Charles Reuben Ryley

Oscar Bringing Back Annir’s Daughter


Not on display

Charles Reuben Ryley c.1752–1798
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 314 × 412 mm
Purchased 1984

Display caption

The strength of Scottish identity lay not only in the figure of the Highlander, but also in a sense of Scotland’s ancient legendary past, enshrined in the potent myth of Ossian.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the poet James Macpherson had produced what he claimed was a faithful translation of an epic of primeval Scotland by an ancient Celtic bard named Ossian. In fact Macpherson had heavily edited fragments of Gaelic poems and added much of his own writing. His poems nevertheless provided sentimental and dramatic scenes for many late-eighteenth-century artists including English painters like Charles Ryley.

Gallery label, July 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Charles Reuben Ryley c.1752-1798

T03854 Oscar Bringing Back Annir's Daughter 1785

Oil on canvas 314 x 412 (12 3/8 x 16 1/4)
Inscribed 'C.R.Ryley 1785' b.r.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: ...; anon. sale, Sotheby's 21 Dec. 1983 (50, repr.) ₤880 bt Anthony Reed from whom bt by Tate Gallery
Exh: RA 1786 (141)

The subject of T03854 is taken from a cycle of poems, supposedly by the Gaelic-speaking bard, Ossian, which the Scottish writer James Macpherson (1736-96) claimed to have collected from oral and manuscript sources and then translated. Rendered by Macpherson into modern prose, and with appropriate annotations to elucidate the story, they were published in full in two volumes in 1765 as The Works of Ossian, the Son of Fingal; ... Translated from the Galic (sic) Language by James Macpherson.

The narrator throughout the work is the ancient and blind Scottish warrior and bard Ossian - son of Fingal the warrior king of the Caledonians who inhabits the north-west coast of Scotland (also known as Morven). Fingal's home, in the palace of Selma, is on the banks of the Cona, a river that runs through Glen Coe in Argyllshire; from this place he makes expeditions, in war and peace, to other parts of Britain as well as Ireland, Scandinavia and Germany. Ossian, by his marriage to Everallin, daughter of Branno, a powerful chief of part Irish extraction who lives next to the lake of Lego, has a son Oscar, also known as Oscar of Lego, who likewise becomes a famous warrior. The deeds described by Ossian take place towards the end of the third century AD.

The poem from the Works of Ossian which inspired Ryley's picture is 'The War of Inis-Thona' (Works, I, pp.148-57). A badly damaged inscription in ink on paper, contemporaneous with the painting and probably stuck on the back of the canvas before the picture was recently relined (but now preserved separately) locates the specific incident:

Cormalo had resolved on a war against his father-in-law Annir, king | of Innis-thona, in order to deprive him of his kingdom: the injustice of his | designs was so much resented by Fingal, that he sent his grandson Oscar, to | the assistance of Annir. Both armies came soon to battle, in which the conduct and valour of Oscar obtained a complete victory. An end was put to | the war by the death of Cormalo, who fell in a single combat, by Oscars hand. |
[The Works of Ossian, I, p.151]

Oscar fought, as he was wont in war. Cormalo fell | beneath his sword: the sons of dismal Lano fled | to their secret vales. - Oscar brought the daughter of Inis | thona to Annir's echoing halls. The face of age is | bright with joy; he blest the king of swords. | The War of Innis-Thona
[ibid., pp.155-6]

More fully, Oscar is given leave by Fingal to assist Annir, the aged king of Inis-thona (which, translated, means the Island of Waves), Fingal's former companion in arms and whose joy in his youth was, we learn from another poem 'Cath-Loda', 'in the fall of man' and who 'poured death from his eyes', in a war against Cormalo, a powerful chief living by the lake of Lano in Scandinavia. Oscar, bearing Branno's shield and Fingal's sword, and with Fingal's words that he should be 'in battle a roaring storm: mild as the evening sun in peace' ringing in his ears, sets sail across the sea to Inis-thona where he lands in the Bay of Runa. Annir feasts Oscar over four days and tells him how the youthful Cormalo had defeated all Inis-thona's heroes in a tournament: one of the results of this was that Annir's daughter (from 'Cath-Loda' we learn that she was the 'white-armed' and 'deepbosomed' Foina-brâgal) had fallen in love with him. Annir's sons, Argon and Ruro, had returned from hunting to find the flower of their countrymen defeated. Their pride was injured and after three days of feasting with Cormalo one of them, Argon, had fought and overcome Cormalo. Cormalo in his turn had resolved to avenge his humilation, had killed both sons while they were out hunting and then fled with Annir's daughter whom he subsequently married. She later wished to return home before her father died but had been prevented from doing so because of the state of war which existed between her husband and her father. Oscar on hearing Annir's tale immediately sets off with his army towards Lano. In Ossian's words:

They came over the desert like stormy clouds, when the winds roll them along the heath; their edges are tinged with lightning; the echoing groves foresee the storm! the horn of Oscar's battle is heard; Lano shook over all its waves. The children of the lake convened around the sounding shield of Cormalo.
[ibid., p.155]

After defeating Cormalo and returning Annir's daughter to Inis-thona, Oscar travels back to Morven where his deeds are celebrated by a 'thousand bards'. With the sword of the vanquished Cormalo as his trophy and a sign of his strength in battle, and with Ossian's joy at his grandson's victory, Oscar is a shining example to those among the youth of his country who long for 'equal fame'. Many battles later, Oscar dies by the hands of Cairbar, King of Ireland, in a skirmish in the Pass of Gabhra in Ulster. This is recorded in Book of another epic poem, 'Temora' (ibid., II, pp.14-19); a lamentation on his passing voiced by the grief-stricken and beautiful Malvina, his lover and daughter of Toscar, is found in the poem 'Croma' (ibid., I, pp.344-5).

Within a very short time of its publication the authenticity of The Works of Ossian was being questioned and from the mid 1770s onwards the whole Ossianic issue was the subject of vigorous controversy in literary circles. Influential figures like Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole spoke out against Macpherson who at first, significantly, refused to produce any 'original' manuscripts. By the end of the century there was little doubt that Macpherson had, in fact, skilfully blended his knowledge of real Gaelic mythology and verse with Biblical, Homeric, Miltonic and other sources to fabricate a plausible sounding saga.

Nonetheless, Ossian's tale of ancient love and war, heroism and death set in a northern landscape which was by turns sublime, beautiful and terrifying, and all described in a prose style fashioned out of short, measured sentences embodying carefully cadenced imagery, spoke with a voice which was exactly in tune with the rising romantic consciousness of the day. Over the next three or four decades artists and writers in Britain and throughout the rest of Europe were inspired by the work (for a full discussion of this see Henry Okun, 'Ossian in Painting', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.30, 1967, pp.327-56 and Ossian, exh. cat., Grand Palais, Paris 1974).

In Britain, the first Ossianic subject to be exhibited at the Royal Academy, a scene from 'Fingal' by James Barralet (c. 1747-1815), appeared in 1771 and the following year Alexander Runciman (1736-85) was commissioned by Sir James Clerk to produce a series of twelve paintings after Ossian for the great hall at Pennycuik near Edinburgh (now destroyed; for etchings by Runciman after one of these works see T03604 and T03605). It seems that the last time a work inspired by Ossian appeared at the RA was in 1830 when the sculptor William Pitts (1790-1840) showed a subject from 'Carric-Thura'. During the intervening period nearly sixty works after Ossian were shown in the three principal London exhibition rooms - those of the Academy, the Free Society of Artists and the British Institution.

On the whole, the most dedicated followers of Ossian among British artists seemed to have been those of the second rank. It is true that we find James Barry (1741-1806) unreservedly including Ossian among the great poets and writers in the concluding section, 'Elysium and Tartarus or the State of Final Retribution', of his vast mural 'The Progress of Human Culture and Knowledge' painted for the Society of Arts in 1777-84 (William L. Pressly, James Barry, New Haven and London 1981, pp.296-7); and later J.M.W. Turner embellished the title of a Scottish landscape exhibited at the Academy in 1802 with a reference to Ossian's 'War of Caros' (untraced; M. Butlin and E. Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, New Haven and London, 2nd ed., 1984, I, pp.30-32, nos.38, 40 and Andrew Wilton, The Life and Works of J.M.W. Turner, Fribourg 1979, p.339 no.346). But the most notable contributors of Ossianic subjects to the London exhibitions were artists who are now largely forgotten: James Barralet (who produced 4 works after Ossian, exhibited in 1771 and 1778); Henry Bone (1795-1834; 3 works, in 1805, 1806, 1807); Maria Cosway (1759-1838; 2 works, in 1782, 1783); John Downman (1750-1824; 2 works in 1802, 1810); Samuel Drummond (?1770-1840; 5 works, in 1808, 1810, 1812, 1823, 1824); Mary Ann Flaxman (1768-1833; 4 works, in 1779) and Henry Singleton (1766-1839; 3 works, in 1794, 1806). It would appear that the more eminent members of the profession were reluctant to embrace subject matter which, whatever pictorial opportunities it presented, had such dubious origins as The Works of Ossian (information kindly supplied by Richard James).

C.R. Ryley certainly falls within the category of minor artists who favoured Ossian, exhibiting five subjects from the poems at the Academy. He first showed two pictures, 'Banditti' (untraced) and 'Captives' (untraced; probably 'The Captives', oil on canvas, 304 x 355, 12 x 14, Christie's 23 Nov. 1973, lot 159, bt Drager), in 1783 (nos.390, 397) and then in 1786, apart from T03583, he also showed 'Darthula and her Brothers' (144, untraced). This probably depicted the moment in the poem 'Dar-Thula' when the eponymous heroine commits suicide over the body of her slain lover; such a subject would have formed a natural pendant to 'Oscar Bringing Back Annir's Daughter'. Ryley exhibited one further Ossianic picture, 'Ossian and Colmal Delivering Calthon' from 'Calthon and Colmal', in 1789 (124, untraced).

A drawing in the British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings (Acc. no. previously attributed to Ryley's master, John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-79), can now be firmly identified as a study by Ryley for T03854 (Laurence Binyon, Catalogue of Drawings by British Artists ... Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, III, 1902, p.113 no.3; information kindly supplied by John Sunderland). It is drawn in graphite and black chalk with some stumpwork on laid paper, 330 x 452 (12 3/8 x 16 1/4), and the composition is, apart from a few small variations, identical in scale and detail to the Tate's picture. The presence of extensive stylus indentations in the paper which have then been overdrawn, combined with these variations, suggests that the drawing represents an intermediate stage between Ryley's first working up of his subject and its final outlining onto the canvas. The evident care entailed in such a process accords well with the 'diligence' which one of Ryley's patronesses, Lady Sarah Bunbury, singled out as a character trait when recommending him in 1776 as a suitable artist to decorate rooms at Blackrock, Frascati, near Dublin (Ann Margaret Keller, 'The Long Gallery at Castletown House', Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society, vol.22, 1979, p.47; also Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, II, 1970, p.273). In the finished painting the right hand of the central figure of Oscar, which in the drawing falls across the abdomen of Annir's daughter, is raised to continue the line presented by her raised right elbow. Also, unlike the figures in the drawing who have bare feet, in the painting Oscar and Annir's daughter are shown wearing sandals.

Instead of setting the scene of the return in Annir's 'echoing halls', as the poet suggests, Ryley places the event at the mouth of a cave in a wild landscape - conceivably near the 'mossy stream' beside which Annir's sons were buried and which thereafter became the King's haunt. The only other artist who is known to have treated the same scene from Ossian - the German Josef Anton Koch (1768-1839) in a drawing of c.1800 - depicted the action taking place in what is very recognizably a palace (see Ossian, exh. cat., Paris 1974, no.25, repr.). However, Ryley does show Annir bent 'like the trunk of an aged oak' as Ossian describes him. His bard is behind him. Oscar wears a tunic of red cloth - a colour traditionally associated with war - and one of his soldiers, standing on the far left of the composition, has his helmet decked with a garland of oak leaves-known to be an honour awarded for valour in pagan times.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.77-80

You might like