Comerford, John (c.1770–1832), miniaturist and portrait painter, was born in Kilkenny city, son of a local flax-dresser who lived and worked opposite the Tholsel. He acquired his early artistic knowledge from copying paintings in Kilkenny Castle, Carrick-on-Suir, and other venues in the south-east of Ireland, before going on to study at the Dublin Society schools, where in 1790 he was recommended for a certificate testifying to his ‘extraordinary merit in drawing from the flat’ (Caffrey, 11). The following year he was awarded a medal for attaining the first class in figure-drawing. Early in his career he was based in Kilkenny and the surrounding counties; however, he also worked in Dublin, as his advertisement in the Leinster Journal of 29 June 1793 (announcing his return to Kilkenny from Dublin) indicates. Early commissions for oil portraits came from his relations, Jane, Anne, and Michael Langton of High St., Kilkenny (1794), Lady Dunsany, and the Dublin Society, for whom he painted portraits of Thomas Braughall (qv) and Dr Edward Walsh (qv). His full-scale portrait of Walsh was subsequently etched by John Kirkwood for the Dublin University Magazine in 1834. By September 1737 he was advertising himself as a painter of both portraits and miniatures.
While critics have noted the influence of the American portrait-painter Gilbert Stuart (qv), resident in Dublin from 1787 to 1793, in Comerford's work, it was the English–born artist George Chinnery (1774–1852) who did most to shape his subsequent career. The two met in 1799 and evidently became good friends, as Comerford moved in with Chinnery's family in 27 Dame St. the following year. He continued to live there, during his visits to Dublin, for the next fifteen years. Significantly it was at the exhibition of the Society of Artists of Ireland (1800) in Allen's Rooms in Dame St., which Chinnery helped organise, that Comerford first attracted attention in Dublin. His two miniatures of the Misses Warren, sent from Kilkenny, were favourably received in the Hibernian Journal, which wrote of his contributions: ‘Here is an artist whom we never saw or ever before so much as heard of. Our astonishment at his pictures must excuse this note of admiration’ (Caffrey (1987), 42). He contributed to the Society of Artists exhibitions in Parliament House in 1801 and 1802, by which time he had become well established, specialising mainly in miniatures. The Dublin Evening Post review of the 1802 exhibition described him as ‘bursting at once from provincial retirement into the full blaze of public notice’ (ibid., 43). Appointed vice-president of the Society of Artists (1811) he continued to exhibit in Dublin until 1813, and was represented at the Royal Academy's exhibitions in 1804 and 1809. Throughout this period he maintained contact with his native Kilkenny, returning there in 1808 to execute eleven portraits of the actors of the Kilkenny Private Theatre, which were later engraved in stipple for the 1825 publication The Private Theatre of Kilkenny.
Much in demand in the following years, while the bulk of his commissions came from rank-and-file members of the Irish landed gentry, clergy, and military, he also painted some of the most prominent figures of Irish society, among them Lord Charlemont (qv), James Gandon (qv), Richard Lovell Edgeworth (qv), and Daniel O'Connell (qv). Many of these portraits made popular engravings, and were reproduced in the Hibernian Magazine. The O'Connell portrait, engraved and published in London (1825), was used by Comerford in his advertisement in the Freeman's Journal the same year. Other portraits were used to illustrate specific publications, notably Historic memoirs of Ireland (1832) by Sir Jonah Barrington (qv), and a portrait of Sydney Morgan (qv) which was engraved and published as the frontispiece of The wild Irish girl (1846).
A very successful and popular figure in Dublin circles, he enjoyed something of an artistic monopoly in the city. This may explain his staunch opposition to the granting of a charter of incorporation for the formation of an academy of artists. If he did feel threatened by the competition its creation would bring about, he publicly argued that students of art did not require academic training, but should study from nature. Condemning the proposal in a lengthy letter to Charles Grant (qv), chief secretary 1818–21, he wrote: ‘Those who encourage young men to become artists are doing a real and substantial injury to society; they are destroying very excellent carpenters, smiths, and house-painters, and creating a class of unfortunates who never would be capable of doing any good for either themselves or others’ (Caffrey (1987), 44). After the granting of its charter in 1823, he never joined or exhibited with the Royal Hibernian Academy. He was well known and liked by his colleagues: among his closest associates were Vincent Waldré (qv) and William Ashford (qv), PRHA, whose portraits he painted, and William Cumming (qv) and Thomas Sautelle Roberts (qv), RHA, with whom he collaborated. Both John Doyle (qv), the caricaturist, and Thomas Clement Thompson (d. 1857), RHA, were his pupils, while Samuel Lover (qv) also came under his influence. Having amassed an estimated fortune of £16,000, in his later years he enjoyed entertaining his many friends. He died at his home at 28 Blessington St., 25 January 1832, leaving his only daughter, Mary, an annuity of £500. Among the portraits of Comerford are his own self-portrait (private collection) and a work in chalk and pencil by William Bewicke (British Museum).