Paul Henry (1876 – 1958), Landscape, c. 1925, oil on canvas, 48.5cm x 59cm, Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork. © the artist’s estate IVARO 2021 

Paul Henry’s oeuvre has become almost symbolic of the archetypal west of Ireland landscape and represents important elements of Irish identity. In this painting, the artist presents a serene rural scene of peat stacks situated before a mountainous background, with impressive cumulonimbus clouds towering overhead. Exemplary of Henry’s characteristic land-to-sky ratio within the composition, the clouds dominate the canvas space. Rather than having an intimidating presence, however, they appear almost weightless and contribute to the airy atmosphere of the scene. Henry’s ability to represent the ephemeral effects of light and atmosphere is likely a result of his time spent studying in France, where he found inspiration from Impressionist and Post-Impressionist techniques.[1]

To Henry, the atmosphere of a landscape was just as important as the physical representation. His distinctive imagery promotes a definition of Irish identity that is rooted in the importance of the Irish landscape and how its inhabitants interact with it. In his paintings populated with humans, Henry often depicts the Irish peasantry as heroic as they undertake their arduous tasks. This scene is absent of humans; however, the impact of their actions is certainly evident in the peat stacks. Not only did the Irish economy rely on peat extraction in the early twentieth century, but so too did local inhabitants depend upon peat to heat their homes and water. The peat stacks in this painting will have been formed so that the peat could be dried to use for fuel in domestic settings. Henry has conveyed the inhabitants’ treatment of their land as being as powerful and heroic as the landscape itself. As they are of a similar size on the canvas, the peat stacks, formed by human hands, mirror the towering mountains that have formed the western Ireland landscape for millions of years. It can therefore be understood from this painting that peat was an important part of Irish identity and integral to people’s livelihoods. We know from the archaeological record that peat cutting likely extended back into the historic past, a useful source of fuel in a landscape long depleted of trees. Peatlands provided other important resources, as evidenced by the prehistoric trackways crossing many of the Irish bogs, such as network of trackways found at Edercloon, Co. Longford, where human activities extend as far back at 6,000 years ago 32.

Henry’s adoration for the west of Ireland is apparent in his paintings. He believed that the region’s rugged appeal, shaped by its rocky mountains and extensive peat bogs, presented the “real soul of Ireland.”[2] Landscapes similar to this became effective ‘postcard’ imagery of Ireland, as the artist designed posters for the Scottish, Midland and London Railway company.[3]

Holly Mullins (Art Historian) and Nicki J. Whitehouse (Archaeologist)

Edercloon trackway, Co. Longford. Photo: Catriona Moore.

[1] S. B. Kennedy, Paul Henry (Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 2003): 6.

2  C. Moor, Between the Meadows: the Archaeology of Edercloon on the N4 Dromod Roosky (TII Heritage 11), 2021. Wordwell

[2] Kennedy, Paul Henry, 27.

[3] Information kindly provided by the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.