(Brighton 1862 – 1922 London)
Signed lower left: Edgar Bundy 1896 Oil on Canvas, 157.9 x 102.5 cm
London, Royal Academy, 1896, no. 101
Christie’s New York 28 October 2015, lot 48
Edgar Bundy’s early life as an artist is a mystery. With no formal training he made his way onto the art scene as an exhibitor at the Royal Academy in 1881. He is recorded as working in the studio of Alfred Stevens around this time. The artist was eventually elected R.I and R.O.I in 1891 and A.R.A in 1915. Bundy’s success as an exhibitor in London resulted in many submissions and ultimately to the Paris Salon, beginning in 1907. Bundy specialized in historical painting in both oil and watercolor. Many of his paintings are heavily detailed and narrative in style, something Bundy likely picked up from his period of study with Alfred Stevens.
In March 1895 a newspaper headline in England read: The Tipperary Wife Burning. This article, the first of many, described the tragic and violent death of an Irish woman named Bridget Cleary, a dressmaker who was immolated alive as a witch by her husband and family. In contrast, England had not tried a witch case since 1751, when a woman was murdered in England by means of a “trial by ducking,” (a euphemism, which involved submerging an accused in water to see if they would float: If they float, they were burned as a witch, if they sink, they are left to drown). In 1790 England had abolished the practice of burning as a form of capital punishment. The death of Bridget Clearly became a focal point of culture while the trial ensued for months after her murder. At the time, Irish home rule was an active political issue in England, and the press coverage of the Cleary case exacerbated the debate over the Irish people’s ability to govern themselves. Nursery rhymes spread the story amongst the youth, “Are you a witch, or are you a fairy or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”
The title of this painting differs from many of Bundy’s other paintings by having such a direct and simplistic approach. Many of Bundy’s other pictures depict either a specific historical event, which is provided by the title, or have an obscure, but suggestive title, which allows the viewer to create assumptions about the narrative. Being objective and literal, this painting’s title leaves little room for interpretation. The public of 1896 would have been reminded of Bridget Cleary case when viewing this painting. Bundy has portrayed a witch to remind the British public of Ireland’s superstition, and to question their own opinions about whether or not Ireland was capable of ruling itself. This painting is possibly an allegory on Irish Home Rule, or it is simply the depiction of a witch.