As windows, doors, walls, furniture and floors were progressively upgraded over time in Irish cottages, little record of the originals remain. This blogpost features the work of the Scottish artist Erskine Nicol (1825-1904) who was active in Ireland from the mid nineteenth century. Much of his work amounts to a 'fly on the wall' view of rural Irish life including architecture, interiors and furniture.
Nicol spent time in Ireland at the height of the Great Famine (1840s). He taught art in Dublin during this time and later in his life established a studio in Westmeath. During these periods he portrayed Irish peasants in his work, painting them almost exactly as they were. His work provides a great record of how Irish rural people looked, their dress, their customs and also offer a significant record of their houses and interiors. Nicol like so many formally trained artists, liked to show his artistic talent by painting scenes of great verisimilitude and varying genres, often including little still-lifes of objects.
It is said he had a great affinity with the Irish people and his poignant depiction of Irish Emigrants Waiting for a Train (1864) is painted with sympathy for the subjects. Yet other paintings show the Irish in a less sympathetic light: At Donnybrook Fair (1859) is a fine example of the nineteenth century stereotypical drunken and foolish Irish character.
Look carefully to the background of many of his cottage interiors for a valuable window into the world of the lives of Irish people of the time. He painted all the things discussed in blogposts here: settles, creepie stools, doors, windows, lofts and tables with great detail and accuracy. He also included items that were more delicate and perishable and did not survive, such as straw chairs, baskets, crockery, clothing and textiles. Nicol’s work provides us with a valuable record of Irish domestic design history and rural life.