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.
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