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Erskine Nicol

Head or Harp?

signed and dated 1856; also inscribed on a label on the reverse
oil on wood panel
10 by 12.75in.

Private collection, West Sussex

Head or Harp is an extraordinarily fresh and vivid portrait of Irish rural life in the mid-nineteenth century: two men toss a coin for the price of a drink, seated across a table from one another in a country shebeen. A local man, his clay pipe in front of him, rubs his head in ruefully cheerful resignation as he realizes that the wandering musician who is his opponent is an old hand at the game, and that he has been outfoxed. The musician seems to have snatched an opportunity at hand, and he is taking only brief rest from his trade: he has kept his squeezebox around his waist, and merely draped his uilleann pipes over the back of his chair.

Erskine Nicol was born in Edinburgh but he taught in Dublin from 1845-50, at the height of the Irish famine, and from that point on seems to have viewed himself as being almost more Irish than Scottish. Although he did not live there permanently after 1850, he made frequent visits to Ireland and showed himself as a sympathetic and perceptive portrayer of the Irish people and of the difficulties which beset them. He is sometimes accused of making comic capital out of his subjects and turning them into stereotypical �Paddies�, and it is true that he did occasionally cater to the Victorian taste for low farce. More often, however, his work shows a real and frank engagement with the injustices which plagued Ireland through the second half of the nineteenth century: works such as The Emigrants (1864, coll. Tate Gallery, London) and An Ejected Family (1854, coll. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) are among the most sympathetic portrayals of the time of the twin curses of emigration and forced eviction.

Head or Harp? certainly strikes a lighter note, but it is nonetheless a vivid evocation of the qualities which have come to be seen as central to the Irish character: the quicksilver wit; the love of entertainment and chance; the passion for music; and the respect (expressed in the choice of the ancient uilleann pipes as an instrument) for the antique customs and traditions of the country over modern flashiness. When these qualities were gifted by the playwright J M Synge to the hero of The Playboy of the Western World, their frank portrayal scandalised the conservative and anglicized middle classes of Dublin when the play premiered in 1907, and it is almost shocking to see them so robustly celebrated in the present work, fifty years earlier. In fact, Head or Harp? is a strikingly modern image, executed with such immediacy and enjoyment that the viewer can almost feel as if he or she is in the room, with two men who are separated from us by half a dozen generations.