Henry O'Neill, Landscape Painter

(b. 1798, d. 1880)

Landscape Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Henry O'Neill, A.R.H.A. Drawing by Himself; in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Was born in Clonmel in 1798, the only child of Henry O'Neill and his wife, a daughter of Samuel Watson, bookseller, the publisher of "The Gentleman's and Citizen's Almanac." He lost both his parents when young, and was taken charge of by his father's sister, Sarah O'Neill, a haberdasher at 60 South Great George's Street, who gave him a good education. As from childhood he had evinced a talent for drawing, he was placed as a pupil in the Dublin Society's Schools in 1815. He applied himself eagerly to his work, and carried off the first premiums in every class he competed in. While a pupil he assisted his aunt in designing patterns for shawls and lace in connection with her business, and was also employed by Allen, the print-seller in Dame Street. For some time he worked as a teacher of drawing in Dublin. In 1825 the Dublin Society presented him with a silver medal "as a reward for his industry and talents," having, as the Society's Proceedings record, "obtained the first premiums in every class, and having on the present occasion produced several drawings from the living figure." Owing to a disagreement about money matters with his aunt he left her and was taken up by his mother's family, and about 1841 appears to have obtained some employment in the Library in Trinity College, which, however, he does not seem to have retained very long.

He began to exhibit at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1835, sending nine drawings of views, etc.; and he continued as a regular exhibitor down to 1847. He was elected an Associate on 27th May, 1837. In 1843 a vacancy among the Members occurred, and there was some delay in filling it, on account, it was said, of want of merit among the Associates. O'Neill resented this, and sent in his resignation on 8th January, 1844, so that, as he wrote, some one more worthy might be elected. O'Neill identified himself with the popular political movements of the day, was a member of the Repeal Association, and during the imprisonment of O'Connell in Richmond gaol he painted a group of the Liberator and his fellow-prisoners, and later he did the well-known series of lithograph portraits of the Young Irelanders, Smith O'Brien and others. For his lithograph of "Gandsey, the Kerry Minstrel," he was awarded a prize of ten pounds by the Royal Irish Art Union in 1842. He contributed drawings, with G. Petrie and Andrew Nicholl, to "Picturesque Sketches of some of the finest Landscapes and Coast Scenery of Ireland," published in Dublin in 1835; and in the same year was published by W. F. Wakeman "Fourteen Views in the county of Wicklow, from original drawings by Henry O'Neill and Andrew Nicholl." Thirteen of the views were by O'Neill, and they were reproduced in aquatint, coloured.

O'Neill was not, however, very successful in his profession, and in 1847 he went to London; but he was unable to find work, and after suffering much privation he enlisted, but was bought out by his friends and returned to Dublin. He had long been an earnest student of Irish antiquities, and the fruits of his labours appeared in his "Descriptive Catalogue of Illustrations of the Fine Arts of Ancient Ireland," in 1855, followed in 1857 by his great work, "Illustrations of the most interesting of the Sculptured Crosses of Ancient Ireland, Drawn to Scale and Lithographed by Henry O'Neill." The work was published by him at 12 Middlesex Place, New Road, London. It contains thirty-six tinted lithographs with descriptive letter-press and an essay on Irish Art. His "Correct Views of the Inscriptions on the Cross of Cong" appeared in the "Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society" for November, 1855, and in 1863 was published his "Fine Arts of Ancient Ireland," illustrated with seven chromo-lithographs by himself and wood-cuts by G. Hanlon, an ambitious work on the antiquities of Ireland, in which he attempted to refute the conclusions of Petrie in his "Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland," and maintained the pagan origin of the Round Towers.

In 1868 he published a brochure, "Ireland for the Irish," attacking landlordism. He projected a work on the Round Towers, of which only the first part, relating to the county of Dublin, was published: "The Round Towers of Ireland, by Henry O'Neill. Part the First, containing descriptions of the four Round Towers in the county of Dublin," published by M. H. Gill and Son, Sackville Street, 1877. His last work was a lithograph of the Cross of Cong. O'Neill was a constant exhibitor at the Royal Hibernian Academy down to 1879. Most of his works were in water-colour, but he occasionally painted in oils. A portrait in oils of "John Cornelius O'Callaghan," painted in 1874, is in the National Gallery of Ireland, and "The Gap of Dunloe" belongs to Mr. J. C. Nairn, 13 Westland Row. A large picture, "The Return of O'Rourke" was selected by the Nationa Art Union in 1846 to be engraved, but Brocas's "Sunday Morning" was afterwards substituted. It became the property of O'Connell. He reproduced in lithography several of his own portraits as well as daguerreotype portraits by Gluckman of Sackville Street, and contributed three illustrations to Hall's "Ireland." A drawing of "Bartholomew Lloyd, D.D.," Provost of Trinity College, was engraved in mezzotint by C. Turner in 1838. In the Joly collection, National Library, is a pencil portrait of Zozimus, the Dublin beggar.

O'Neill was a studious and industrious worker, but his conflicts with learned bodies and antiquarians working in the same field as himself, in which he upheld his views with great tenacity and not always with moderation, estranged him from many of his friends. His published works form enduring monuments to his industry and genius; but his expenditure of time and money on his undertakings did not meet with the response from his fellow-countrymen he might well have anticipated. The disappointment, and the straitened circumstances he was in during the latter years of his life, preyed upon his health. He died at 109 Lower Gardiner Street on the 21st December, 1880, and was buried at Glasnevin. He left a widow, his second wife, and four children unprovided for.

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