Lot 23
  • 23

NICHOLAS JOSEPH CROWLEY, R.H.A. | Fortune Telling by Cup Tossing

15,000 - 25,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Nicholas Joseph Crowley
  • Fortune Telling by Cup Tossing
  • signed l.l.: N J Crowley and signed and indistinctly dated l.r.: N J Crowley RHA/ 1842
  • oil on canvas
  • 71 by 91.5cm., 28 by 36in.


Purchased by the Royal Irish Art Union, 1842, and won as a prize by Mr and Mrs R. Grubb, Cahir Abbey, Co. Tipperary, and thence by descent;
Their sale, Sotheby's, London, 21 May 1998, lot 280, where purchased by the present owners


London, British Institution, 1843, no.252;
Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy, 1844, no.145


Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin, Ireland's Painters 1600-1940, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2002, p.234

Catalogue Note

A painter inclined towards soulful and romantic portraits, Nicholas Joseph Crowley also produced popular genre scenes, including Love, or Faint Heart never won Fair Lady, A Listener too Many, The Caution and Keeping Warm. Of these genre scenes, by far and away the most successful was his Cleas an Ćopáin or Fortune Telling by Cup Tossing, a painting exhibited first in 1843, then at the RHA a year later, engraved by Charles Sharpe, and circulated as a print by the Art Union. Cup Tossing depicts a young woman, passionate and intense, gazing at a cup held by a gypsy woman who is divining the future by reading tea leaves. The tea has been swirled, then poured into a saucer on the table, leaving the leaves to form a pattern inside the porcelain cup; a technique—not unlike Rorschach ink-blot tests—known as tasseography. Such fortune tellers attempted to predict the future for their hopeful, and often gullible, clients. Born in Dublin in 1819, Nicholas J. Crowley trained as a portrait painter at the Dublin Society Schools and Royal Hibernian Academy, before moving to Belfast, where, in 1835, he sent a painting, The Eventful Consultation, to be exhibited in London at the Royal Academy. The following year he was involved in setting up the Belfast Association of Artists. Around this time also he was elected a member of the RHA, but decided to pursue his career in London. During his years in England, Crowley exhibited forty-seven works at the RA and seventeen at the British Institution. He returned frequently to Dublin, where he exhibited eighty-nine works at the RHA. His portraits include depictions of marchionesses, lord-lieutenants, story-tellers, earls, gypsies, actors, clergymen, lawyers and politicians. In 1845 he painted Taking the Veil; portraits of Archbishop Murray and Mrs. Aikenhead, foundress of the Sisters of Charity in Ireland, and Miss Jane Bellew being received as a nun (St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin). That year also he painted Daniel O’Connell, at that time imprisoned in Richmond Jail. Several of his paintings, including The Desmond Bride, were inspired by the patriotic songs of Thomas Moore.

In his choice of subject-matter, including Shakespearean scenes, such as Samuel Phelps as Hamlet (Collection Royal Shakespeare Company), Crowley consciously emulated his fellow-Irish artist Daniel Maclise, who had moved to London from Cork in the 1820’s and achieved success in the Royal Academy, not least with paintings such as Snap-Apple Night, which also includes scenes of divination. Other theatre portraits by Crowley include Madam Celeste-Elliott, as Marie Ducange (lithographed by T. Fairland) and Tyrone Power, as Connor O'Gorman, in Mrs. Carter Hall's "The Groves of Blarney". Engraved by C. G. Lewis in 1845 this is now in Annaghmakerrig House, Co. Monaghan. Many of Crowley’s paintings were owned by Tyrone Power’s great-grandson, theatre director Tyrone Guthrie, who lived at Annaghmakerrig. Crowley’s self-portrait in the Ulster Museum, painted around 1854, shows the artist self-confidently holding a palette. However, he was to die just three years later, aged thirty-eight. This painting of fortune-telling is significant for several reasons; the subject-matter, the date it was exhibited (three years before the Great Famine), and the use of the Irish language in the title of the engraving. The word ‘cleas’ in Irish means a trick, perhaps indicating that the print was intended to dissuade Irish-speaking people from coming under the influence of charlatans.

Peter Murray