The Flower Room at Fota House is lit by the soft, diffused light through the windows and the delicate lamps within. Previously known as the Morning Room, it was where Dorothy Bell, a keen and knowledgeable gardener, prepared flower arrangements for use throughout the house. The delicate light is necessary to protect the watercolors and prints displayed around the room. Many of these prints are by well known artists such as Daniel Maclise and Mildred Ann Butler.
One piece of artwork which deserves a closer look is by an artist whose work is less familiar. On the table in the centre of the room, this gem from the Fota archives is on display. A framed silhouette of a man and woman, with James Smith Barry and Mrs. James Smith Barry written in pencil above the figures. It was created for the couple in 1835 by the famous silhouette artist Augustin Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart (1789-1861) who visited Fota House while he lived and worked in Cork in the 1830s.
The accuracy of the work, for which Edouart was famous, gives us a glimpse into the fashions of the time. This was called the Romantic Era, between the Regency and Victorian periods. On Mrs Smith Barry, we have the distinctive off the shoulder gigot (leg-of-mutton) sleeves, low, v-shaped waist and wide hemlines. James Smith Barry wears a frock coat and carries a top-hat and cane. Such is the detail in the cut-out, that her eyelashes and his buttonholes are visible.
The artist Augustin Edouart’s story is a fascinating one. The sixteenth child in his family, he was born in Dunkirk. He fought in Napoleon’s army and after the war ended, he moved to England around 1814. His early artistic work was unusual by today’s standards though perhaps not so much in his time. It was called “mosaic hair work”, consisting of landscapes made with human hair and wax models of animals covered with their own hair. This work was slow and laborious, with some pieces taking up to three years to complete. (Often, to achieve a specific effect he had to split a single hair). While he continued this type of work, he soon found that his skill as a silhouette artist provided a more immediate source of income. He worked quickly and produced a prodigious number of portraits. Over the course of one year in Dublin, he produced 6,000 works. He could finish a portrait in five minutes. His fees were – 7/6 for a seated portrait, 5/- for a full length and 2/- for a bust.His work was in great demand and he cut portraits of many famous people both in the United Kingdom and the USA, including – Daniel O’Connell, King Charles X of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Augustin Edouart arrived in Cork city in 1834, taking rooms at 77, Patrick Street (recently a Coast clothing shop). He employed the printing company of Unkles and Klason at 26, South Mall to provide him with lithographs which he began to use as backgrounds to his cut-outs. In 1835 the printers, J. Bolster, Patrick Street and Longmans, London, published his “Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses” containing 18 illustrations of his work. This book contains another portrait of interest to Fota House with a caption stating, “John Smith Barry, Vice-Commodore of the Royal Cork Yacht Club”.
Augustin Edouart wrote “I annexe here the Likeness of a Gentleman well known for his liberal patronage of the Arts. It is with his kind permission that I have thus represented him, in a seafaring dress, being the Vice-Commodore of the Royal Cork Yacht Club. He is represented here speaking with John Ball, the Steward of his Yacht, the Columbine. Here the respectful attitude of the man speaking to his superior is well expressed, and the easy elegant figure of the Vice-Commodore, is allowed by everyone who has seen it, to be very correct. I need not remark that I was kindly received at Foaty. It is too well known by all those who are favoured by his esteem, that there is no bound to his exertions in making an Artist welcome in his hospitable mansion, and that he considers it a pleasure in recommending to his friends, those who have the good fortune to be noticed by him.”
John “The Magnificent” Smith Barry’s portrait has recently returned to Fota House, having been jointly purchased at auction by the Irish Heritage Trust and the Royal Cork Yacht Club. In Edouart’s silhouette he cuts a dashing pose, telescope in hand, the familiar curly hair visible under his cap.
Edouart always made copies of his silhouettes by cutting on double paper. He put these copies in large folios which he took with him on his many travels. By the time he left Cork he had already accumulated over fifty thousand silhouettes. In 1839 he went to the USA where he continued to work for another ten years. On his return to England in 1849, his ship Oneida was wrecked off the coast of Guernsey. Everybody on board survived the shipwreck. Only fourteen of Edouart’s folios were saved, including his one from Cork. He was devastated by this loss and never make another silhouette. He returned to France and died at the age of 72 in 1861.
Catherine Coakley, Volunteer, Fota House, Arboretum and Gardens. May, 2019