William Evans (1798 – 1877 ) was an accomplished English painter who was the drawing master at Eton College. He exhibited widely including with the RHA and in Paris and, judging by the prices on his work, was held in high esteem. A number of his paintings were used as illustrations in books. During 1836 and 1837 he showed 14 Irish subjects at the Old Watercolour Society, all of counties Galway and Mayo. These consisted of a mixture of landscapes, street and quayside scenes, indigenous peasant structures, and peasant portraits. For an English artist, his choice of terrain was highly adventurous, and it could be said that his paintings brought a new area of inspiration to the attention of artists in the UK.
He visited the west of Ireland twice, in 1835 and 1838. He recommended travelling on foot and liked “the parts which are least visited”. “Ireland had failed to attract the pencils of the recording brethren of the easel, and lay like a virgin soil untouched by the plough.” Evans wrote ecstatically of the Galway inhabitants and their cabins who live “in a state of primeval simplicity, honest, polite and virtuous, with so few wants that even the children run around the cabins unclad, realising to a fervid imagination an age of poetry, yet which the poetry of our own time has not described, and to painting is perfectly new and untouched”.
Our image today is a watercolour Evans painted in 1838 of Buttermilk Lane. It is a fascinating study of what street life in Galway was like 170 years ago. The artist has widened the lane for effect. There seems to be a gap at first floor level between buildings on the left and there are slated porches on some of the doors. There is an interesting shelf (which may have doubled as a shutter ) from which fish was sold on the right, and the wooden canopy over it may have been there to keep the sun off the fish. You can see a woman on the right hanging out clothes from what looks like a castellated roof. The clotheslines add a lot of colour and a ‘lived in’ feeling to the lane. The oriel window associated with Daniel O’Connell is not in evidence. There appear to be battlements over the arch at the top of the lane, and the Collegiate Church still has the old steeple.
What looks like footpaths on either side of the lane may have been drains for surface water. The barefoot fishsellers and their very colourful dresses and shawls add a lot of life to the scene and if you look through the arch, there is a good deal of activity to be seen on Shop Street. The woman seated on the left of our picture has a churn beside her and may have been selling buttermilk.... could that be how the lane got its name? You can see a birdcage hanging on a first floor wall on the right.
Much of the above, including the painting, is taken from an article entitled “Titian in Connemara” by Louisa M Connor Bulman which appeared in Apollo, the international magazine of the arts, which was published in April, 2004.