Gorse heathered hills

William Percy French

Irish ( b.1854 - d.1920 )

Gorse heathered hills

  • Watercolour
  • Signed & dated 1910 lower right

Image size 6.5 inches x 9.3 inches ( 16.5cm x 23.5cm )
Frame size 14.6 inches x 17.3 inches ( 37cm x 44cm )

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Sold by Big Sky Fine Art; this original watercolour by Percy French dated 1910.
The work is presented and supplied in a sympathetic contemporary frame to suit the subject colouration, mounted using conservation materials and behind glass.

Percy French was one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters and entertainers in his day. His artwork is well appreciated and collectable.

Percy French, known as Willy in his youth, was born near Roscommon, Ireland. He studied engineering at Trinity College, Dublin, where he also spent a lot of time writing songs, playing the banjo, performing in dramatic works and painting in watercolours. Whilst at Trinity College he wrote his first successful song “Abdul Abulbul Amir”, which he sold for £5 to an unscrupulous publisher. It later became hugely popular and was falsely claimed by other authors. One of his most famous songs was “Are Ye Right There Michael”, which ridiculed the state of the rail system in County Clare and led to an unsuccessful claim for libel by the railways.

After graduating he was on the verge of emigrating to Canada when he was appointed to a post in a government drainage scheme in Cavan and he spent the next seven years as a self-styled “Inspector of Drains”. During this time he continued to paint and write songs in his spare time.

He returned to Dublin where he edited a comic magazine called “The Jarvey” and continued to compose music and poetry.

In 1891 his first wife, Ettie, died in childbirth as did their baby daughter, just a year after their marriage. He was at this time jobless. He reacted by touring the country on his bicycle with a box of paints, painting and performing. He developed a one-man show, where he sang the amusing and popular songs he composed and performed comical sketches.

In 1894 he married again, to Helen Sheldon, an English chorus girl, and they had three daughters.

He also met Dr. Houston Collisson, with whom he formed a creative partnership that lasted for many years.

From 1900 he toured the theatres and music halls of Britain. He appeared at Steinway Hall , London at the same time as his art work was exhibited at the New Dudley Gallery in Piccadilly. His one full scale West End Production was a children’s play “Noah’s Ark”, which ran during the Christmas season 1905-6.

In 1910 he and Dr. Collison were given a farewell dinner at the Savage Club in London prior to departing on a successful tour of Canada, the east coast of America and the West Indies. French said, “We unite brains, beauty, brushwork and banjo in one harmonious whole”.

In 1913 he performed in hotels in Switzerland on behalf of “Waifs and Strays” and sketched the snow-covered mountains. During the First World War he travelled in Ireland, England and France entertaining the troops and raising money for war charities.

From then on he was based in London, but performed in the holiday resorts and towns of Ireland each year. He wrote stories and verse as well as the libretta of a musical comedy, a comic opera and an opera – all of which were produced in Dublin. His stage career continued until his death in 1920.

Percy French’s art was well recognized during his lifetime; he exhibited some 64 works with the Water Colour Society of Ireland from 1872 to 1910, and 24 works with the Royal Hibernian Academy between 1891-1901. He was a Member of the Belfast Art Society. His work “The Queen’s Entry into Dublin” is in the National Gallery of Ireland and his drawing of the Queen Victoria procession entering Dublin is in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

Despite his creative genius French lacked business sense and gave away many of his paintings to friends or sold them for a pittance. His name however was a household word in most Irish towns, both as an entertainer and an artist. When he died such were financial circumstances of his wife and daughters that a Percy French Memorial Fund was established.

In 1951 a memorial was unveiled at Newcastle, County Down, erected by the Urban Council in memory of French and his song “The Mountains of Moure”. Fifty years after his death a plinth of Mayo granite was unveiled at St. Luke’s Church, cemetery, Formby, where he is buried, organized by the Liverpool Irish Centre. In 1974, 1979 and 1982 exhibitions of his work were held at the Oriel Gallery, Dublin and in 1978 there was a French exhibition at the Ulster Museum. A bust of French by Jim Joe McKierman was unveiled in 1984 at Cloonyquinn by his daughters, Ettie and Joan. In 1983 the Percy French Society was formed and their collection of his works is held at the North Downs Heritage Centre. There is also a bronze figure of him on a park bench in the main square at Ballyjamesduff in honour of him and his famous song “Come back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff”.

There is now a Percy French School in Roscommon, which seeks to illuminate the considerable social significance of French’s song writing, poetry and paintings and their relevance to life in Ireland today. It has succeeded in attracting a wide range of significant authors, academics, politicians and artists to lecture and perform. Its current Honorary President is the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins. It is said that Percy French never had a singing, acting, drawing or painting lesson in his life.

This landscape in watercolour by its famous Irish artist depicts rolling hills and moorlands clad in purple heather and gorse, with a spectacular cloudy sky.The wet technique perfectly mates with the feel of the location and the prevailing weather be it in Ireland or elsewhere in the British Isles.