A picture paints a thousand words

Posted on: 3rd November, 2014

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Above: ‘Bringing Home the Bride’ 1883 by Howard Helmick, (1840-1907). Courtesy private collection and Gorry Gallery, Dublin.

claudiahome Traditionally so-called ‘strong farmers’ used to arrange the marriage matches of their sons and daughters. Instead of inheritance upon death of a family farm, this allowed the elders to retire and have a younger couple take over while they were still alive. Hard bargains were struck over dowries, some involving matchmakers.  Those who rebelled against having their marriages arranged for them, resorted to some intriguing alternatives.

As part of her decades of research into Irish farmhouse furniture, and then into previously little known paintings that depict rural marriage, Dr Claudia Kinmonth will give an illustrated lecture telling the story of arranged marriage. The lecture, which is as part of the Cork Decorative and Fine Arts Society programme 2014, will take place at the Clarion Hotel in Cork City on December 3, starting at 7.45pm.

Claudia Kinmonth is the author of two books ‘Irish Country Furniture, 1700-1950’ and ‘Irish Rural Interiors in Art’. She is also the co-author of numerous other art history and furniture history related publications.

Mary O’Brien visits the award-winning author and curator at her home in Leap, West Cork. 

Working as a furniture restorer in London in the 1980s, Claudia became aware no one was really researching Irish furniture. “I was interested in the history of the items — whose wedding the furniture piece was made for and so on,” says Claudia. She literally started knocking on doors around the country (many in West Cork) searching for items to research for her book ‘Irish Country Furniture, 1700-1950’.“It was before the Celtic Tiger so there were rich pickings,” she explains. “Sadly when Irish homes were modernised, many of these items were lost — thrown away or destroyed.”

After publishing the much-acclaimed ‘Irish Country Furniture’, Claudia turned her attention to researching paintings with furniture in them. Her second book ‘Irish Rural Interiors in Art’ offers a fascinating view of many aspects of Irish rural life from the 18th to mid 20th century, with illustrations that evoke the hardships and celebrations of labourers and farmers. She also draws on knowledge of material culture to present a social history of Irish country people.

‘Bringing home the Bride’ (1883) by American painter Howard Helmick is featured in the book and forms part of Claudia’s lecture on arranged marriage in December.

‘It’s one of Helmick’s most interesting paintings, which is why it’s the title of my talk,” she says. “It’s a wonderful painting, full of information. You can identify all the people in it. For example, the bride is crossing the threshold for the first time and the groom’s father has his hand out for the money, or dowry.

“As a prospect for marriage in the late 19th Century, you’d have a cow, some linen, maybe a hundred pounds; quite a lot of money, and there would be a bargain struck over the deal of the marriage.”

Helmick had a studio in Kinsale and Galway.

‘Paddy’s Honeymoon’ by Cork painter William McGrath tells the story of the typical Irish farmer getting married. “He’s painted inside the house, as he doesn’t go away on honeymoon,” explains Claudia. “The newlyweds are painted sitting on a settle bed. You can tell what type of household it is from details in the painting: a rosary bead hanging up, the old granny is by the fire. In the Dutch tradition, you also have animals echoing the behavior of the people of the house.”

“You can understand the painting through gaining an understanding of the furniture and objects in it,” says Claudia.

Samuel Lover’s illustration ‘The Couple Beggar’ depicts another interesting aspect of Irish history. In the 19th century, defrocked priests would marry hard-up couples or couples of different faiths for a pound or less. “Many couples didn’t necessarily even have a ring,” explains Claudia. “The key was often taken out of the door and placed on the bride’s finger during the ceremony.”

Claudia goes on to explain that there were serious penalties if the ex-priest was caught. “He could have been hung.”

Interestingly, matchmaking took place at all sorts of events, for example at Wakes, and abduction of women before marriage was common in those days. In the words of one historian “Women were pawns in an elaborate chess game.”

“Helmick was very interested in that control of women,” says Claudia “and he was sympathetic to it.”

A local West Cork painter, Charles H Cook, from Bandon, describes the ruination of a young women in a pub scene in his painting ‘St Patrick’s Day’.

“She’s painted dancing with a soldier, which she shouldn’t be doing, as her chances of marriage are ruined,” says Claudia. An empty birdcage in the painting symbolises how the bird has flown. A glove on the floor is a symbol of an abandoned wedding present. An emigration poster on the wall describes the young woman’s only option after her poor behaviour. “This painting is literally dripping with symbolism,” says Claudia.

The ballad sheet on the table in the painting brings back a particular childhood memory to Claudia. “During my childhood in Union Hall, people’s names were added in to a ballad if they did anything wrong,” she says.

A full-time researcher and author, Claudia is hugely passionate about her work, loving nothing better than finding an unresearched painting and spending hours deconstructing it to discover its history.

At present, she is also working on the second edition of ‘Irish Country Furniture’ and is interested in sourcing any 19th century Irish farmhouse furniture or paintings of interiors for her research. Email ckkinmonth@gmail.com.

Full information on Cork DFAS and membership details are available at www.corkdfas.ie, or follow CorkDFAS on Facebook and Twitter.  The society can be contacted by email: info@corkdfas.ie.  Non-members are also welcome to individual lectures.

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