How was the famine visually depicted during the 19th century? As with any text, visual images of the Famine are complex documents with their own histories of creation, context and consumption: they do not simply 'illustrate' the Famine, but are part of its history of representation and cultural meaning. 

Few contemporaneous images of the Famine ever came close to depicting the horrific reality of starvation, disease, emigration and death, as Victorian artists grappled with the challenge of representing its effects and impact. As such, its visual depiction warrants a critical eye and careful assessment. 

During the first half of the 19th century it was rare for accomplished painters trained in the academic tradition to turn their hand to Ireland's distress, and take poverty, emigration, or political unrest as subject. Neither did conventions or public taste exist in mid-century Victorian art to accept representations of contemporary starving bodies. 

There were few differences between Irish, English, or Scottish paintings of social subjects during the Victorian period. The concerns, interests and career aspirations of Irish artists closely mirrored their British counterparts for the most part, and their training, career trajectories, and eventual patrons were often much the same. 

As such, it's not usually possible to identify a distinctly 'Irish' take on Irish social subjects painted on canvas, and they rarely convey any form of political critique or commentary. As a consequence, paintings related to the Irish Famine from the 1840s-60s are often sentimentalised, neutered of political charge, or screened through other artistic preoccupations. Relatively few in number, they offer a partial but heavily coloured representation of lived realities. 

Image - G F Watts, The Irish Famine, c. 1848-50, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Watts Gallery Trust.

G F Watts, The Irish Famine, c. 1848-50, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Watts Gallery Trust.

As both British and continental art academies urged pupils to adopt grand historical, allegorical, or biblical themes as a 'higher' form of art, this lens was also applied in the few examples of Famine-era paintings. One example is George Frederic Watts' (acclaimed painter and mentor to the Pre-Raphaelites) work The Irish Famine (1850), part of a cycle he created in response to contemporary social crises. 

Watts' composition is indebted to Renaissance depictions of the Holy Family and reliant on newspaper accounts of the Famine: at the time of its creation he had not yet visited Ireland. 

Daniel MacDonald's The Discovery of the Potato Blight (1847) carries the distinction of being the only painted representation of the blight by an Irishman during the Famine period. However, it is heavily reliant on common sentimental tropes beloved in mid-century Victorian narrative painting, as well as in drama and fiction. 

As an impoverished family realise the potato blight has struck their crop in a climactic scene of discovery, the impending disaster is foretold by a storm approaching in the distance, and given dramatic effect by the range of the family's reactions – including the incomprehension of two children and a dog, the ubiquitous 'innocents' so often pictured in Victorian art, intended to pull at the heart-strings of viewers.

Image - The Discovery of the Potato Blight by Daniel MacDonald (1847). Image courtesy of National Folklore Collection UCD

The Discovery of the Potato Blight by Daniel MacDonald (1847). Image courtesy of National Folklore Collection UCD

Eviction pictures of the 1840s-60s are similarly formulaic: two examples are the Scottish painter Erskine Nicol's An Ejected Family (1853) and Robert Kelly's An Ejectment in Ireland – A Tear and Prayer for Erin (1848). Both depict the aftermath of an eviction, again utilising the suffering of a multi-generational family as the centre of the narrative. 

Such images do not rely on eyewitness accounts of specific events, nor do they carry political critiques of the events they portray. The repetition of character types, staged narratives, and reliance on a shorthand of gesture and symbolism exhibit the circularity common to "sentimental" representations of the poor, which were essentially neutered for the appreciation of largely middle-class English audiences.

 In other words, oil paintings of the 1840s-60s largely conform (whether painted by Irish painters or not) to their middle class viewers' expectation to be moved to a tear, or a prayer, but certainly not a revolution.

Image - Famine cartoon shows John Bull giving food to hapless peasants (Source: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Famine cartoon shows John Bull giving food to hapless peasants (Source: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Engravings published in the periodical press offered a different perspective. The technology of mass-printing wood engravings alongside text prompted an explosion of illustrated journalism from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, including Punch (1841), Pictorial Times (1843), The Lady's Newspaper (1847), and The Puppet Show (1848). 

