The Last Brief Voyage: A Connemara Funeral (The Emigrant's Departure) signed and dated 'W H BARTLETT./1887.' (lower right) oil on canvas 135.5 x 212.5cm (53 3/8 x 83 11/16in).
PROVENANCE: with C. Rich & Sons, London, 1956, sold for £26 Private collection, UK
EXHIBITED: London, Royal Academy, 1887, no.630, as The Last Brief Voyage: A Connemara Funeral
LITERATURE: Anon, 'The Royal Academy Third Notice', The Athenaeum, 28 May 1887, p.709 Anon, 'The Royal Academy Exhibition', The Art Journal, 1887, pp.277-8 The Magazine of Art, 1887, p.337 (as full page illustration), p.339 Pall Mall Gazette 'Extra', 1887 p.42 (illustrated) W.H. Bartlett, 'Coast Life in Connemara', The Art Journal, 1894, p.249 (with full page illustration).
In 1887 George Bernard Shaw in his review of the Grosvenor Gallery noted that 'Mr WH Bartlett has been hard at work among the seaside folk in Connemara'.1 In front of Shaw were two paintings Off to the Fair, Connemara and Wrack for the Farm and he no doubt also recollected the painter's more important work, The Last Brief Voyage, currently on show at the Royal Academy. This picture was causing even more of a stir than the smaller Grosvenor Gallery paintings. A sad subject treated in a matter-of-fact way, it was described by The Athenaeum critic in the following terms:
The Last Brief Voyage, (630) is the title of Mr W.H. Bartlett's picture of the landing of a child's coffin from a boat at the old graveyard near a ruined Hebridean church. The attendants are a prosaic, but natural group, their faces are capital; the coffin's covering of white supplies a focus for the colour and chiaroscuro for the work, which is meritorious on these grounds not less than on account of the clearness of the painting of the milk-like, opalescent, pale green sea.
Leaving aside the mis-identification of the setting the Hebrides for Connemara the work clearly represented a child's funeral in a remote part of the world where land around a ruined church remained consecrated as a burial ground. The picture was subsequently, unaccountably altered and the coffin repainted as a crude wooden trunk transforming its subject matter into The Emigrant's Departure. 2 No other alterations appear to have been made and close examination of the repainted area of the canvas reveals that as the paint becomes transparent, the cross, placed on the coffin, and the stripes on the white cloth, seen in early reproductions, are visible today.
At the time of its first showing, The Art Journal agreed with The Athenaeum in finding that 'the sad story of a lost one ferried across the loch to its resting place on the bleak hillside is very well told'. The Magazine of Art was more critical, but found the scene to be 'realized by the painter with broad significance ...' Expectations of the young painter, one of the rising stars of the younger generation, were high. Like many others he had gone to study in Paris, and in 1880 had worked briefly at the artists' colony at Grez-sur-Loing.3 In 1880 he also exhibited for the first time at the Salon, a painting entitled Un atelier de peinture pendant le repos, (unlocated), a scene depicting the interior of the atelier Julian, where he was a student. He followed this with a further studio scene, Les Voisins (The Neighbours) (Private collection), the following year. This was particularly successful, being reproduced in The Graphic.4
However, one of Bartlett's formative experiences at the Salon of 1880 was the large picture of a child's coffin, rowed across the crystal waters of a bay on the coast of Finland by Albert Edelfelt. At that point the young Finnish painter was regarded as a 'Naturalist' or modern realist working in the manner of Bastien-Lepage and the crisp, documentary accuracy of his work greatly appealed. The memory of this sombre canvas remained with the British painter and it provided the inspiration for the present work.
Other European travels -to Switzerland and Venice intervened, but Bartlett was back in London in 1884 when he offered a studio in the family home in Chelsea to Fred Brown and was one of the early instigators of the radical New English Art Club.5 Nevertheless throughout these years he remained captivated by the battle for survival in the rugged landscapes of the west of Ireland. His first foray into this territory had been in 1878 and in 1882 his Academy piece depicted two young poachers hiding among the dunes near Roundstone in Co. Galway.6
By 1885, he was back in the region recording the seal fishermen and seaweed gatherers, and by 1887, Irish themes dominated his production. Although the memory of Edelfelt remained strong, it was first hand experience that prompted the present picture. This he later recounted:
Among the sand-hills overlooking the bay is a small and primitive grave-yard, in which it is still the custom to bury children. I chanced to see a funeral there, only once, and it was very striking. It took place in brilliant sunshine, and the general effect was very original, almost oriental in character. The plain deal coffin, covered with a white sheet, was deposited on the sand, the mother sitting upon it, while two men made a grave, the custom being to dig it after the funeral party arrives on the ground.
Keening women with their picturesque cloaks were grouped around close beside the chief mourner, and with their curious lamentations could be heard a considerable distance. The intense white sand, and deep blue of the sky, and deeper blue of the sea beyond, formed a fitting background to a strange and remarkable scene. With the exception of such an event as just described, or an occasional landing of turf or cattle from an adjacent island ... these beautiful strands are quite deserted.7
This sense of authenticity in The Last Brief Voyage greatly commended it at the time of its exhibition so much so that two years after its showing Bartlett was accused by Walter Sickert of using photographs.8 Were this to be the case, it would, if anything, enrich the possibilities of the picture, for at this point photographs were widely seen as an adjunct to drawing in the planning of complex 'naturalistic' compositions.
Bartlett was not alone in Galway Gossips (Tate Britain) shown at the Academy, but this was summarily dismissed by The Athenaeum for its soft subject matter. Bartlett's picture expressed the true stoicism of the Irish Celt, as well as his rustic piety. In later years the call of the wild Connemara coast remained strong and eventually Bartlett retreated for long periods to Donegal. He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and the Royal Hibernian Academy, and described St Ives and the West Coast of Ireland for articles on sketching grounds. Throughout these years of maturity he retained his allegiance to plein-air Naturalism, while experimenting with pastel, but seldom regained the solemnity and concentration of purpose seen in the present canvas.9
1 Stanley Weintraub ed., George Bernard Shaw on the London Art Scene, 1885-1950, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989, p.171 2 This old alteration is likely to have been carried out after Bartlett's death and prior to the picture's purchase by descendants of the present owner in 1956. 3 Kenneth McConkey, 'Les peintres britanniques et irlandais à Grez-sur-Loing', in Claire Leray ed., Artistes du Bout du Monde, cahier no.7, Automne 2011, p.7 4 For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, The New English, A History of the New English Art Club,, 2006, pp.22-3, illustrated 5 Ibid, p.29. Fred Brown, (1851-1941) later Slade Professor, was at that point teaching at the Westminster School of Art; see Professor F Brown, 'Recollections II The Early Years of the New English Art Club', Artwork, vol VI, no.24, 1930, pp.269-270. 6 Bartlett also showed West of Ireland subjects at the Grosvenor Gallery in this year. 7 WH Bartlett, 'Coast Life in Connemara', The Art Journal, 1894, pp. 247-8 8 Anna Gruetzner Robins, ed., Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford University Press, 2000, p.54. 9 See for instance WH Bartlett, 'Summertime in St Ives', The Art Journal, 1897, pp.292-5; idem, 'The West Coast of Ireland', in Charles Holme ed., Sketching Grounds, 1909 (The Studio), pp.119-128. Although his address in later years was given as Farleigh, near Maidstone, his spiritual home became Inishkeragh, at Rosses Point in Donegal.
We are grateful to Professor Kennth McKonkey for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.