Edmond Delrenne: Witness to 1916

From the Winter 2015 edition

As Europe confronts its current refugee crisis, Kathryn Milligan looks back to 1916 when a Belgian artist was one of the 2,300 Belgian refugees who sought shelter in Ireland.

The ongoing refugee crisis has given rise to a renewed interest in the history of migration to Ireland. Successive waves of immigration have influenced all aspects of life on this island, including the artistic sphere. Records of this history can be found tucked away in different institutional and archival collections, as can be seen in the case of Edmond Delrenne (fl. 1915 – 1918). In 1982, a small watercolour showing the ruins of the GPO after the Easter Rising was presented to the National Gallery of Ireland (Fig 1). It was, as a letter offering the work to the institution noted, by ‘a Belgian artist, a refugee from the German invasion in 1914.’1 In recent years, a small number of additional works by this little-known artist have appeared in auction rooms, all depicting the ruined city of 1916. These works, predominantly watercolours, form an interesting and rare corpus on this theme. With the centenary of the Easter Rising approaching, and commemorations of the First World War already underway, it is timely to consider the arrival of Belgian refugees in Ireland, and how this artist, fleeing the devastating onset of war, came to record a seminal moment in Irish history.  

The first Belgian refugees arrived in Ireland in October 1914, and over the period of the war, a total of some 2,300 people found refuge in Ireland at various times.2 In October 1914 a Belgian Refugee Committee formed in Ireland, under the auspices of the Local Government Board. Akin to the War Refugees Committee in Britain, the main function of the Irish committee was to arrange hospitality for refugees in locations around Ireland. Fronted by a Belgian woman resident in Ireland, Hélenè Fowle, the Committee engaged in various fundraising activities around the country, as well as receiving newly arrived refugees at Dublin port. Newspaper reports from the period suggest that there were several Belgian artists present in Ireland, and that artistic activities were often part of the Belgian Refugee Committee’s fundraising efforts. A newspaper article in January 1916 reported on Sir Ernest Hatch’s inspection of conditions for Belgian refugees in Ireland. In particular, at a site in Foxrock, Co Dublin where the Committee ‘looked after a settlement of Belgian refugee artists’, ‘great consideration was shown to these professional exiles, who are thus enabled to carry on their professions under the most charming auspices.’3 Further to this, in July 1916 The Irish Times reported that

‘At the Gift Shop, 37 Grafton street […] some marvellous lamp shades will be on view. They have been specially painted by MM. De Pooter, Delrenne, Berckmanns, and other Belgian artists who have found shelter in Ireland.’4

The ‘Gift Shop’ had been lent to the committee by the owners of Switzer’s department store, with the aim of raising money for the Belgian Relief Fund. 

The exact circumstances under which Delrenne came to Ireland are still unclear. In London, the War Refugees Committee maintained a register of Belgian refugees, and some details of Delrenne’s movements during the war are revealed in his record. Aged in his 40s (his age is initially listed as 43, with a later pencil amendment to 49), both Visé and Antwerp are noted as places of former residence. Delrenne came to Britain and Ireland with his wife, Sera Daems. The earliest date that Delrenne was registered with a Local Committee is October 1915, however, as will be seen, it is likely that he was in Dublin prior to this. In December 1916, his address is listed as 195 Brunswick Street, Dublin, however by August 1917 the artist had moved to London, when his last known address is given as 15 Howely Place, Paddington, in December 1918.5 

From mounds of rubble to shards of masonry and brick work, the toll of the insurrection on the city’s building and landscape is plain to see.

In January 1915 the Keeper of the RHA, Joseph Malachy Kavanagh proposed to the Academy’s General Assembly that ‘all profits […] of this year’s exhibition be given to the Belgian Refugee Fund.’6 In their address to the newly appointed Lord Lieutenant in April 1915, the delegation from the RHA emphasized the fact that this gesture was especially meaningful as Belgium was where ‘so many of our members have received part of their art education’.7 This number included Kavanagh, who had travelled to the Academié Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp in 1881 with Walter Osborne and Nathaniel Hill. In addition to Kavanagh, the President of the RHA at this time, Dermod O’Brien, had also studied in Antwerp. The initial idea for this exhibition may have come from Philippa M. Lawless, Mountjoy Square, who in October 1914, called for ‘an Exhibition of Irish Paintings’ to be ‘organized in aid of Belgian distress.’2 Furthermore Lawless asked that ‘half the profits of every artist contributing to the exhibition should be given to the Belgian Relief Fund in Dublin.’8 However a clear link between Lawless’ suggestion and the RHA exhibition cannot be established. 

