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William Ashford - 1746-1824
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A View of Killarney with the Passage to the Upper Lake
Oil painting on canvas 30 x 40 inches (96.5 x 126.4 cm) and contained in a fine contemporary 18th century carved and gilded frame
Painted circa 1779
Exhibited: Possibly Society of Artists, Dublin 1780, no 9 ‘A view in the passage to the Upper Lake’.
Literature: See G. Breeze, Society of Artists in Ireland, Index of Exhibits 1765-80, National Gallery of Ireland, 1985 p. 1
This painting, previously unknown to scholars and the art market alike, is a significant rediscovery of importance for the study of eighteenth-century Irish landscape. It is one of a series of three views of the subject that are now known: one was formerly in the collection of Tryon Palace, New Bern, NC, the second is in an Irish private collection
It shows the passage to the upper lake Killarney. This is Ashford at his finest at the moment in the 1770s when he and Thomas Roberts, as young artists, were competing in a spirit of friendly rivalry to redefine the landscape school by the direct observation of Ireland’s scenery. An unusually large work in Ashford’s corpus, it must be accounted one of his early masterpieces.
William Ashford is of course, one of the key figures in the rise of the eighteenth-century landscape school of the 1760s onwards. Although born in Birmingham he was to spend his entire career in Ireland, ending it as the first president of the Royal Hibernian Academy. He came to Ireland in 1764 and initially followed a government career being appointed Clerk to the Comptroller of the Laboratory of the Ordnance on an annual salary of £40. Ashford started to exhibit four year later showing flower pieces and still lives at the Society of Artists in Dublin. From 1772, however, he started to exhibit landscapes, the genre to which he was to devote his life. Ashford met early critical success winning premiums from the Dublin Society and being noticed in London after showing at the Royal Academy in 1775:
We don’t remember this artist’s name before in any exhibition; notwithstanding this, he is so far from being a novice in his profession, that, if he is young and attentive, he may well expect to reach the first form, in this department of painting.
Ashford developed enormously in the course 1770s – the date of the present work. After the death of Roberts in 1778 he completed the latter’s important series of View of Carton, which still hang in the house. In another work of the same year, also commissioned by the Kildares, the similarities between the two artists’ approaches are clear. Also in the same year Ashford was elected a member of the Society of Artists.
Of all artists of the eighteenth-century Irish landscape school, Ashford takes a particular pleasure in recording the well-heeled tourists visiting Ireland’s beauty spots. Similar figures to those leaving the boat in the present work, appear admiring the picturesque views of the Dargle Valley (Royal Hibernian Academy) or the antiquarian remains of Cloghoughter Castle (Richard Wood Collection, University of Limerick). Killarney, however, was the ultimate destination for those seeking the wild, untamed Irish landscape which Edmund Burke had popularised in his treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful which in the previous decade had greatly inspired the rather older George Barret.
A year or two before Ashford painted this view, it was described by Louisa Conolly:
Beyond these beautifull [sic.] high hills you see monstrous rock mountains, you then turn round an Island into Muckross Lake, where you coast along a rocky shore, that the water has made so beautifull that every rock pleases you….You then go thro’ a narrow channel into the Upper Lake, where you have the sublime in perfection.2
This is the very spot, the narrow passage between the lower and upper lakes, that Ashford depicts. The well-dressed visitors are brought ashore by attendants, one with a parasol to shield the sun; a fisherman looks on, in a motif which rather recalls the work of John Butts.
Ashford exhibited Killarney views at the Society of artists in London in 1778 (A View of the Entrance of the Lake of Killarney) and in Dublin from 1780 showing: Killarney from Aghadoe, Innisfallen Island, Mucross Abbey and the Passage to the Upper Lake; the last of these, is likely to have been either this painting or one of the other two known version so the subject all of which differ considerably in detail.
The great charm of the picture is this pleasingly balanced composition, the overall palette and particularly the soft Irish light falling on the verdure. This recalls an anonymous diarist’s assessment of Asford’s work: ‘There is here abundant scope for an exertion of the artist’s genius in the delineation of foliage. The articulation is perfect and the colouring so beautifully rich, and various, that I could with pleasure have spent hours viewing them’.3