PHOTOGRAPHS

The Monksgrange photographic archive holds 10,000+ images. These include daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, glass plate and acetate negatives, lantern slides and positive prints.
 

There is an important collection of 800 glass plate negatives, 300 acetate negatives, 150 lantern slides and almost 1000 positives – all the work of Goddard H. Orpen (1852-1932.)
 

The Orpen negatives have been digitised and masterprints have been archived. Work in progress includes digitising the positive prints and listing/detailing each image.
 

During 2022 we will introduce one image each month and these will shown on Facebook (Monksgrange Archives) and on the website: www.monksgrangearchives.com/archives/photographs.

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GOAP 0583 Stacking straw  Monksgrange, Co. Wexford. c1898 by Goddard Orpen

©Monksgrange Archives

 

Taken perhaps a week or so later than last month’s frenetic image, Powering Up, this day’s activity is altogether calmer. Here we have a portrait study while Powering up was a full paced, all action thriller. The two men and their horse have put last week’s exertion behind them and are engaging in conversation while the listening horse has its ears pricked for any worthwhile gossip. Orpen’s often used device of an empty, plain space on which to site his main composition is used cleverly here once again where the growing stack stands firmly on a circle of open yard. The oblique lean of the ladder counters the vertical uprights of the shed, the plane of the latter’s open face countering the circles of the base and top line of the mass of straw. The tidiness of the stack is emphasised by the casual lie of the stones. The dark, diagonal line of the eave of the shed roof suggests something of interest in the background trees while the ladder’s incline sends the eye towards the top of the image. The peaceful suggestion of the composition, therefore, is replete with compelling ways of inviting deeper consideration of the seeming contented scene rich in eye-catching trickery. The man holding the pitchfork is probably James Blackburn whose descendants live close-by today.

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Ref: GOAN 0176 Powering Up, Monksgrange, Co. Wexford. c1898 by Goddard Orpen

©Monksgrange Archives

Harvest time conjures up thoughts of idyllic life down the country with an embracing aura of summer warmth, new mown hay, rustling straw and ripe fruit. But there is an immediate contradiction in this image of farm labour, machinery and the still of the day.

In the haggard at Monksgrange men are busy at work while nature looks calmly on. The threshing machine demands constant filling of the sheaves from stooks in the background keeping the men fully occupied and active. The steam engine belches smoke in its effort to satisfy the demand for power, the fly wheel spinning fast while its four wheels stand fixed and immobile. The peace is disrupted by the noise of the engine and the whirring and clattering of the mill. Health and safety are a hundred years away; the unguarded belt from engine to mill and the open shute receiving the sheaves threaten injury. Needs must and the task requires a coordinated and concerted response. The movement of the labourers, accentuated by the blurring during exposure, further belies the calm of the trees and the open space of the yard. No wonder there is thanksgiving once the harvest is finally home.

The tall fir trees at top left were planted in 1757 to mark the birth of John Richards as recorded in a watercolour by Adela Orpen. No longer standing, these trees are part of the heritage of the landscape of Monksgrange. Even in a photographic image they bear memory and family history while recording the grandeur of Wexford’s natural tapestry. The shed just behind the day’s activity was only recently taken down due to its deteriorated, dangerous timbers.

Despite the racket, the black smoke and the heat of the day, Orpen captures a moment in the annual seasonal cycle and the lives of the men at work. Soon the stubble fields which yielded the corn and straw will need tilling for the next crop rotation when horses will pull the plough; the sounds will be quiet – a faint hissing as the ploughshare turns the sod and deep breathing from the exertions of man and beast.

Orpen’s image venerates labour and those engaged in it; it’s a reminder of Karl Marx’s labour theory of value: the worth of a commodity is determined by the amount of labour required to produce it. Orpen translated Émile de Laveleye's Le socialisme contemporain (The socialism of today, 1884), to which he added a chapter on English socialism. Though he was a classics scholar, Orpen embraced the 19th century trend to address social concerns in art where the working classes replaced the more usual and traditional  Classical hero. 