Two paintings by Delrenne were included in the 1915 RHA exhibition, The Burning of Visé, Belgium, August 1914 and On the Banks of the River Vesdre, Belgium. The whereabouts of these works is now unknown, but the titles given in the exhibition catalogue firmly place them as depictions of Belgian subjects. The city of Visé, where Delrenne is recorded as having lived, was destroyed by fire during the early stages of the Battle of Liege in August 1914. This suggests that Delrenne was in the country prior to October 1915; or at least in contact with Dermod O’Brien: his address given as ‘care of Dermod O’Brien Esq., PRHA, Royal Hibernian Academy.’9 O’Brien provided accommodation for Delrenne and his wife in Cahirmoyle, Co Limerick. Two further paintings by Delrenne were exhibited at the RHA in 1916, again on war themes. Priced at £8, 8 shillings each, the subjects were The Invalid and The Letter from the Front. All works included in the 1916 exhibition were destroyed when the RHA building on Abbey Street caught fire during the Rising. 

While details of Delrenne’s time in Ireland remain elusive, the six paintings of Dublin in 1916 attributed to the artist are unambiguous in their subject matter. From mounds of rubble to shards of masonry and brick work, the toll of the insurrection on the city’s building and landscape is plain to see. Firmly located within the confines of O’Connell Street and its immediate environs, Delrenne’s paintings show the epicentre of the Rising. As it stands, these works form part of a limited number of known works by painters in Ireland to these events. For example, while Kathleen Fox’s The Arrest is relatively well-known, a group of watercolours by Clare Marsh showing ‘desolate Dublin streets in 1916’ is now unknown, either through destruction or concealed by private ownership.10 Delrenne’s presence in Dublin at the time of the rising is confirmed by a letter sent by Dermod O’Brien to his wife on the 11 May, 1916. Walking from the Kildare Street Club to Moran’s Hotel to meet with Kavanagh, he ‘met Delrenne in a doorway […] so he gassed as we went along and lifted £5 off me which shut his mouth.’11 

The GPO in Ruins, Sackville Street, shows the view across O’Connell Street from the Abbey Street junction, towards the GPO and Nelson’s Pillar (Fig 1). The green flag of the Irish Republic still flies over the building. Although its windows have been blinded by the fighting, the pedimentary statuary still stands tall. In the foreground, rubble and masonry are indicated through strokes of charcoal and areas of buff watercolour. To the right hand side, a fragment of an arch and ornate capital still stands amongst the ruins. The symbolic juxtaposition of the GPO, in front of which the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was orated, and Nelson’s Pillar plainly shown: nationalist ambition and imperial might frame the city’s skyline. A pastel version of this composition was sold at auction in 2014, with the details of the masonry rubble more clearly delineated in the foreground. A second pastel of an unidentified location surveys the ruins of the buildings after the shelling, with strong green and yellow tones in the right-hand foreground (Fig 2). Both of these pastels are dated 1916 by the artist.12 

While The GPO in Ruins and the two pastel works are devoid of human figures, Delrenne includes representations of onlookers to great effect in Henry Street, Dublin, After the Easter Rising and Women and Children Before City Ruins. Worked in watercolour with some bodycolour and crayon additions, in these images Delrenne places himself (and the viewer) among the Dubliners surveying the damage to their city. The former work looks up Henry Street towards Sackville Street, with the original Arnott’s tower visible on the left hand side (Fig 4). A lone soldier stands guard at a barricade, and the street beyond seems filled with either people or rubble. The exact location of the latter work is unclear, however the scale of the damage to the city is made manifest through the piles of rubble, juxtaposed with the small group of onlookers (Fig 5). 

