Gathering Kelp in West Cork

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Art and literature give us insights into the ways in which people have traditionally viewed or used their coastal environment.  In the aptly-named Rambles in the South of Ireland During the Year 1838, Georgiana Chatterton (1806-76) relates a curious anecdote.

While staying at Drishane House, the Somerville family home at Castletownshend, the British author tells us of her visit to nearby St Barrahane’s churchyard and sentimentally describes her surroundings as picturesque.  Coming across ‘two simple monuments of surviving affection,’ Chatterton spends ‘a few minutes absorbed in imagining the history of the two human beings whose remains reposed beneath.’ She is then told by a companion how they met their fate:

Mrs. B– was in perfect health, and went out to walk on the shore. In climbing up a rock, to pick some beautiful sea-weed, her foot slipped, and she fell into the water. No human hand was near to save her, and she was drowned. Her only child – a beautiful little girl – was very shortly after laid in the grave beside her mother.

It is interesting to note from this tragic tale that both seaweed gathering (or, perhaps, that of coastal wildflowers) and the spectre of drowning are recognisable aspects of coastal life. Chatterton underlines the beauty and danger of the coast which fits well with the romanticised mood of the period, early in the reign of Queen Victoria. It is easy to see why such an anecdote struck the author as other writers and artists from across northern Europe had been increasingly drawn to such subjects.

Gathering Kelp
William Magrath (1838-1918), Gathering Kelp (1877), Watercolour on Paper, 67 x 39 cm. (Image Credit: Courtesy of Crawford Art Gallery, Cork).

Gathering Kelp (also known as The Kelp Gatherer or The Seaweed Girl), a lovely watercolour by the Irish artist William Magrath (1838-1913), is typical of the realist subjects of everyday life favoured by nineteenth-century artists and art lovers alike. Now in the collection of the Crawford Art Gallery, Gathering Kelp (1877) depicts a barefoot woman carrying her workload as she walks along the seashore. As her ‘large open basket is different from the creels shown in pictures of the west of Ireland,’ the Irish art historian Julian Campbell has suggested that this could be a scene observed along (or derived from) the Cork coastline. Although there are thematic resonances with Chatterton’s anecdote, it is unlikely that the young woman in Magrath’s painting and the unfortunate Mrs. B– were of the same social class – one appears to be subsisting on gathering seaweed, while the other seems to have been collecting for pleasure.