Such titles were eclectic in their form and content: some, like Punch and its many imitators, concentrated on satirical prints, comic stories and puns, skewering politicians and public figures alike. Punch's record on the Famine was decidedly mixed: its cartoons might display qualified sympathy for the impoverished Irish peasantry (as in Richard Doyle, 'Union is Strength', 17 October 1846) or overt racism in its simian characterisation of the Irish, particularly following the failed Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 (John Leech, 'The British Lion and the Irish Monkey', 8 April 1848). 

Satirical images from the 1840s vacillated between idealised images of Ireland personified as 'Erin' or 'Hibernia', and depictions of the Irish poor as prone to violence and indolence.

Alternatively, the illustrated news weeklies sought a middle ground between news and entertainment, juxtaposing engravings based on artists' sketches with poetic odes, gossip, fiction, and the latest news stories. The Famine received substantial coverage by these illustrated news weeklies eager to deliver their readers up-to-the-minute news enlivened by visual illustration. 

The most successful of these was the Illustrated London News (1842), which published some of the most widely-circulated images of the Famine, many by the hand of its Cork-born correspondent and artist James Mahony (including his two-part series 'Sketches from the West of Ireland', 13 and 20 February, 1847). 


Image - 'Bridget O'Donnel and Children' (22 December 1849) by James Mahony (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

'Bridget O'Donnel and Children' (22 December 1849) by James Mahony (Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As with academic painting, however, Mahony's images were carefully calibrated to avoid shocking or distressing scenes that might repel readers. Harrowing accounts of Famine suffering appeared in the paper's textual accounts, but their visual counterparts shied away from overly graphic imagery.

Nevertheless, engravings like 'Woman Begging at Clonakilty' (13 February 1847) and 'Bridget O'Donnel and Children' (22 December 1849) offer compelling and disturbing images based on eyewitness accounts, that are perhaps the closest visual approximations we have to the reality of the period. 

Image - Woman Begging at Clonakilty from 'Sketches in West Ireland' by James Mahony.

Woman Begging at Clonakilty from 'Sketches in West Ireland' by James Mahony.

And what of photography? Invented in 1839, by the mid-1840s photography was only in limited practice in Ireland, and rarely turned its lens on social subjects. No verifiable direct photograph of the Famine from 1845-50 has yet been identified. 

By the 1870s the invention of dry plate photography allowed for the commercial production of photographic plates, and quickly expanded the use and popular consumption of photography, viewed through exhibition, replication via wood engraving, and via the medium of magic lantern shows. 

The events of the Land Wars of the 1870s-1880s and the evictions which accompanied them are thus better documented in this medium. Though frequently mis-identified as 'Famine' images, photographs from these decades give us some indication of similar conditions two decades earlier. 

Image - A family at the ruins of their house in Killarney, 1888 in a private collection. (Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

A family at the ruins of their house in Killarney, 1888 in a private collection. (Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

As the taste for social realism accelerated in the final decades of the 19th century, images of post-Famine emigration, eviction, and the experiences of the Irish poor became far more numerous and diverse. Some, like Lady Elizabeth Butler's Evicted (1890) are influenced by contemporary French painting which ennobilised peasant subjects and granted them expansive canvases and more considered academic treatment. 

Others, like Henry Jones Thaddeus' An Irish Eviction (1889), offer the unusual vantage point of the evicted. Visually sophisticated periodicals like The Graphic (founded 1869) fused high quality engraving with socially progressive campaigns in its pages, launching the careers of artists like Luke Fildes and Hubert von Herkomer, whose sympathetic depictions of the lives of the poor inspired contemporaries like Vincent van Gogh. 


Image - "Houseless and Hungry" by Luke Fildes,which appeared in the first number of the London Graphic, 1869. Source: DeAgostini/Getty Images

"Houseless and Hungry" by Luke Fildes,which appeared in the first number of the London Graphic, 1869. Source: DeAgostini/Getty Images

Nevertheless, these images belong to a subsequent generation of social experience and artistic norms. In their heightened attention and sensitivity to the lives of the vulnerable and the dispossessed they offer an alternative artistic response to the reality of the street, the countryside, the workhouse and the emigrant ship – and throw into stark relief the limitations and omissions of representations created during the Famine itself.

This piece is part of the Great Irish Famine project from RTE History and UCC and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.