Samuel Forde, Subject Painter

(b. 1805, d. 1828)

Subject Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

Was born in Cork on 5th April, 1805, the second son of Samuel Forde, a tradesman in that city. His childhood was passed in a home cheerless and unsympathetic, owing to the character of his father, a reserved, sullen and arbitrary man who, ultimately failing in his business, abandoned his family and went to America. Young Samuel's elder brother, William, endeavoured to support his family by his talents as a musician, and found means to give his brother some education. Samuel, by his own incessant application and study, mastered the Latin, French and Italian languages. His love for art manifested itself at an early age and he applied himself diligently and enthusiastically to its study, secluding himself with his favourite authors and filling sketch-books with his drawings.

It was not until 1818 that he received any regular instruction; hitherto he had taught himself as best he could by copying from prints, but in that year a series of casts from the antique were presented to Cork by the Prince Regent and a School of Art was founded. Chalmers, a scene-painter, was appointed master, and under him Forde made his first regular studies. When about 16 years of age he turned his attention to teaching as a means of livelihood, and he was also employed by Chalmers upon the scenery and decoration of the Cork theatre. The facility and decision of execution he thus acquired in distemper painting led to employment in decorative work in houses, such as a frieze in an apothecary's shop representing a "Procession to Apollo and Æsculapius," and a ceiling, "A View of Tivoli," for a Mr. James Morgan, which some years later was destroyed by fire. These and similar works were done in distemper, the designs taken from books.

By his own unaided studies he had acquired a good knowledge of architecture and perspective, and also of anatomy; and when about 20 years of age he began to execute works "of his own invention," trying to realize his conception of great poetic subjects which had filled his brain. "The Vision of Tragedy," a subject taken from Milton, had long occupied his thoughts, and he made many sketches and studies for it. The picture, in which the artist's conception and treatment of the subject was original and full of imagination, was finished in 1826. It was painted in distemper, mainly in grey and white, and measured eight feet in length. For Mr. Pain, an architect, he painted several pictures in distemper, and commenced a model for a monument. Of the drawings for this, Sir David Wilkie said "he would have thought they were made by some of the old Masters." Forde also tried portraiture but with indifferent success.

His first portrait, "Eliza," was finished in June, 1826, and immediately on its completion the artist began, as he records in his diary, a design for a ceiling for the Cork theatre. In 1827 he painted a "Crucifixion" for a church in Skibbereen, and next year began his picture, "the Fall of the Rebel Angels," upon which he built his hopes of celebrity and fame.

His diary records the progress of the work from day to day: "Feb. 10, 1828, began the Fall of the Rebel Angels. Drew the lines." "Feb. 12, Distant rocks and general effect in umber. Painted by night." "Feb. 13, Glory round the throne." "April 12, on Wednesday, April 9, I got the order of the foreground of the Fall of the Angels completed in umber; on Thursday I began in a purple tint to shadow forth the distant armies; Friday, I nearly completed for the time the cavalry in the middle space; to-day I brought that part to a close and hope to lay on the neutral tints on the upper figure of the foreground. I was five days occupied in rubbing in the foreground in umber." While engaged on the work Mr. Deane, the architect, allowed him thirty shillings a week. In April he sold the picture, while still unfinished, to Mr. Edward Penrose for thirty guineas, and continued his work upon it. But his health had been for some time failing, and he found himself unable to complete the picture. On May 11, he notes in his diary: "From Monday last I have been in bed"'; and on the 17th occurs the last entry: "In the course of the week (always in bed until past the middle of the day) I was enabled to finish the heads of Milton and Shakespeare, and sent them to the exhibition room. I am very weak."

These are the last words he penned; his debility increased and he gradually sank, and died on the 29th June, 1828, aged 23. He was buried on the south side of St. Finnbarr's Church, Cork. His "Fall of the Rebel Angels" was exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1830, two years after his death, and was also in the Cork Exhibition of 1852. The picture passed into the possession of Mr. W. Gumbleton, of Belgrove, Queenstown, who died in 1911 bequeathing it to the Cork School of Art, where it now is. In the Victoria and Albert Museum is a drawing in monochrome, a study for the "Vision of Tragedy."

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