This is one of his many subject paintings where he brings before the public his concern for the state of the Irish poor, and especially their education. A slightly earlier work, focusing on literacy (formerly in Brian P. Burns Collection), is The Village Scribe showing an illiterate farming couple paying someone to write a letter for them. Incorporating symbolism within his favoured framework of socio-realist genre paintings, he frequently juxtaposed poor rural people and their possessions, to present a statement.
A schoolroom typical of county Cork is shown here, with boys left to their own devices, as if the master has just stepped out. His rudimentary desk on the far left, supports just one dog-eared book, and a small switch suggests discipline, which is actually absent. His coat hangs up behind, and his high stool seems to have been pushed aside in a hurry. Graffiti on the walls, in the manner of Sir David Wilkie, further underlines the message with its inclusion of a cartoon of the bespectacled master wielding a raised stick, close to a sailing ship, suggesting his departure. The departure of discipline, and order, is further underlined by the boys, nearly all of them barefoot and ragged, who have abandoned their reading and instead are playing marbles, arguing and maybe cheating. They are cheating the more studious boys of the chance to learn, and symbols of order and progress, in the form of three boys in less playful moods, are literally and visually peripheral. The two central protagonists seem to represent/symbolise Irish educational requirements for order and financial support (the boy in the blue jacket) and the government’s inability to respond (the boy with empty pockets). The feeling of abandonment is stressed further by torn discarded books, holes in the floorboards, the cracked and disfigured walls (where plaster is insufficient to reach the top of the gable), and the door left ajar by the absent master. The lack of proper financial support for the National school system was indeed a hotly debated topic during the nineteenth century. This was Brenan’s way of bringing a subject he cared strongly about to a wealthy, educated Dublin audience, underlined by his choice of title.
Brenan gently draws attention to a serious narrative here, in contrast to other nineteenth century artists such as Nathaniel Grogan, Henry MacManus and William Mulready, whose treatment of schoolroom scenes address the unpalatable subject of physical discipline head on. Instead Brenan portrays the pupils with care and sympathy, in line with his own experience of teaching young art students (many artists then started training in their early teens). Brenan is one of the best known and most prolific Irish artists to work in this Dutch influenced way. Other titles such as Patchwork, Words of Counsel, A Committee of Inspection (weaving, county Cork) (all Crawford Art Gallery, Cork) and Interior, with Woman Spinning reflect his concern for working women and the way their lives and marriages were arranged by men. While Notice to Quit and News from America tackled the political subjects of eviction and emigration.
Dr Claudia Kinmonth MRIA
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