Artful discovery: Florence Vere O’Brien

Pictured: Veronica and David Rowe with RDS President Bernie Brennan.
Photo by Kathrin Kobus

Nearly fifty years ago, Veronica Rowe and Elinor Wiltshire had decided to gift the Archives of Trinity College with their inherited papers of their grandparents, Robin and Florence Vere O’Brien. The majority of these includes their correspondence with leading political and societal figures in Ireland and England from the late 19th century to the first three decades of the 20th century.
Amongst these are Florence O’Brien’s sketchbooks and her diaries. One storage box, however, was left untouched and only recently discovered.

“We had taken this old box from the top shelf of the storage room. There, we found these sketches, more than a thousand of them. The interesting thing is her diaries match these sketches. Wherever Florence travelled, she found time to do her sketches and later would water colour them,” said her granddaughter and member of the RDS, Veronica Rowe.
Their findings in that old, dusty box encompassed a timeframe from 1880-1915, spanning the end of the 19th century to the first year of the First World War.
Sifting through the abundant material, she and her husband David came to the decision to compile a book, or as she simply stated, “It was easy, just to put this selection up and turn it into these magical pages.”
The result Irish Sketches of Florence Vere O’Brien was presented at the RDS during this year’s Dublin Book festival in November.

Florence Vere Foster was born in London 1854 and spent the first four years of her life in India, where her father had been posted as an officer of the British Empire. Following the death of her mother, she and her three siblings returned to England and were raised by their aunt and uncle.
She accompanied her uncle, whom she regarded as her step father, from the age of 14, on his journeys to the continent. Her life path would lead her eventually to Ireland when her uncle became Chief Secretary here.
Due to her financial independence, She could pursue her philanthropic engagements and correspondence with various political figures of the outgoing Victorian era.

“She was a young lady, born in London. But she travelled to the continent, visiting Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy and Russia, before she met her future husband Robin O’Brien and settled with him in Ireland,” Bernie Brennan, President of the RDS pointed out in her speech at the official launch for the book.
Florence O’Brien had lived in Dublin for two years. After her marriage to Robert (Robin) O’Brien in 1883 they lived at Oldchurch in County Limerick, later in New Hall, County Clare

There she established the Clare Embroidery Society and also the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland, training young girls in lace making. Irish lace work was shown at exhibitions at the Dublin RDS and worldwide trade fairs in Chicago in 1893 and St.Louis in 1904.
A few samples of her delicate lace work with her monogram were part of the display at the RDS Library, together with her original sketchbooks, in November. Now they are back in the family’s possession, though most probably not in that storage box again.
The Irish Sketches of Florence Vere O’Brien is published by Balinkelly Press and available now in Dublin bookshops.

by Kathrin Kobus