Time and tide

Time and tide

Nathaniel Hone excelled at capturing the great outdoors, whether pastoral or coastal: to mark his centenary Julian Campbell examines his dramatic County Clare marine works

During the Revolutionary years in Ireland a number of senior Irish artists were coming to the end of long and fulfilling careers. Landscape painter Nathaniel Hone died in October 1917; William J Hennessy in December; Joseph M Kavanagh in 1918, and John B Yeats died in New York in 1922. Hennessy had been born in Co Kilkenny to a Young Irelander who emigrated to America, and later he settled in England. Kavanagh was the artist most directly affected by the Troubles. Following the occupation of the GPO on Sackville Street (O’Connell Street)by the Volunteers on Easter Monday 1916, the RHA buildings in nearby Abbey Street were shelled by British gun-ships. As Treasurer at the Academy, Kavanagh lived in the premises and witnessed their destruction, including the loss of paintings by himself, Hone and other artists.

Hone had been present at the opening of the Annual RHA Exhibition only a couple of weeks before. Now in his mid-eighties, he was one of the older members and was Professor of Painting there. He had been practising as a landscape painter for sixty years and, although some commentators had criticized his bold style with its lack of detail, he was now widely admired by writers, collectors and, especially, fellow artists. In September 1917 art historian and former barrister Thomas Bodkin, (later to be director of the National Gallery), wrote to Hone to ask if he could meet and talk with him. Bodkin was preparing a series of Hermione lectures on Irish landscape painters. Hone replied graciously, inviting Bodkin to call out to his house at St Doulough’s, Raheny any weekday morning, except Friday. The writer duly visited Hone, and they enjoyed a lengthy conversation about many aspects of the latter’s life and work. Bodkin joked that artists and judges were among the most long-lived members of the community, and Hone replied: ‘I can understand the case of artists being long-lived, particularly landscape painters who are so much in the open air. I was never very strong constitutionally, and I’m the patriarch of these parts now. I’m sure I wouldn’t be alive if I wasn’t a landscape painter.’1

Hone talked with enthusiasm about different subjects: ‘from reminiscences of his years in Paris to the kinds of oil used in painting’, from sailing matches in Dublin Bay to the apples and roses he cultivated in his garden. In the hall of St Doulough’s Bodkin saw a portrait of Hone by Walter Osborne (now in the National Gallery of Ireland), and on the wide landing many landscapes: ‘superb records of forest and river scenes‚Ķ; of the Doge’s Palace (in Venice), of wild mountains in the west of Ireland.’

Bodkin’s visit was timely because, only a few weeks later, on 14 October 1917, Hone died at the age of eight-six. Normally quite reserved in temperament, it was as if, having shared his memories with someone who admired his work so fully, he felt free to let go. Bodkin wrote tributes to him in The Irish Times2 and The Freeman’s Journal, delivered his lectures, and in 1920 published his landmark book Four Irish Landscape Painters. Hone’s widow Magdalene, who died in 1919, bequeathed his 550 oil paintings and nearly 900 watercolours to the National Gallery of Ireland, and these were catalogued by fellow artist Dermod O’Brien. Together with up to 100 canvases then in private collections, this comprised a remarkable body of work by Hone.

Better known for his verdant landscapes of cattle in pastures and woodland, and for coastal and marine paintings in Co Dublin, Hone was also a great painter of the West Coast of Ireland. Many 19th-century artists were drawn to Co Kerry and Connemara for their picturesque beauty and mountainous terrain. Hone, in contrast, made excursions to counties Mayo, Clare and Donegal, attracted by their lonesome scenery of lakes, rocky coastline, cliffs and stormy seas. He first exhibited pictures of Co Clare at the RHA in 1891 and at the Dublin Art Club in 1893, so it seems likely that he visited this county around 1890 or slighty earlier.