A final, larger work in oil was also completed by Delrenne. Titled The Burning of the GPO and now in a private collection, the painting depicts the burnt out buildings adjacent to the side of the GPO on Henry Street (Fig 3) The remaining internal structure of the buildings is laid bare, while the top portion of Nelson’s Pillar emerges above them. To the right of the Pillar, plum and orange flames rise from the GPO itself, swirling towards the figure of Nelson. In the foreground of the composition, figures gather items from the rubble against the backdrop of buildings reduced to empty shells by the fighting. This work was included in the 1966 exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rising. Dated by the artist to 1917, this painting, completed on a larger scale and in a more lasting medium, is suggestive of the artist’s continued interest in this subject – potentially, even, after he had moved away from Ireland. 

While not artistically innovative, when viewed as a collection in their historical context, these artworks are significant. Together they form an interesting addition to the visual record of the Easter Rising and, in particular, the damage inflicted on the city’s built environment by the fighting. They complement the more familiar photographs of the city taken in the aftermath of the fighting, and reproduced at the time by the leading photographic and publishing companies – for example, the well-known and recently reissued Dublin After the Six Days Insurrection and The Rebellion in Dublin. As noted above, Delrenne places himself among the Dubliners surveying the post-Rising cityscape, however his circumstances were markedly different to those around him. Brought to Ireland by the worsening situation in Europe, it seems unlikely that Delrenne would have envisaged himself as bearing witness to another conflict in the place he sought refuge. While further research is needed to establish Delrenne’s movements after the war, the information now known about this elusive artist and the visual legacy he left behind in Ireland further highlights the interconnected relationship between Ireland, Europe, and the different conflicts that occurred in the period 1914-1918. The material uncovered to date also suggests that Delrenne was one of several Belgian artists in Ireland during the First World War, and this remains a hidden part of Ireland’s art history. 

Edmond Delrenne will feature in ‘James Stephens, the 1916 Rising, and the National Gallery of Ireland’, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 6 February – 24 April 2016.

Kathryn Milligan PhD is a research fellow at the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art, NGI.

This article has been commissioned by the Guardians of the Irish Arts Review. The Guardians of the Irish Arts Review support the New Generation Project at the Irish Arts Review. The objective of the New Generation Project is to nurture, support and promote emerging artists, architects and writers and to provide an authoritative platform for their work at a critical juncture in their careers.

1 Letter from Brendan O’Brien to the Board of Governors and Guardians  of the National Gallery of Ireland, 21 May 1982, National Gallery of Ireland. 
2 Clare O’Neill, ‘The Irish Home Front 1914 – 1918 with particular reference to the treatment of Belgian refugees, prisoners-of-war, enemy aliens and war casualties’, (PhD Diss., NUI Maynooth, 2006),70.
3 ‘Belgians in Ireland’, The Irish Times, 12 January 1916, 6
4 ‘Fashionable Intelligence’, The Irish Times, 22 July 1916, 8. 
5 On the 5 April 1916, Delrenne wrote a lengthy letter to Dublin Castle from the Brunswick St address. See Letters of 1916: Creating History,  http://dh.tcd.ie/letters1916/diyhistory/items/show/1164
6 Meeting of the General Assembly, 18 January 1915, Royal Hibernian Academy Archive.
7 ‘The Lord Lieutenant’, The Irish Times, 27 April 1915, 6. 
8 ‘Irish Artists and the Refugees’, The Irish Times, 27 October 1914. Lawless reiterated this call in a letter to Fr Nolan, a member of the Belgian Relief Committee, dated 31 October 1914. See Irish Jesuit Archive, ADMIN/3/7 (1). 
9 Exhibition in Aid of the Belgian Refugee Fund, Royal Hibernian Academy, 1915, 37. 
10 M F McH, ‘The Pictures Live: Exhibit of Work of Late Miss Clare Marsh,’ Freeman’s Journal, 4 October 1923, 8. 
11 Letter from Dermod O’Brien to M. O’Brien, 11 May 1916, reproduced in Lennox Robinson, The Palette and Plough: and pen-and-ink drawing of Dermod O’Brien PRHA, Dublin: Brown and Nolan, 1948, 153. Kavanagh had been present in the Royal Hibernian Academy premises on Abbey Street when it caught fire.  
12 These two pastels were sold at Whyte’s, Important Irish and International Art, 26 May 2014, Lot 15. 

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