Percy French was a civil engineer by training – or ‘Inspector of Drains’ as he called it – but is well known for his varied talents as a poet, bantering journalist for publications such as The Irish Cyclist , editor of the short-lived comic weekly, The Jarvey , writer of many songs including Phil the Fluter’s Ball and The Mountains of Mourne , and stage entertainer. In addition, his watercolour paintings remain very popular, especially scenes of the open, rugged Irish landscape. The purpose of this book is to publish a series of letters dating from 1892-1894 from French to Helen “Lennie” Sheldon documenting the courtship that led to their marriage in January 1894. The development of their relationship is readily seen in the change of address, from “Dear Miss Sheldon” (January 1892) to “Dearest Lennie” (May 1892) to “My Darling Lennie” (July 1892). But affairs of the heart are not dwelt on and the letters are very informative about French’s professional activities of the period and his network of friendships and creative collaborations as he sought to build a career in both Ireland and Britain. Some of the now obscure individuals and events that are mentioned are helpfully identified by the compiler.
The letters are written in a light-hearted tone but occasionally more serious information emerges. For example, French’s living was made from many sources which required a high work rate; the arrival of a welcome ‘small cheque’ from his music publisher was celebrated with 4d. worth of gooseberries. He was not shy of opportunism when exhibiting watercolors; as he admitted to Lennie, a Devonshire landscape, Sunrise at Lynmouth, was re-titled The Last Ray, Portmarnock, for exhibition at Belfast.
The content of the book alternates between transcription of the letters and reproductions of some of them and related memorabilia such as newspaper cuttings, sheet-music title-pages, photographs, and theatre programmes. A number of French’s sketches and watercolours are well produced giving a clear sense of the qualities that make them attractive to collectors. The design and production deliberately echo Tongue’s earlier book, A Picture of Percy French (1990), to which The Love Letters makes a fitting and enjoyable companion.
Philip McEvansoneya is a lecturer in the History of Art at Trinity College Dublin