ‘The Paper of Record’ and distinguished history really ought to know better, has been indulging readers with a series entitled Generation Emigration. And a recent contribution on the @ireland twitter account summed up the national mood. ‘I wonder is there many from abroad coming home for Christmas?’ enquired the tweeter. ‘Such a great time of year, but possibly v sad if you can’t get home!’

Ah yes, the sadness of it all, let us not presume to suggest there might be just a smidgeon of self-indulgence in the mix. Just as there was of course none whatsoever apparent in a painting sold last week during an auction held by Adam’s of Dublin.

Alfred Grey

The Emigrants’ Last Farewell, Alfred Grey

The work in question is called The Emigrants’ Last Farewell and was painted by Alfred Grey (1845–1926), a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy. Ironically Grey was himself the son of an emigrant, even if his father Charles (likewise an artist) had only moved from the west coast of Scotland to Ireland.

Unable to shrug off his Scottish ancestry Grey junior specialised in paintings of cattle and Highland landscapes, some of which are believed to have attracted the attention of Queen Victoria. Back in Ireland at least one observer was puzzled by his devotion to Caledonian bovines. In Five Years in Ireland 1895–1900 that clever lawyer and anti-clericalist Michael J.F. McCarthy wrote, ‘Mr Grey’s bulls, cows and sheep look plaintively at us in March, April and May every year from the walls of the RHS in Abbey Street. They are capital cattle, on misty braeside or knee-deep in the placid Tolka. I personally know them all, as if they were old friends, quiet, healthy, contented-looking animals. Mr Grey is as keen a cattle artist as Sidney Cooper, I think; but why does he go in for Scotch cattle so much?’

It was perhaps by way of compensation for all that Highland livestock that Grey decided to paint The Emigrant’s Last Farewell. One rather wishes he had not done so. It is a spectacularly bad picture and not just because the artist was determined to squeeze every last drop of mawkishness out of the scene, with the young wife inevitably clutching a baby while attempting to staunch tears, her husband, who sits on a basket carrying the couple’s few possessions, pluckily waving a hat at the rapidly vanishing shoreline.

As if this were not bad enough, the painting also displays all of Grey’s weaknesses as an artist, his inability to achieve foreshortening, his failure to keep the figures’ heads in correct proportion with their bodies, his rudimentary grasp of perspective. Above all, his risible representation of the family dog which looks to have strayed into the picture from a children’s comic. Whatever about his facility in portraying cattle, Grey had trouble with other animals. Not that this hindered bidding at the Adam’s sale. Expected to make €1,000–€1,500, The Emigrant’s Last Farewell sold for €2,000. In Ireland sentimentality trumps aesthetic sensibility.

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