Irish Vernacular Part II
He mounts his tall trap, gives his charger the reins,
And gallops away through the green country lanes,
The Board pays the posting – the balance remains –
With William, the Local Inspector of Drains.
He finds out the holding and what it contains,
Then maps out his system in furlongs and chains
And points out positions for ‘miners’ and ‘mains’ –
Such wisdom has William, the Local Inspector of Drains.
He plunges through marshes long haunted by cranes,
Unmindful of how dark bog-water stains;
Traducers assert that this ardour he feigns,
They little know William, Inspector of Drains!
Extract from Song of William, Inspector of Drains by Percy French (1854-1920)
Lot 219 – Framed vintage print of Percy FrenchWilliam Percy French – songwriter, poet and painter – was also a civil engineer. Typically, he made light of this. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1881, describing himself as ‘admirably unfitted for any profession whatsoever’, but found employment with the Board of Works in County Cavan as surveyor or inspector of drains. This was part of a large publically-funded civil engineering project. In 1861, the Shan
non had flooded with catastrophic effect on the farmland around it. The drainage works prevented this happening again but, in doing so, they changed the landscape forever. ‘People misunderstand his role,’ says Philip Sheppard. ‘French would have been involved in deciding where the drains would go, supervising their construction, and managing gangs of labourers. It gave him an intimate connection with the people and the land that ultimately informed his painting and his song writing.’
French’s finest watercolours come from the five years he spent in County Cavan. They are simple unassuming landscapes, atmospheric and with a strong sense of place. Now, they’re a window back in time, a snapshot of that part of Ireland before drainage permanently altered the nature of the landscape and its biodiversity. Their popularity at auction is well documented, but French remains under-represented in State collections. Possibly his reputation as a writer of humorous songs and subsequent career as an entertainer has stood in the way of his appreciation as artist and chronicler of the changing Irish landscape. Now, something special has come on the market.
A cupboard with panels painted by French (Lot 220: est. €2,000 to €3,000) is going under the hammer at Sheppard’s Irish Vernacular sale on 28 March. It originally came from 16 Farnham Street in Cavan town, where he lived during his time with the Board of Works. It’s easy to imagine the artist, with not much to do in the evenings, getting creative with the furniture. ‘In that particular house they also discovered his paintings under the wallpaper,’ Sheppard explains. The cupboard (180 x 127 x 48 cm) is decorated in oils. Each of its four front panels shows a different landscape. The top left panel is a seascape with a cliff edge in the foreground; top right is a view of a harbour pier with the sea coming in; bottom right is a beech tree; and bottom left is rock with lichen and ferns. Years of smoke and grime have dimmed the panels, which would shine more brightly if professionally restored. The sides of the cupboard are painted with bulrushes, locally called ‘black paddies.’ These edible plants, as Sheppard explains, are also known as ‘the asparagus of the Cossacks’. ‘Apparently they have the same nutritional value as rice,’ he says.
The sale also includes a watercolour painting by French, Turf Stack in the West of Ireland (Lot 221: est. €3,000 to €5,000), a haunting hazy view of the bog land with a luminous cloudy sky, and a framed vintage photograph of the artist (Lot 219: est. €200 to €300).