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Ref: GOAP 0296  The Súgán Halter. West of Ireland c1895 by Goddard Orpen

©Monksgrange Archives

An amiable beast of burden capable of hard work, the donkey had an important place in rural Ireland as family pet and part of the workforce. The donkey was a multitasker with roles in working the land and transporting people and goods. Seasonal tasks included ploughing, tilling, drawing milk to the creamery and turf from the bog. A donkey could pull a cart, carry a load in creels or a person on its back. Wicker baskets were the boot of today’s family car. This donkey has a load of oaten straw lying across its back, wither and neck; it is bulky rather than heavy. Led by a daughter of the house, the ass has probably known her as a young child. The cat may get the cream but this girl’s donkey is the pride and love of her life - best in show, her all-Ireland champion. Her donkey is capable, willing and anxious to please while her response is deep, unconditional love which she shyly, though proudly, expresses in the delighted, delightful smile bursting through her modesty. She wears her traditional shawl casually round her shoulders while her smock suggests the antiquity of her task, her trade and even her life. The passengers on the flight into Egypt rode upon a donkey. Compositionally, Orpen has cleverly disguised his primary subject (the girl’s portrait) by placing the donkey as the seeming centre of attention. Then correctly following academic structure, he places her off centre to the right; the top and bottom lines of the load fall diagonally down and up to lead the eye to his nostalgic depiction of the rural colleen. Her hazel stick, necessary for control and defence, completes his archaic representation. The soft focus of the background heightens this timeless rendering of rural life as it rolls through the seasons and night follows day. A resolute, confident donkey stands, as asked, beside its human companion; the only infraction to this imperturbable moment is the twitch of an ear.

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Ref: GOAN 0076 Waterside Homes, Dreux, Eure et Loire. c1904

©Monksgrange Archives

 

The rear of a house generally lacks easy access so its strength is its privacy. Here the calm surface of the water increases the isolated seclusion of this hidden elevation. Window boxes and small, decorative enclosures grant intimacy to the outdoor compartments which are as private as the interior rooms. These outdoor rooms are familiar only from the opposite river bank which is likely to be without a walkway as is the featured rear. In Ann Enright’s New Ross, the coal man is one of the few who knows these places hidden from public view. This is the utilitarian side of the house, distinct from the handsome front elevation with regular window placements and elegant front doors. Behind is the honest side of the house where form gives way to necessity. The buildings’ reflections in the water imply an increase in self compassion and affirms self resilience. The composition uses the river surface on which the buildings sit to induce stable equilibrium just as a cup on a saucer - the two elements becoming a single unit. A subtle component of disruption to the overall calm is introduced by

the instability of the angled chimney flue. The slightly protruding wall on the lower right margin prevents the eye from wandering away into the unseen and helps to restrain the object buildings from sliding into the river.

 

Orpen’s principle interest in Dreux would have been the medieval church of St. Peter with origins in the 13th century and its late 15th century stained glass; the town’s Royal Chapel is an example of French Gothic Revival architecture.

 

This is a neat image of another side of life. 

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Ref: GOAN 0081 THE HOUSE IN DREUX c1904, acetate negative by Goddard Orpen

©Monksgrange Archives

 

Slap in the middle of this image, white painted windows and a doorway gleam with luminosity on this otherwise dull day. A mother and her daughter stand hesitantly at the entrance to their home, the former shaded and the latter illuminated. The centre of interest (or is it?) is accentuated by the light, the random letters on the glass panes and the shape of the white block that includes the upper fenestella. The compositional rule of thirds is ignored so what compensatory factor gives this Orpen image is strength? Here the frontage apron is used to anchor the building to its site. The house stands firmly on the ground as it has done for an age; it sings ‘This land is my land’ - not as a possession but in the sense of belonging. The land continues round the gable of the house to an orchard through a decorated wooden gate whose cupped upper rail mirrors the arched eaves of the roofing thatch. The interwoven branches of the dormant fruit trees are echoed in the stack of reeds waiting to be layered as new roofing. Now we are drawn to the upper stories and three differing rooves almost unnoticeable at first glance. Orpen’s use of the diagonals of the baseline and roofline to indicate a vanishing point to the left and beyond the orchard justifies the negative space of the frontage and forces consideration of the elevation of the house with its variety of renewal, life and decay portrayed in the facade and the roof. The spindly sapling clinging alone to the wall on the right partners the budding vine spreading across the living and the dead units, each and all with a role in Orpen’s beautiful metaphor. Here is a lyrical short story carrying the essential elements of character, setting, conflict, theme and plot.

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Ref: GOAN 0123 CHATEAU DE DIEPPE, NORMANDY. c1904 acetate negative. ©Monksgrange Archives

 

