On 10 January 1913 Joyce received a bill for the restoration of the family portraits and for shipping them from Dublin to Trieste.
The portraits had been delivered to Daniel Egan, carver and gilder, on Lower Ormond Quay in May 1912 for restoration. Once the restoration was complete, Egan wrote in October 1912 looking for payment and instructions on where to send the portraits. Joyce sent him a cheque for £1 and Egan wrote again in January 1913 asking for the balance of £1 15s 4d to be paid.
The five portraits had survived the constant relocations of the impecunious John Joyce and his family between 1881 and 1913, in which time he had lived at around twenty addresses. Ostensibly, they were portraits in oil of Joyce’s paternal ancestors: Anne McCann (his great-grandmother), James Joyce (his great-grandfather), Ellen O’Connell (his grandmother), and two portraits of James Joyce (his grandfather).
No doubt retaining these portraits was intended to remind John Joyce and his family of their illustrious heritage, but they were also a reminder of how far the family had sunk. Joyce apparently flicked breadcrumbs from the supper-table at these haughty portraits while living at St Peter’s Terrace, perhaps as an indictment of his father.
According to Richard Ellmann, “John Joyce was anxious to entrust them to the care of his eldest son, rightly supposing that he best understood their value.”
After Joyce had paid Egan the balance of £1 15s 4d, the portraits were shipped to Trieste where they arrived in spring 1913. They were put on display in Joyce’s latest temporary residence at via Donato Bramante 4.
With the success of Ulysses, Joyce commissioned Patrick Tuohy in 1923 to execute a portrait of 74 year old John Joyce to add to the family portrait gallery. Tuohy was also asked to do a sketch of May Joyce from a photograph supplied by Joyce when, in 1924, Tuohy was undertaking a portrait of Joyce himself. Portraits by various artists of Joyce, of Nora Barnacle, and of Giorgio and Lucia Joyce were also added to the gallery.
Joyce, through Paul Léon, sent a list of the family portrait gallery to Frank Budgen in 1933. He claimed that the five ancestral portraits were by John Comerford of Cork, and he also told Arthur Power they were by Comerford. Stanislaus Joyce thought the portraits were by William Roe, but no evidence has been found to link the paintings to either Comerford or Roe.
Indeed, according to Thomas Connolly, “There is some reason to doubt the authenticity of the five portraits of Joyce’s ancestors…” Connolly claims that it’s quite possible these were “random portraits” acquired by John Joyce “to bolster the family’s credentials to gentry.” It seems, then, that the haughty portraits that Joyce was paying to have restored and shipped were part of John and James Joyce’s mythologising of the family’s illustrious past.
Connolly, Thomas E: “Home is Where the Art Is: The Joyce Family Gallery,” James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, Fall 1982, pp. 11-31.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.