Kilkee had become one of the most popular western resorts earlier in the century, visitors attracted by the sheltered sandy beach, which gave priority to women bathers, by Senan’s Well, and by tidal rock pools and dramatic cliff formations. Kilkee was featured in the writings of travellers,3 and its rocks and stormy seas were depicted by artists4 and photographers. Within walking distance of the town and beach were many romantic locations attractive to the artist: for instance, George’s Head to the north, and to the south, the Duggerna Rocks, the Amphitheatre, natural bridges, the Intrinsic Rocks,5 and pollock holes. Further south along the coast is Loop Head; while to the north are the Cliffs of Moher, and Hone was one of the first artists to paint a watercolour of these.

As he rarely dated his work, it is not known if he made only one visit to Kilkee, or several visits. However, he painted more than eighteen small watercolours directly from nature and more than sixteen small oils,6 some of which he used as the basis for the large canvases of Co Clare which he executed back in his studio, and which he continued to exhibit at the RHA and other venues in the 20th century.7

Hone’s watercolours are notable for their directness, spontaneity and freshness of colour. His watercolour of the Cliffs of Moher (Fig 1) although tiny in scale, conveys this impressive natural setting, showing rust-coloured cliffs with blue shadows and an exquisite turquoise sea. His watercolours of George’s Head, Kilkee viewed from the beach or the rocks, are equally fresh and attractive. Hone was fascinated by the rock formations, cliffs, rock pools and stormy seas to the south, and many of his watercolours were painted here. At low tide, the Duggerna Rocks were uncovered and stretched out into the Atlantic; local people searched for shellfish or pollock. Hone captures the essence of the scene in watercolours such as Waves Breaking on the Rocks (Fig 7): the rocks and pools, figures of women, waves breaking, the blue strip of sea and pinkish sky with assured, fluid strokes.

His oil paintings show similar themes; but some are more bare and elemental, with rocks or cliffs in the foreground or peninsulas behind, storm-tossed seabirds, seas with breaking waves, horizon lines and cloudy, changing skies. One of the most powerful canvases is probably one of his earliest, Near Kilkee,8 exhibited at the RHA in 1891 (Fig 5). It is clearly structured and contains all the elements of Hone’s classic coastal paintings: magnificent, but forbidding, shelfs of rock, ferocious seas with waves breaking, rock pools, and a high horizon – the artist observes the flying spray, copper tones of seaweed, and the exquisite jade hues beneath the waves, with subtlety. Bodkin writes with sensitivity of the colours present in Hone’s Coast of Kilkee (NGI): ‘The grey, clouded sky has slight touches of pure blue. The sea is grey-green. The rocks in the middle distance are warm brown, with splashes of ochre weed. The rocks in the foreground are slate blue, with a patch of yellow-green weed under the flying bird.’9

West of Ireland coastal scene with breaking waves10 features a headland in the background, and includes birds flying above the rocks (Fig 4). The subject is conveyed with bold, expressive brushstokes. Indeed, successive paintings seem to become more simplified, with broad, sweeping brushwork. In Storm off Kilkee (Fig 6),11 the seabirds are tiny and the sea agitated, the colours dark and pewter-toned, conveying the threatening aspects of nature. The Coast of County Clare (Hugh Lane Gallery) is also sombre in tone, and features a large wave breaking in a choppy sea. Woman with Donkey on rocks in Kilkee12 likewise includes a wave rolling towards the land, suggesting the precariousness of human life in the face of all-powerful nature . Here, as in other pictures, a faint coastline in the distance seems almost to emerge through the mist, like the mythical Hy-Brasil of Irish legend.

Contemporary photographs of Kilkee often included tourists among the picturesque sites. In contrast, several of Hone’s watercolours and oils feature the small figures of local people at work, searching for fish in the pools or gathering seaweed off the rocks. However, many pictures lack a human presence, and Hone focuses on rocks, cliffs, sea, waves and skies, capturing the wild, elemental aspects of nature. He is ‘out west and alone’, perched on the cliffs, or ‘alone with the tide’.13

His work is based upon naturalistic observation, yet also has a Wordsworthian Romanticism, capturing something of the viewer’s emotion in the face of raw nature. His later paintings became more simplified, symbolic and expressive, featuring emblems such as the wave, the seabird and the cloud.

