Barges Unloading Turf Grand Canal Dublin

Joan Jameson, Barges Unloading Turf Grand Canal Dublin, 1943, oil on canvas, 50cm x 64 cm, Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. © the artist’s estate. 

Painted in the midst of the Second World War, this picture documents a time when shortage of coal led the Irish government to stockpile peat as an alternative fuel. The Bord na Móna (Turf Development Board) had been founded in 1933 to put peat exploitation on semi-national footing, and Jameson portrays the moment where turfs from the Bog of Allen – the large raised bog in the centre of Ireland – are being transferred from barge to horse-drawn cart for distribution or storage. Running through the Bog of Allen, and completed in 1803, the Grand Canal was a key means of peat transport well into the twentieth century, though the chunky turfs shown here would give way by the 1950s to ‘milled peat’, that was not hand-cut, but scraped from the bog with machinery.

The daughter of Sir Richard and Lady Musgrave of Tourin (Co. Waterford), Jameson had studied at the Sorbonne and the Académie Julien in Paris, and was part of an enterprising group of women artists in early twentieth-century Ireland who adopted Modernist styles.[1] Here she uses a matter-of-fact, even ‘primitive’ idiom, somewhat reminiscent of the work of Christopher Wood or Alfred Wallis in St. Ives,[2] to evoke the brute physicality of the canalmen’s hard work. The red cartwheels, picking up the red edge to the barges and the distant red roofs, nonetheless lend a decorative, almost heraldic note, that points up the crumbly purple-brown of the turfs, a piece of the country displaced to the urban environment.

Clare A.P. Willsdon

An Email Exchange Between Nicki Whitehouse and Gareth Beale discussing Barges Unloading Turf, Grand Canal Dublin (1st -8th September 2021)

The Bright Edge Deep project is made up of a pretty wide range of researchers and practitioners. One of the things I have found most rewarding about being involved in the project has been the different perspectives that each of the team members brings to the interpretation of the content of the exhibition. Joan Jameson’s Barges Unloading Turf Grand Canal Dublin is one of the works which has prompted the most discussion. Our colleague Claire provided us with an expert art historical interpretation which really helped to put the image into context (you can read this above) and which prompted us to have a discussion about what, as a digital archaeologist (Gareth) and an archaeological environmental scientist (Nicki), this image means to us. This is an unedited transcript of our email exchange. 

Gareth: I will begin the discussion with a question to you. What was your train of thought when you first saw this image?

Nicki: That's an interesting question Gareth! I suppose the first thing I noticed was the fact that they were unloading stacks of peat off the barge and immediately that made me think about the effects of peat cutting on the bog! I wondered where the peat had come from and how that might affect the site itself.  It is also evident from the imagery that the peat has been cut by hand (ie using a spade and left to dry on the landscape), rather than using something mechanised; this traditional type of peat cutting tends to have much lesser ecological effect than mechanised extraction. Nevertheless, in volume, large amounts of hand-cut peat can still cause major ecological and hydrological disruption to peatlands.  I suppose the best way to describe this is to think of a raised bog as a giant sponge perching on the landscape; when you start to cut into that sponge around the edges, the waters which are retained within the peat dome start to percolate out… This water is a major component of the peatland and without it the peat starts to degrade, causing major ecological and hydrological issues to the ecosystem.

Gareth: So, this section of the exhibition is about work and power and one of the things which has struck me most while working on this project is the tension between peatlands as working landscapes and peatlands as iconic or romantic landscapes. Looking through the material in this exhibition it feels like peatlands were romanticised during the exact period when they were also being degraded and lost. I find your thoughts on this painting are really interesting because they highlight that this tension can exist within a single image. Without your knowledge of the ecology of peatlands I would not have made this association. I guess that the artist, working long before political environmentalism really came into being, wouldn’t have made these associations either? 

Nicki: I also find it interesting that we have this quite romanticised view of peatlands in many of these images. Partially, I think this is to do with the time period of the items we have selected but also perhaps they were romanticised and celebrated in this idealistic way. A great deal of cultural outputs at this time were influenced by the Romantic movement, in writing especially well captured by people like William Wordsworth. Of course, many peatlands are not at all ‘romantic’, especially when degraded and cut over  - they can form gashes on the landscape from which water oozes and vegetation is drying out - a bit wound-like, I guess. Many of these sites would have been degrading at this time, although the nature of some of the hand cutting of turf, which had a long tradition, was generally much less destructive, with some sites still retaining many of their important ecological characteristics. I do not think the artists would necessarily been aware of the environmental degradation issues and may not have noted the irony. 

