While George Du Noyer’s pictures were created for the Ordnance Survey, they gives us a glimpse into what the country looked like in the 19th century, writes Niall Murray.
In an era of great efforts to marry science and art, an Irish artist can lay proud claim to some of their first introductions to each other.
He is not alive to accept the plaudits, however, as this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Victor Du Noyer.
With a mixture of vibrant watercolours, simple but stunning topographical sketches, and painstakingly-detailed geological maps, his life’s work is testament to the possibilities of science and art sharing the limelight.
It may comprise more than 5,000 works in total, but around 150 of them have been selected for the latest main exhibition at Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery.
The gallery’s recently-retired director Peter Murray, co-curator of the exhibition, points out that many artists who were household names in Du Noyer’s lifetime are now forgotten.
But he attributes the ability to keep the subject of the show — and his work — in public minds to the determination of his collaborator, Petra Coffey.
Working at Geological Survey Ireland (GSI), she was aware for decades of the wealth of material held in its archives, and those of the many other non-artistic institutions that have loaned from their collections to the Crawford.
Du Noyer was just 18 when he was selected by the 19th-century antiquary George Petrie — his art teacher growing up in Dublin — to join the topographical section of the Ordnance Survey undertaking its initial mapping of Ireland in 1835. Thus began a lifetime travelling the roads and waterways of the country.
After seven years in that job, and a brief stint as an art teacher, he moved in 1847 to the Geological Survey and was employed by it until his death. The GSI took advantage of the exposure of ancient glacial rock formations as the railways were being built through them in early Victorian Ireland. Du Noyer’s work shows us what emerged in the 1850s and 1860s when those routes were cut and quarried, views that are hidden today by a century-and-a-half of overgrowth.
These watercolours and engravings show not just the strata of limestone or other rock, but also offer a unique sociological snapshot of the labour involved in places like Mallow, Co Cork, and Malahide, Co Dublin.
He also sketched and painted aspects of Ireland’s built heritage which might otherwise be confined to written records and folklore.
Those images of castle ruins and long-replaced bridges are crucial aids to modern scholars of Ireland’s medieval and early modern history and archaeology.
The scientific approach to his work — much of it done from the water — means we can see how coastal erosion has shaped the perimeter of the country.
His field-sheets give an insight into the level of work involved in mapping Ireland long before satellite technology and other modern techniques were conceived. They combine traditional map views annotated in the minutest ink, with coloured cross-sections.
One example is an 1856 view of Ballydavid Head across Smerwick Harbour in Co Kerry. The viewer sees the artist’s tiny manuscript recording of its 831-feet height, while further notes on the coastal map point out the exact locations of fossils — a subject he also frequently sketched and painted.
These multiple representations of one place in a single frame are more like the content of an interactive 21st-century scientific website than the drafts of a mid-1800s geologist.
“He worked almost like an encyclopedist,” explains Peter Murray.
A notable aspect of Du Noyer’s vast output was his apparent persistence on trying to arrest the passage of time. “Whether as a geologist showing the effects of millions of years, or drawing a ship slowing decaying in the mud flats of Dublin’s North Wall, there’s always that unifying thread,” says Murray.
Medical science may not have been well-enough advanced to prevent the death from scarlet fever of George Victor Du Noyer and his daughter within a day of each other in 1869.
But Irish science, art and heritage have much to thank him for 200 years after his birth.
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