Petrie, George (1790–1866), artist, antiquary and collector of Irish traditional music, was born on 1 January 1790 (his gravestone has 1789) in Dame Street, Dublin, the only child of James Petrie, portrait painter, of Dublin, and Elizabeth Petrie (née Simpson) of Edinburgh, Scotland. James Petrie (d. 1819) was born in Dublin of Scottish parents and studied at the drawing school of the Dublin Society. Afterwards he practised as a miniature painter and a dealer in jewelry, coins, and antique objects at 83 Dame Street. He drew portraits for magazines and published engravings, most notably of radicals such as J. P. Curran (qv) and Napper Tandy (qv). He also painted landscapes and full portraits, occasionally exhibiting his work. Before the outbreak of the 1798 rebellion he was arrested on suspicion of being a United Irishman. While held in the Provost prison he met Major William Sandys (qv), who helped secure his release; he later painted Sandys's portrait. Most critics agreed that his painting lacked refinement and that his portraits rarely flattered their subjects. Among his more notable works are a self-portrait held by the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) and a miniature of his son George (NGI); he also drew a sketch of Robert Emmet (qv) during his trial in 1803, painted a portrait of Emmet from memory, and made a plaster cast of his head after decapitation. He was married twice: first to Elizabeth (d. 18 April 1793), daughter of Sacheverell Simpson of Edinburgh; and second in 1808 to Willhelmina Bate (d. 1862).
George was educated at Samuel Whyte's (qv) school in Grafton Street and at the drawing school of the Dublin Society, where he learnt his craft as an artist, winning a silver medal for figurative drawing when he was thirteen. During his teens he developed an interest in archaeology, and sketches and detailed descriptions of artefacts are to be found in a journal dating from 1808. Petrie began his career as a landscape painter, working in both watercolours and pen-and-ink, and was noted for the excellence of his draughtsmanship. In 1816 he exhibited paintings of Glendalough and Glenmalure at the Royal Academy, and in 1818 visited Clonmacnoise, copying more than 300 inscriptions from monuments. He contributed numerous illustrations to guidebooks, including Thomas Cromwell, Excursions through Ireland (1819), and George Wright (qv), An historical guide to ancient and modern Dublin (1821) and Ireland illustrated (1829). Petrie was elected as an associate member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in 1826, the year of its inception, and in 1828 advanced to full membership. He was appointed the Academy's librarian in 1829.
Petrie began to collect ancient documents for evidence that would help him to understand the inscriptions he had collected from monuments at sites such as Clonmacnoise, and these antiquarian activities eventually led to his election to the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in 1828. In 1830 he was voted on to the council, and invested considerable energy in invigorating the RIA, founding a museum and a library, and assisting with the purchase of a number of important manuscripts, including the second volume of the Annals of the Four Masters. Three of the papers he presented to the RIA were awarded the Academy's gold medal: on the origin and use of round towers, a scientific study which demystified them and demonstrated that they functioned as ecclesiastical bell towers (1833), on Irish military architecture (1834), and on the history and antiquities of Tara Hill (1837).
Between 1832 and 1833 he coedited the popular periodical Dublin Penny Journal with the Reverend Caesar Otway (qv). Modelled on Henry Brougham's Penny Magazine (founded 1832), this prohibited discussion of politics and polemics, focusing rather on Irish history and mythology, literature, the fine arts, biography, archaeology and natural history. Petrie contributed more than fifty articles, ranging from a discussion of the origin of phrenology to a study of ancient Irish trumpets.
The ordnance survey of Ireland was established in 1824, and in 1833, on the instigation of Lieutenant Thomas Larcom (qv), the assistant to the survey's director, Colonel Thomas Colby (qv), it extended its basic cartographical brief through ‘the preparation of a comprehensive memoir, which might at once illustrate the map, by describing the natural history of each district, and exhibit the progress and condition of society in all parts of Ireland, by statistical and historical details’ (Dublin University Journal, Dec. 1839, p. 641). Petrie was appointed to the topographical department of the survey in 1833, and by 1835 was responsible for overseeing the orthography of place names and the cataloguing and description of historic artefacts, work that brought him into close working contact with the scholars Eugene O'Curry (qv) and John O'Donovan (qv). The first printed volume of the memoirs, on the parish of Templemore, Co. Londonderry, appeared in a tentative experimental form in 1835 to praise from the Dublin meeting of the British Association, but it was not until November 1837 that Ordnance survey of the county of Londonderry, volume the first: memoir of the city and north western liberties of Londonderry was finally published. By this stage the book had ballooned out of control, costing £1,700, more than three times the original budget for the entire county of Londonderry, and over 350 pages in length for a single parish. Collection of new materials for the memoirs was suspended in July 1840, on the grounds of the considerable expense to the exchequer, though Petrie and his team continued with their orthographic work until 1842. In May of that year an anonymous accusation was made to the government in a letter signed by ‘a protestant conservative’ that Petrie (an anglican) surrounded himself with catholic radicals who spent their time discussing politics and religion, while he gave private drawing lessons. The topographical department's work, it implied, was politically divisive and likely to revive old animosities, and later in 1842 the department was closed.
