This painting was produced during Edith Collier’s stay in the southern Irish fishing village of Bonmahon in 1915. She spent eight or nine months there, attending the summer school run by Australian post-impressionist painter and printmaker Margaret Preston and her artist companion Gladys Reynell. On an earlier visit to Bonmahon in 1914, Collier painted pictures of cottages and landscape. During her second stay, she concentrated on drawing and painting the inhabitants of the village, producing many portrait studies. Her favourite models were older subjects.
Little schoolboy of Bonmahon was inspired by advice from Collier’s mother, Eliza: ‘Your charcoal head of an Irish peasant has arrived … Although not a great beauty by nature, it is a face that has seen hardships and poverty that you have brought out to perfection. I would like to see some of the Irish children now, beautiful and happy for a contrast.’(1) It is a brooding, sensitive rather than happy child who is captured here, glancing over his left shoulder. Thoughtful innocence is superbly encapsulated: Collier serves up the delicate, sweet flavour of childhood without its sentimentality. Her palette range is largely muted and subtle, but the dazzling pale and rose pink of the child’s face is arresting. Preston had introduced Collier to the conventions of post-impressionism, and they are here in the use of black outline, simplified tonal modulation and boldness of form. The patterned wallpaper with its blooming reds gives a decorative quality that enhances the pictorial flatness.
The same model was used in Collier’s charcoal drawing An Irish schoolboy, c.1915 (Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui), and inspired the later Boy with Noah’s Ark, c.1916–17 (Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui). Children regularly sat for Collier, Preston and Reynell at their studio at 2 Osborne Terrace, Bonmahon, and were paid and given clothing parcels in return. ‘These people are consumptives,’ Preston wrote to Collier’s mother. ‘A lot of your clothes went to cover their nakedness. We tried to give [them] to the orphans.’(2) Sitting for Collier and her colleagues was an honour amongst the youth of the village.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).
1. Eliza Collier, letter to Edith Collier, 24 August 1915, Edith Collier Papers, Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui.
2. Margaret Preston, letter to Eliza Collier, 2 August , Edith Collier Papers, Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui.