William Evans of Eton and his old Galway watercolours

William Evans of Eton (1798-1877 ) was the drawing master of Eton College in England and was an accomplished artist who exhibited widely in London, Dublin, and Paris. He made a number of visits to the west of Ireland in 1835 and 1838 where he produced many studies and finished watercolours, mostly of Counties Galway and Mayo, a mixture of picturesque landscapes, market and street scenes, and what might be called peasant structures and peasant portraits.

Although some were of Galway city, many of his pieces were of Conamara. One cannot be sure what brought him out to ‘the wilds’ of that very rugged terrain which would have been remote and very adventurous for an English artist at that time. He liked the parts of Ireland least visited and said that “Ireland failed to attract the pencils of the recording brethren of the easel and lay like a virgin soil untouched by the plough”.

He certainly studied a recently published book by Henry Inglis titled A journey through Ireland in the Spring, Summer, and Autumn of 1834 and another by Henry Blake called Letters from the Irish Highlands.

A number of his Irish paintings were shown in the Royal Academy in London and the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, and sold for what seemed like very high prices for the time. His topographical landscapes and streetscapes were richly coloured. He carefully recorded the types of clothing worn by the locals and also the traditional everyday tools and equipment used by them such as sléans, milk churns, various kinds of baskets, cooking pots, and spinning wheels. His paintings are evocative and important historical documents that capture the atmosphere on the streets just before the Famine.

Our first image today is of an unfinished watercolour of the Spanish Arch. The quay wall along the river bank had not yet been built as you can see from the way the turf boat is moored. They are unloading turf from the boat and there is a horse and cart in front of ‘the blind arch’ probably waiting for a load of turf. It is interesting that Evans refers to the area as ‘the Fishmarket’, even though the main fish market at that time was based in Dominick Street. The text that accompanies this picture says “The inhabitants of the Claddagh are a colony of fishermen and they number with their families between five and six thousand”. You can make out the thatched roofs of the Claddagh in the background and the high gable and chimney behind the arch. All of the people on the quayside, apart from one male, are colourfully dressed women.

Our second illustration is of a painting which he titled ‘Archway in the Claddagh’. It was obviously not in the Claddagh but may have been painted just across the river. It shows an alleyway which has a slight curve and gives us an indication of what other lanes and alleys in the city centre looked like. The two arches make this one very interesting. The sunlight on the far arch would seem to indicate a gap in the buildings on the right. There is a carved stone plaque in the centre of the near archway which would suggest that the building belonged to a family of substance at one time, but now cracks are appearing in the walls and the roof looks like it is about to fall in. The chimney on the left appears to be just over the window, out of which hangs a makeshift clothesline. The windows in the building on the right are at different levels.

The third illustration is of some studies he was making of the various types of dress the locals wore near the Spanish Arch area. These images and many more are part of a wonderful exhibition entitled “From Galway to Leenane, perceptions of Landscape by William Evans of Eton” which is currently on show in the National Gallery in Merrion Square, Dublin. It runs until the end of September and admission is free. This fascinating collection is of great interest, especially to anyone from County Galway, and should not be missed.

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