World Book Day

Maeve McCarthy (b.1964), Portrait of Maeve Binchy (1940-2012), Writer, 2005
Maeve McCarthy (b.1964), Portrait of Maeve Binchy (1940-2012), Writer, 2005 - detailCredit

In honour of World Book Day 2020, we invite you to explore a small selection of the portraits of writers in our collection. 

You'll also find lots more portraits of writers, novelist, poets and playwrights to explore in our Online Collection portal

A woman sits at a desk, pen in hand, paper in front of her, lost in thought
Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson) (1776-1859) René Théodore Berthon (1776-1859)
A three quarter length portrait of the poet seated on a chair
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) John Butler Yeats (1839-1922)

Sydney Morgan (1776-1859)

Sydney Morgan (née Owenson) was a novelist, poet and travel writer. She grew up in Dublin where her father was actor-manager of the Theatre Royal, and she worked briefly as a governess before devoting herself to writing. Her first novel St Clair was published in 1802, and her third novel The Wild Irish Girl, published four years later, was hugely successful. Her early writings followed the rediscovery of the harp as the national instrument In Ireland. A small volume of verse, published in 1807, was titled The lay of an Irish harp; in 1805 she had published Twelve original Hibernian melodies, which foreshadowed Moore's Irish melodies by three years.

As her popularity grew, the marchioness of Abercorn made Owenson her lady companion and in 1812 persuaded her to marry Thomas Charles Morgan, the Abercorn family physician. After her marriage to Morgan, she continued to write novels, verse, and essays. Morgan held a literary salon at her house in Kildare Street, Dublin, travelled widely and incorporated her experiences into her writing. Her work, which was strongly nationalist in tone, was popular with Catholic emancipationists and Liberals. She was the first woman to receive a civil-list pension for writing.

René Théodore Berthon, who was once a student of Jacques-Louis David, and painted this portrait in Paris. Lady Morgan requested him to execute it in her hotel apartments rather than in his studio so that she could receive visitors during painting sessions. She is depicted in a contemplative pose at her writing desk, quill in hand. The vase before her holds a bunch of wild roses, perhaps suggestive of Irish nationalism and her untamed Romantic spirit.

 

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

“Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”

Lake Isle of Innisfree, W.B. Yeats, 1888.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest poets in the English language, Yeats was a pillar of the Irish literary establishment. In addition to his work as a poet, he was also one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre and, in his later years, served two terms as senator of the Irish Free State. He came from a very artistic family: his father was the notable lawyer and portrait painter, John Butler Yeats; his brother Jack B. Yeats was a very talented artist; his two sisters Susan Mary ('Lily') and Elizabeth Corbet ('Lolly') were artists, too, and you can read more about their pioneering work here

In 1923, William Butler Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation". He was aware of the symbolic value of an Irish winner so soon after Ireland had gained independence and sought to highlight this fact whenever the opportunity arose. His reply to many of the letters of congratulations sent to him contained the words: "I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe's welcome to the Free State.”

This portrait of the poet is by his father, John Butler Yeats. Aged 33 when this sketch was made, William’s health was poor. He was suffering from nervous strain and weak eyesight. This is apparent from his father's stiff and well-worked drawing. We sense that the poet is eager to rise from his chair. He stares dreamily into space, his little spectacles, thin face, carefully parted hair and slender, long hands giving the impression of a highly-cultivated man who allows himself the freedom to imagine and dream. The pencil sketch was John Butler Yeats's best working method. He tended to complete his sketches in a single sitting, unlike his oil portraits which he spent a long time reworking.

A half-length portrait of a woman with long hair, dressed in white and wearing a white cap.
Mary Tighe (1747-1791) George Romney (1734-1802)
Daguerreotype portrait of a woman reading
Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) Unknown Irish artists, 19th century

Mary Tighe (1747-1791)

Mary Tighe was an Irish poet, born in Dublin in 1772 to Theodosia Tighe, a Methodist leader, and William Blachford, a Church of Ireland clergyman and librarian. She had a very strict, religious upbringing and at the age of 21 she married her first cousin, Henry Tighe, a member of the Parliament of Ireland. The couple moved to London where Tighe became acquainted with the poet Thomas Moore and others interested in literature. Although she had written from a very young age, her first published work was Psyche in 1805, a six-canto allegorical poem that reflects Mary’s own rendition of Cupid and Psyche, giving the two protagonists equal standing and shared characteristics. This poem was widely admired, and praised by Moore in his poem, To Mrs. Henry Tighe on reading her Psyche. Mary suffered a severe bout of tuberculosis in 1805 that impacted dramatically on her health. She died five years later. The following year, a new edition of Psyche was released, along with some previously unpublished poems, and it was this edition that established her literary reputation. John Keats was one of her admirers and paid tribute to her in his poem, To Some Ladies in 1884: 

“If a cherub, on pinions of silver descending,

Had brought me a gem from the fret-work of heaven;

And smiles, with his star-cheering voice sweetly blending,

The blessings of Tighe had melodiously given.”

In George Romney's portrait of her, she appears to resemble Psyche, with her long, way brown hair and flowing cream dress wrapped loosely around her body, blending with her skin tone. He shows her caught in a trance as her gaze is directed somewhere in the distance. 

 

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849)

Born in England, Edgeworth lived there until she moved with her family to Edgeworthstown, County Longford in 1782. As the eldest daughter, she assisted her father with his estate, which provided her with knowledge about the Irish rural economy and peasantry that would form the backbone of her novels. She published her first volume of stories in 1796 under the title, The Parent’s Assistant, which was celebrated for its realistic portrayal of children (she was surrounded by 21 children at her family home in Longford!). 

