Burg Altena, Germany
Tipperary S.R. County Museum

(08.06.2000 , Ireland, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary )
Views of a Vanished World in South Tipperary.

A forgotten pioneer of Irish photography is being commemorated by a special exhibition in the new Tipperary S.R. County Museum in Clonmel. William Despard Hemphill’s photographs show his world. They include views of Clonmel, its railway station (the first known photograph of an Irish steam engine), the Quays and the streets. His great interest in archaeology is shown in his studies of the Rock of Cashel, Holy Cross abbey and other historic sites. His links with the Big Houses of the area and especially Newtown Anner produced most of his images. They are a marvellous record of a vanished era. Dr. Hemphill was more than just a social recorder however. He clearly wanted to be an artist and his photographs are carefully posed with people to the best effect. At his best, in The Slope for example, his photographs are simply beautiful. Behind his images of the house lies the marvellous story of the Osbornes of Newtown Anner, the elderly anti-social baronet grandfather, the lonely young English grandmother, their daughter who married Ralph Bernal, descendant of Spanish Jews and the two gifted granddaughters, Edith and Grace, one of whom married the Duke of St. Albans and the other a poor Galway police officer who later became a Governor. What a novel it would make and what illustrations Hemphill’s photographs would be!

Dr. Hemphill’s views on photography

Photography came to Ireland in the early 1840’s and at first was a pursuit of the wealthy. W. D. Hemphill’s earliest dated photographs and stereoscopes are from 1857. In 1858 he gave a lecture to the Clonmel Art Exhibition about photography.
It is clear that Dr. Hemphill was up to date with regard to techniques and in contact with photographers in London. He valued photography as a way of sending images of their relatives to the ‘thousands of our fellow-countrymen exiled in Australia and America’.’ He preferred photographs as ‘giving a more truthful likeness and retaining the peculiar identity of those I loved, to the finest portraits of Lawrence or Reynolds’. He discusses landscape photography and notes the ‘so many really good landscapes annually …. on the walls of our Photographic Exhibitions’. He then goes on to say that ‘all agree that it (photography) excels all other arts in the perfection of its architectural pictures’. He finishes up the short talk by mentioning stereoscopes but deplores the reconstructed scenes with ‘vulgar groups of pretended home-scenes and hawking parties, with stuffed animals and pasteboard back-grounds, which abound in every shop window, not to speak of those whose demoralising influence is so great, that one does not know which to wonder most at, - the possibility of procuring models, as they are called, or that such things should be tolerated or encouraged by a Christian public. Not that I would be understood to cast a slur on pic-nics, weddings, and tea-parties, providing the subjects are pure and the accessories natural’ W.D. Hemphill certainly continued with his photography into the 1860’s. He may have stopped for a while in the late 1800’s but he certainly was taking photographs in the late 1890’s, a few years before his death.

Dr. Hemphill’s life and interests.

William Despard Hemphill was born into a large professional middle class Church of Ireland Tipperary family in 1816. He was educated at the Clonmel Endowed School and followed his father into the medical profession. He returned to Clonmel and had a successful practice, being doctor to both the Asylum and the Prison. He ‘was said, by those who remembered him, to be a man of great personal charm’ while his obituary says ‘The poor, too, without distinction, found in him a kindly-disposed and generous friend’ In 1849 he married Sarah Henrietta Pedder, a member of a prominent Clonmel family. He was a man of many talents. He composed and played music, was an avid orchid grower, turned ivory ornaments and was interested in archaeology, geology and Waterford glass. Dr. Hemphill died on the 13th of July 1902. His house, Oakville, is now the site of a Clonmel shopping centre.

The New Museum

The exhibition is on display in the new County Museum. Some years ago the County Council decided to expand the museum facilities and was pleased to be approved for a grant of 750,000 by the Minister of the Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands under the European Union Operational Programme for Tourism. The new museum has been built in the Borstal area where there is already a concentration of civic facilities and amenities. The balance of the 1.4 million budget is being funded by the County Council and Clonmel Corporation. The building will be a benchmark in the development of museum buildings in this country as it is the first completely custom-built county museum.
On display in our South Tipperary in Peace and War exhibition are items from Tipperary’s troubled history such as the Hogan Jersey and Dan Breen’s watch as well as a large number of items showing the peaceful history of the county. Many of these have not been seen before by the public due to restricted space in the old museum.

The County Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 10.00 to 5.00 PM
Closed Sundays, Mondays and Public Holidays
Admission is free.

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