However, there was a nascent environmental movement at this time, in certain circles at least, perhaps best exemplified by the American George Perkins Marsh, who published his book  Man and Nature in 1864. This book was hugely influential as it recognised for the first time that human beings were the cause of ecological degradation, rather than degradation being a force of nature and one of the first works to recognise human effects on the environment and helped to launch the modern conservation movement. Marsh challenged the myth of the earth’s exhaustibility & the belief that human impact was not important, by drawing upon examples from the Mediterranean landscape, warning that the US was going in the same direction. The first national park, Yosemite National Park, was established in 1892 following concerns about the loss of wilderness, “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives”

But perhaps whilst the importance of wild places were evident to naturalists in the US - where wilderness was still very much in evidence in certain part of the continent, our more tamed landscapes seemed less wild and there was a less strong movement towards protecting our valuable habitats, including peatlands. One of the people I can think of writing at about this time was Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865-1953), a famous Irish naturalist. His writings from his observations about the glacial and post-glacial landscape of Ireland were informed by the developing discipline of palynology and he reveals insightful thoughts around the nature of the Irish landscape at this time and how it may have looked like in the prehistoric past and how it had been transformed by human hands. 

So, I guess my response is complicated because although political environmentalism was growing it does not seem to be represented within this imagery. Perhaps we have to look further afield for this

Gareth: One of the things I find compelling about this image is that it seems to attempt to capture working life in a realist way but it is also (as Claire explains above) tapping into ideas of politics, identity and even spirituality. I wonder whether this blurring of the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the ephemeral could be a useful tool in archaeological representation?

Nicki: Yes, I agree. Perhaps the largest take home message for me as part of this exercise has been understanding the blurring of disciplinary lines of enquiries in the 18th- 20th century and how these each fed into other disciplines. Our own disciplinary silos would benefit from breaking free from the boundaries that we constrain ourselves with. Archaeology as a discipline is well placed to do this and Archaeology at Glasgow, I think, is especially good at this. Its a refreshing way to work that I am finding quite inspiring!

Gareth: You have been working on peatlands for much of your career, have you ever felt constrained by archaeological/scientific modes of documentation and representation? Are there aspects of your experience of peatlands which you would have liked to communicate but haven’t been sure how?

Nicki: Yes, very much so, though whether earlier in my career I would have considered stepping outside of my usual scientific narrative is a moot point. But with the benefit of more mature thinking and working in this inter-displinary way I now realise how much of the world around us, including natural and cultural, are entangled and I feel I’d like to try to better capture that sort of thinking within my own writings and interpretations. 

In western societies we have got used to the notion that ’science’ is objective, and can solve problems. It can, to some extent, but I would argue that science is far from objective because we scientists decide on the types of questions we want to ask, we decide on the narrative and how the data are interrogated. We create the lens through which we examine our data. These are culturally determined by what we think is the ‘right message’ or ‘right questions’ but in doing so ignore other equally valid lines of enquiries and narratives. The science of climate change is a case in point; scientists have known about greenhouse gases and global warming since the 1950’s when it was first discussed by scientists working within the oil industry. Since then, some of those narratives have been suppressed - creating confusion and climate skeptics - but also not really tackling the problem - because we failed to engage at a human level and ask the right sorts of questions. So, maybe the questions should have been ‘how do we change how people think about climate change?’ or ‘how do we empower people to tackle climate change’ rather than measure climate change. Of course, the latter is part of our evidence base, but we need to connect the dots. 

Another complicated answer, but my point is that how we choose to present science is extremely important and has real life consequences that we are living with today.

[1] See Claire Dalton, Irish Women Artists 1870-1970, exh. cat., Adam’s auctioneers, Dublin, and The Ava Gallery, Clandeboye Estate, Co. Down, 2014, at!m/Person/703/form/PerCatalogViewFrm (accessed 28.7.21), and Joan Jameson Retrospective Exhibition, The Crawford Gallery Cork September 1989, for further information on Jameson.

[2] The ‘naïve’ rendering of architectural perspective and of the doll-like figures is somewhat reminiscent of work by Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood.