One of the most consistent forms of graffiti found throughout the West Wing – from the cells to the basement – are portraits. These portraits take a variety of forms and reveal various levels of skill – whether they intended to be an accurate representation, idealisation or a caricature – as well as scales – from miniature to monumental. Due to their partial survival, and the layers of graffiti that have often been placed over many of the images, it can be difficult to ascertain who the artist is depicting, almost impossible to determine who the artist was. Therefore whilst this section will concentrate on the portraits of women there is even more uncertainty in this section as to whether women created them (indeed in some cases it is fairly clear they did not). Likewise we cannot assume that only men depicted images of men. The following is small introduction to the nearly 100 extant pieces of graffiti in the West Wing that relate to portraiture.
The forms of portrait that are found throughout the West Wing come in five main forms: head shots (both frontal and side profile), full length (both front and side profile) and groups. From the surviving graffiti there seemed to be a preference for side profile (mainly head shots but also full length). There are many reasons why this may have occurred but the only reason I can forward is that the side profile, particularly for a face, tends to be easier to complete for the less able artist. Without having to ensure symmetry between two sides of a face / body, the side profile can often be more easily completed, especially when the drawing surface has the added difficulty of being an uneven, vertical wall.
Many of the portraits of women have an idealized aspect. This includes one example located in Cell 9 of the top floor, which partially survives due to its placement underneath the window (on the external wall, graffiti located on these walls suffered the most from decay)
This portrait appears to have been made of a known individual as there are even more faint and partial remains of text nearby that note ‘Profile’ with the tantalizing first initial ‘?L’:
There are a small number of images in similar vein, which reveal both exceptional beauty in the subject as well as a significant degree of talent in the artist. This includes an example located on the middle floor. This image we can definitely categorize as an idealized image due to its title ‘Venere Anadyomene’, which is a classical reference to the classical goddess Aphrodite / Venus. A term taken from Italian to reference ‘Venus Rising from the Sea’ it is one of the iconic representations of Aphrodite, although not shown as a full length figure in this representation (unlike one of its most famous representations by Botticelli
The majority of portraits include reveal less romantic idealized representations of women. A particular subset of these portraits were almost certainly created by men, and probably soldiers barracked in the Wing since Kilmainham Gaol had closed as a prison in 1910. All these more risque portraits of women are located on Corridor 2 & 3 of the Bottom Floor in cells that also display soldier signatures, terms of (generally short-term) imprisonment and records of service. This includes a number of nudes (which have been heavily whitewashed over and are therefore difficult to photographically reproduce) and a (pencil) framed portrait of a famous dancer of the era, Pearl White.
Another graffiti form that occurs throughout the Wing and hints of further portrait adornment of cells is that of the picture frame. These are often created by pencil or paint and very infrequently contain any pencil image, however there is some evidence that postcards and other paper-based pictures were originally placed within them. This is particularly evident from the number of paper remnants that survive in one cell on the middle floor, including:
The surviving piece of paper has the title ‘We go around and round’, which does little to reveal the subject of the image but does indicate that an image was contained in the frame!
Some of the portraits that are located are less than flattering and could be considered caricatures due to the grotesque nature of the physical representations of the often-named subjects. This includes one group portrait of ‘Sheck’ / Mrs Dick Mulachy / Dick Mulcahy, who were particularly hated by the women as Richard Mulcahy was a previous ally who had become Minister of Defence in the new Free State government and thereby was signatory on their detention orders
Similar treatment was also given to a contemporary female workers at the prison, with this particular graffiti image placed on the Top Floor Corridor 1 near the main stairwell, evidently placed to be seen
It is often difficult to ascertain if many of the portraits are of named individuals, although one can at times attempt to guess. One portrait had a title that has subsequently been defaced but does bear a marked resemblance to photographs of the Debutante Countess Markievicz:
Some of the women located are even less easy to identify, especially as the remnants of graffiti is so faint that they appears to have been unseen by the women who have graffitied the wall on a return visit by Cumann na mBan in 1938:
Although there are often backward glances to republican precedents in the portraits some are certainly more contemporary than others. In a cell on the middle floor there is a very faint piece of graffiti depicting men in large hats perhaps referencing the famous Sean Keating painting ‘The Men of the West’ (1915) [Depicted in a History Ireland article on National Identity], renamed ‘The Mystery Men of the East’.
Likewise a fashionable female dressed in a flapper-style emerges smiling and dancing from the same wall:
Akin to the last two examples, many of the portraits have been subsequently whitewashed and only emerge through the walls due to water infiltration, decay or by chance only receiving a light brush of whitewash. Often they are small with some features emerging whilst others have disappeared to the naked eye.
At time we are lucky enough to be able to connect the graffiti to the autograph books and thereby together are able to decipher what has become too partial otherwise. One particularly striking portrait of a woman has been badly disfigured by later graffiti in the cell that Patrick Pearse had once occupied. The woman is accompanied by partial text that declares ‘Up Us’ and whilst the name and most of the address is obscured the remnant of ‘142’ written to the right of her neck allows us to locate an address of ‘142 Middle Abbey Street, Dublin’ from autograph books (see on page Identity: Nationalism/Suffragism). This was the home address of Annie Fox, who frequently appears in graffiti and autograph books. Whether the portrait intended to represent her or was drawn by her we do not know but at least we can link Annie Fox to it (incidentally, the same portrait is also located in a cell on Corridor 3 of the Bottom Floor):