 The square in Dieppe on the Normandy coast of France, empty save two cyclists and the unseen photographer, takes up almost 50% of the image. The converging curbs at the left and right lead the eye to a high back wall and the gable of a dark building above which and to the left is the 12th century Chateau de Dieppe with towers and coned rooves dominating the high ground; beneath it is a white hotel building and coned rooves are being repeated in the nearer buildings on the left. To the right, an onion dome caps a low arcade which is repeated across an access road, itself a continuation from the other side of the square which seems the feature of the composition but it is more a veil cast about this codified image. Akin to those across the Channel on England’s south coast, Dieppe in 1904 was a fashionable seaside resort The resort teemed with the well off and well dressed as they promenaded all summer along the shore and local streets to arrive at the entrance to the Casino and Baths with their gaming tables, restaurants and coffee parlours. The townside entrance was from the square, the Place du Casino, eerily quiet in Orpen’s winter image. To the right of the photograph and leading to the casino gate are the corner shops of which one is selling souvenir items of long famous Dieppe ivory. The friezes and onion domes of the shop rooves evince an aura of oriental intrigue and excitement though they are barely in sight at the edge of Orpen’s photo to the left of which are domestic buildings with repeating conical towers and the hotel.  Orpen disdains the vacuous promenaders and, with his history of Ireland under the Normans in mind, his thoughts in 1904 concern the migration of the Normans from France to Ireland between 1066-1169; the onion domes suggest the contrasting migration of orientalism to France in the late 19th century. In Orpen’s photograph the composition’s subject surrounds the negative space, reversing the traditional methodology.

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ref: GOAN 0087 MONT-ST-MICHEL, NORMANDY. c1904 acetate negative. ©Monksgrange Archives

 

La Grande Rue du Mont-Saint-Michel is the long upward path to the abbey atop the fortified medieval village on the incongruous tidal island just off the Brittany/Normandy coast. Originating as a chapel in the 10th century AD, the Romanesque church was built a century or so later; the Benedictine Abbey, modified and restored over the centuries, is from the 13th century. The main street today, crowded with tourists, is a far cry from its earliest days as a pilgrim way. The awe and wonder still remain but pizza shops arrest immersion into the past. Orpen’s visit in 1904 afforded him a street empty of people allowing him to accentuate the arduous nature of the winding ascent along an ancient, narrow and cobbled alleyway. A passing shower has dampened the cobbles to accentuate the surface and highlight the central gulley which itself acts as a direction indicator leading the viewer onward and upward. Commerce seems an incidental characteristic. Compositional motion moves in a curve from the lower left margin to the centre of the laneway before inflecting to the left and up into the distance which is some six levels of depth from the camera. A range of textural and tonal surfaces on the cobbles and walls charge the scene with ordered complexity; hard stone is softened by the wooden rectangular seat on the left, the round barrel on the right and, an ‘amuse bouche’, the broken barrow with its faggots at lower right. A cloudy sky grants an unrivalled opportunity to compose this sensitive, informative and imperative image encapsulating a direct feel of the medieval. By any measure, this is an exemplary photograph by Goddard Orpen.

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GOAN 0118. FISHERMAN AT ÉTRETAT c1904 acetate negative, ©Monksgrange Archives

The oft painted cliffs on the Normandy coast of France at Étretat are usually treated as the dominant feature of the composition. The might and majesty of the cliffs resisting the restless waves of the sea and, at the same time, supporting the celestial sphere above captivated artists like Courbet and Monet . Here was the supremacy of nature. Orpen, in contrast, treats the cliffs as subordinate to the human face of nature in his photograph of a father and his children on the stony beach. The fisherman tenderly holds his child’s hand, the ease of the companionship emphasised by the boy’s swinging legs; his gaze also takes in his other child looking quizzically at the novelty of a photographer. The image contrasts work with play and calm sea with rough pebbles; the soft focus of the cliffs contrasts the sharp focus of the central subject. The forceful dynamic of the anchor leaves no doubt either about the composition’s subject. Courbet’s 1870 work is devoid of human presence and his boats are chunky and graceless. Monet’s two works of the Manneport (the cliff arch) are focused on the sea. Just as Monet uses compositional dynamics to dramatic effect, so too does Orpen twenty years later though the latter’s interest is the seafarer safe on shore, engaged as a father and content with his place in the natural world.

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GOAP 0494. BENDERS ON THE LONG ACRE. c1895 Glass plate negative , 16.50 x 12.07 cm.

©Monksgrange Archives

One of the earliest styles of recognizable tent structure, the bender has a long tradition as a shelter and was used by European Romany gypsies before the development of travelling wagons with cylindrical tops. Flexible branches of ash, hazel or willow were bent to form a half circle shape which supported tarpaulins held together with blackthorn pins.

Orpen’s image is one of several records of his ethnographic documentation and was probably taken during the 1895 trip of members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (of which he was President in 1930) round the north and north-west coast of Ireland. The cooperation of the travellers in allowing the photography indicates Orpen’s ability to gain the confidence of his subjects. The diagonals of the rutted road and the horizon create a dynamic sense of movement along the direction of the road indicated by the unladen cart. An uphill struggle, bounded by an unyielding stone wall, is implied without hint of a future at the road’s end or to its right. The poignant expression of the man on the left is an acutely observed portrait of acceptance of the hard life on the road.