Details & Cataloguing

A Living Legacy: Irish Art from the Collection of Brian P. Burns


Lilian Davidson, A.R.H.A.


Christie's, London, 22 May 1998, lot 6


Dublin, Royal Hibernian Academy, 1921, no.58;
Boston, Boston College Museum of Art, America’s Eye: Irish Paintings from the Collection of Brian P. Burns, 26 January - 19 May 1996, no.9, illustrated p.83, with tour to Dublin, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 19 June - 25 August 1996 and New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, 25 September 1997 - 4 January 1998;
Washington, John F. Kennedy Center, Irish Paintings from the Collection of Brian P. Burns, 13 - 28 May 2000, illustrated p.29;
Phoenix, Phoenix Art Museum, A Century of Irish Painting: Selections from the Brian P. Burns Collection, 3 March - 29 April 2007, illustrated p.65


Thomas J. O’Gorman, ‘For All the World to See: The Brian Burns Collection’ in The World of Hibernia, Summer 1996, illustrated

Catalogue Note

Landscape, portrait and genre painter Lilian Davidson was born in Bray, county Wicklow. Her parents died when she was young, but a scholarship from the Royal Dublin Society enabled her to attend the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. She exhibited over 130 works at the RHA (1914-1954). These included many genre paintings inspired by the west of Ireland, and at least a dozen on the theme of harvest, for example; Kelp Gatherers, Potato Harvest and Bringing in the Turf.1 She also showed 188 titles at the Water Colour Society of Ireland (1912-1953), and served on their committee. Davidson had to teach art to augment her income; and pupils such as Bea Orpen became successful in their own right.  

By the 1920s her work was informed by trips to paint in France, Switzerland and Belgium, and she was compared to French impressionists such as Jean-Francois Millet. She exhibited in a joint Dublin exhibition with Mainie Jellett (subsequently an avant-garde Cubist painter) in 1920, then in numerous other galleries. These included 61 works at 7 St Stephens Green, Dublin three of which ‘had previously been shown at the Salon in Paris in the same year: A Mountainy Woman, In the Fish Market, Bruges…and Flax Pullers [probably the same picture as seen here].' By 1936 she had exhibited in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Chicago.2

Davidson’s composition uses a diagonal slant leading the eye from the left foreground, away to the right, where sunlight from behind creates a halo effect around the stooping workers’ bonnets. Shadows of the tree-lined hedge beyond, contrast with broadly brushed yellows and reds of clothing, reminiscent of Paul Henry’s The Potato Diggers (1912).3

Flax was the raw material for Ulster’s labour-intensive linen industry. In late July or early August, harvesting the plant by pulling instead of cutting preserved the long fibres in each stem, and reduced waste. The artist saw how the bright yellows and greens, that she depicts with brilliance here, quickly faded after harvesting, so she surely chose this stage for its dramatic colour as well as its action. Consistently sympathetic in her portrayal of rural workers, she conveys the communality of hot, hard summer work.  

Dr Claudia Kinmonth MRIA

1 Ann M. Stewart, Royal Academy of Arts, index of Exhibitors 1826-1979 Vol. I A-G (Manton Dublin, 1986), pp.194-95.

2 Paul Finucane and Maria Connolly, Journeys through line and colour - Forty Irish Women Artists of the 20th Century (University of Limerick, 2010), pp.36-9.

Adele M. Dalsimer and Vera Krielkamp, America’s Eye: Irish Paintings from the Collection of Brian P. Burns (Boston College Museum of Art, 1996), no.9, pp.82-3.

A Living Legacy: Irish Art from the Collection of Brian P. Burns