Petrie had maintained his career as a painter and illustrator, and one of his finest watercolours, ‘The last circuit of the pilgrims at Clonmacnois’, was completed around 1838. He continued to work on The ecclesiastical architecture of Ireland, anterior to the Anglo-Norman invasion, comprising an essay on the origin and uses of the round towers of Ireland, finally publishing it in 1845. From 1844 to 1847 he served as vice-president of the RIA. He was granted a pension of £300 a year on the civil list in 1849, and this provided him with a degree of financial stability in his later years. In 1847 a subscription was established for a memorial to Daniel O'Connell (qv) (described by Petrie as ‘one of the most illustrious of Irishmen’) in Dublin's Glasnevin cemetery, and Petrie was approached to design it. Although his original plan involved a threefold structure consisting of a church, a round tower, and a cross, to his disappointment the final monument was an exaggeratedly high round tower surmounting the crypt holding O'Connell's remains.
The Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland was founded in 1851 with Petrie as president, and a council consisting of a number of leading Irish intellectuals. The main aims of the Society were the ‘preserving, classifying, and publishing these airs of every kind, and likewise all such words (whether in the Irish or English language) connected with any of them, as appear to possess any peculiar interest’, and the intention seems to have been to bring the scientific approach adopted by Petrie in the fields of literature and archaeology to the study of ‘ancient’ music. Irish people were invited to contribute to the collection, by sending copies of ‘airs’ to a central repository in Dublin. By the time of the publication of the first, and only, completed volume of The Petrie collection of the ancient music of Ireland (1855), Petrie appears to have had between 750 and 1,000 in his possession. This had risen to more than 2,500 melodies by his death: most of them were published between 1903 and 1905 by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (qv) as the Complete collection of Irish music as noted by George Petrie. The 147 melodies which appear in The Petrie collection of the ancient music of Ireland are provided with piano accompaniments and detailed commentaries. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is the anonymous tune sent to Petrie by Jane Ross (qv) of Limavady, which has subsequently come to be known as ‘The Londonderry air’. The work of the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland collapsed in 1855, though François Hoffmann published some further melodies in 1877 as Ancient music of Ireland from the Petrie collection, and a set of forty pieces (with commentaries from what was clearly intended to be Petrie's second volume) appeared posthumously in 1882.
Although his membership of the RHA was held to have lapsed by its secretary, Michael Angelo Hayes (qv), because he had not exhibited for three years since 1853, he was, nevertheless, elected president of the Academy by a section of its membership in 1856 while Martin Cregan (qv) remained as a rival president. In October 1857 the situation was normalised by Petrie's election as sole president by the general membership. However, Petrie took exception to proposed constitutional changes that gave the government greater influence in the conduct of the academy's business, and he resigned from the presidency on 21 January 1859.
Petrie spent his early years in his father's home at 82 Dame Street, Dublin, briefly relocating to 5 Essex Quay after his marriage. He lived at 21 Great Charles Street until 1850, when he moved to 67 Fortescue Terrace, Rathmines Road, remaining there until 1858. His final years were spent at 7 Charlemont Place. An honorary doctorate (of laws) was conferred on him by Trinity College Dublin in 1847. He married (1819) Eliza Mills; they had a son (who died at the age of five) and five daughters (four of whom survived him).
There is a discrepancy about the date of Petrie's death. Although usually held to have been 17 January 1866, the Dublin Evening Mail (19 January 1866), the Manchester Guardian (23 January, 1866) and W.A. Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (July 1866) all give it as Thursday 18 January. To confuse matters further, the Illustrated London News of 3 March 1866 suggests that it was 19 January and the civil record of Petrie’s death (which was registered on 30 January) gives 12 January. He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery on 22 January, 1866.
The RIA holds a portrait by John Slattery. The NGI has a youthful study from the late eighteenth-century Irish school, a miniature painted by his father, a further portrait (possibly also by James Petrie), a painting by Bernard Mulrenin, and his death mask. Petrie's work on Christian inscriptions in Irish, edited by Margaret Stokes (qv), was published after his death (2 vols, 1872, 1878).
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).