In 1892, not long after Hone’s visit, the narrow-gauge railway was extended to Kilkee. The town now became more accessible to tourists. Percy French was prompted to write his humorous song about the West Clare Railway, Are you right there Michael, are you right? in 1897, and Miss M A McNamara her poem ‘Kilkee the Grand’ in 1904. In the meantime, Hone had made an extensive tour of the Mediterranean, visiting Greece and Egypt, and seeking light, heat and colour completely different from those in Ireland. Kilkee, although overshadowed by other tourist destinations in Co Clare, such as the Cliffs of Moher, Doolin and Lahinch, continues to attract writers and artists. Novelist Anne Enright writes of her childhood visits there: ‘We lived by the tides, waiting for sea to roll back from the reef‚Ķ’. Photographers such as Paul Lynam and Carsten Kreiger have taken atmospheric pictures of the coastline. Enright praises ‘Lynam’s passion for landscape [which] plays between the open and the underwater light of the rock pools‚Ķ’.14 Contemporary artist Donald Teskey was highly impressed by Hone’s ‘watercolour sketches, very fresh and timeless in their handling, mainly documenting the restlessness of the sea and coastal landscape of Ireland’ and he selected a Kilkee watercolour by Hone for inclusion in the exhibition ‘Revelation’ held at the National Gallery of Ireland in 2008.15

County Clare inspired Hone to create some of his finest paintings and in 2017, his centenary year, his pictures still have the power to move and inspire the viewer.

Julian Campbell is the author of Nathaniel Hone the Younger, National Gallery of Ireland, 1991 and is a contributor to the catalogue Eugeen Van Mieghem Port Life, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane 2017.


1 Typescript of article on Hone, by T Bodkin, Dept of Manuscripts, Trinity College, Dublin.

2 ‘Mr Hone and his Art. A visit to St Doulough’s,’ The Irish Times, 16 October 1917.

3 see, for instance: Mrs Knott, Two months at Kilkee; SC Hall, Ireland: Its Scenery and Character 1841-43; and An Englishman, A Walking Tour Round Ireland in 1865, (1867).

4 Amongst the artists who painted at Kilkee were WH Bartlett (with his dramatic picture Natural bridges near Kilkee), Richard B Beechey, Robert L. Stopford, Stephen Catterson Smith and Robert Shore.

5 The name of these rocks may have derived from the ship The Intrinsic, from Liverpool, which sank near Kilkee in 1836. This was the subject of a painting by Beechey.

6 Listed in catalogue of Hone’s paintings by Dermod O’Brien, in T Bodkin, Four Irish Landscape Painters 1920, Appendix XVI. Some of Hone’s pictures have general titles, so his Co Clare oeuvre may well exceed this number.

7 Hone exhibited his canvases of Kilkee on about twenty occasions.

8 Irish Paintings, Gorry Gallery, 1998, No 18.

9 T Bodkin, 1920, np, facing plate XVII.

10 Important Irish Art, Adam’s and Bonhams, 10 September 1997 Lot 32.

11 Important Irish Art, Adam’s, 28 September 2005, Lot 84.

12 Important Irish Art, Adam’s and Bonhams, 10 December 2003, Lot 63.

13 The words of Clyfford Still, American Abstract Expressionist; and the title of a painting by James Mc N. Whistler, 1861 (Wordsworth Athenaeum, Hartford).

14 Anne Enright, ‘Rock of Ages’, The Irish Times magazine, 2 May 2009; and Carsten Krieger The West of Ireland, a photographer’s journey, Cork 2009.

15 D Teskey in Revelation (ed) Anne Hodge, NGI 2008 pp72,78.

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