Her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), a satire on Anglo-Irish landlords, showcased her gift for social observation, character sketch, and authentic dialogue. It established the genre of the “regional novel,” and its influence was enormous. Sir Walter Scott acknowledged his debt to Edgeworth in writing his historical novel, Waverley (1814). Her next work, Belinda (1801), a society novel that addresses love, courtship and marriage, was particularly admired by Jane Austen.

After the death of her father in 1817, Edgeworth wrote less, and focused her attention on the family estate. Nevertheless, she enjoyed an international reputation and her novels were regularly reprinted. In addition to writing novels for children and adults, she produced a manual for Practical Education in 1798 and often shared her ground-breaking ideas and views on Irish politics, women’s rights and slavery. Her last years were saddened by the Irish famine, during which she worked for the relief of afflicted peasants. She wrote the children’s tale, Orlandino in 1848 for the benefit of the Irish Poor Relief Fund. She died in 1849, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most successful authors of her generation. 

In this photograph by an unknown photographer, Edgeworth, aged around 78, is shown reading a loose page that she leans against a book. One wonders if she is proofing one of her own texts or that of someone else? Perhaps, the photographer has simply asked her to pose with a text to underline her career as a novelist.

Maeve McCarthy (b.1964), Portrait of Maeve Binchy (1940-2012), Writer, 2005
Maeve Binchy (1940-2012) Maeve McCarthy (b.1964)
Jackie Nickerson (b.1960), 'Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), Poet, Playwright, Translator, Nobel Laureate', 2007. © National Gallery of Ireland.
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) Jackie Nickerson (b.1960)

Maeve Binchy (1940-2012)

Admired and loved in equal measure, Maeve Binchy was one of Ireland’s most successful writers. Born and educated in Dublin, she wrote for many years for the Irish Times and published in various genres. She was best-known for her novels, which include Light a Penny Candle, Circle of Friends, Tara Road and Minding Frankie. In this portrait, she appears in the converted attic-workroom of her Dalkey home, surrounded by pictures, books, photos and memorabilia, many of them gifts. Her husband Gordon Snell, also an author, features in the background, his head buried in a newspaper.

 

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Born in County Derry, Seamus Heaney obtained a degree from Queen's University, Belfast. In 1972 he moved south, settling first in Ashford, County Wicklow, and later in Dublin. His first collections Wintering Out and North, were published in 1972 and 1976 respectively. During the next twenty years he held teaching posts in Dublin, Belfast and at Berkeley, California. In 1984 he was elected to the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, and served as Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1989-94. Heaney won many literary awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. Like W.B. Yeats, Heaney encouraged an interest in poetry among the general public. 

This photographic portrait by Jackie Nickerson records the warm, contemplative expression characteristic of the much-loved Irish poet Seamus Heaney. In 2007 Nickerson was commissioned by a British newspaper to take a photographic portrait of the poet for a feature article. After the formal sitting in his Dublin home, Heaney invited her into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Nickerson realised that she had an opportunity to take a striking, informal picture and asked permission to take another photograph, which resulted in this image. The fluorescent light glowing above Heaney’s head could refer to his revered status as a poet.

A drawing in red chalk of the head of playwright JM Synge
John Millington Synge (1871-1909) Robert Gregory (1881-1918)
A marble bust
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) Patrick Cunningham (d.1774)

John Millington Synge (1871-1909)

A legend of the Irish Literary Revival, John Millington Synge was a poet, prose writer, travel writer and collector of folklore. He was also one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre. Before dedicating himself to writing, Synge studied to become a musician. He met William Butler Yeats while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1896, where Yeats encouraged him to stop writing critical essays and instead to go to the Aran Islands and draw material from life there, saying: “Give up Paris. You will never create anything by reading Racine . . . Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression”. 

Synge heeded his advice and lived on the islands on and off from 1898-1902, observing the people and learning their language. He ultimately revealed his impressions in The Aran Islands (1907) and based his one-act plays In the Shadow of the Glen (first performed 1903) and Riders to the Sea (1904) on islanders’ stories.

He is perhaps best remembered for his play, Playboy of the Western World (1907), inspired by his experiences on the Aran Islands. Riots erupted at its opening in the Abbey Theatre, which were soon followed by further demonstrations among the Irish populations in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The Playboy riots have come to be seen as a landmark in Irish theatre history and the motives for the audience reaction have caused much debate. Nevertheless, Synge remained associated with the Abbey Theatre, where his plays gradually won acceptance, until his death.

 

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Dublin-born Jonathan Swift was the most celebrated dean of the city’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, but is perhaps better known as a poet, satirist and political writer. To further his career Swift took Holy Orders but spent little time in Ireland, preferring to spend time in London. After an undistinguished career at Trinity College he was employed as secretary to the English politician Sir William Temple in Surrey. While in England he wrote brilliant and acerbic political pamphlets and anti-Whig lampoons for his Tory friends. He held highly controversial views on Irish issues, notably advocating, by means of pamphlets, a boycott of English goods. Elsewhere, he attacked English misgovernment of Ireland and exploitative and absentee landlordism. Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift's most famous satire on society, was written while he Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. 

It is a testament to Swift’s standing in Irish cultural history and to the distinctiveness of his features that he remains such a recognisable figure in art. The absence of wig or slouch cap (in which he more commonly appears in paintings) does not render his face in Cunningham’s strikingly naturalistic bust any less familiar. Cunningham himself would have relied on pictorial, verbal and literary descriptions when executing this posthumous likeness.

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