William Percy French
1854 - 1920
Landscape painter and illustrator William Percy french, was born in 1854 at Cloonyquin House between Elphin and Tulsk in Co. Roscommon. He was educated in England (Kirk Langley School and Windermere College) and in Ireland (Foyle College Londonderry. In 1872 he began an engineering degree at Trinity College, Dublin and graduated in 1881. It was while at T.C.D. that he wrote his famous song ‘Abdallah Bulbul Ameer’ for a university smoking concert. Best known as a writer of humorous songs he was also at various times engineer, journalist, writer of sketches, poet, banjoist, watercolourist, songwriter and stage entertainer.
After a short period as an apprentice with the Midland Railway Percy French (then known as Willie) was ready to emigrate to Manitoba when he was unexpectedly appointed inspector of loans to tenants by the Irish Board of Works with his headquarters to be in Cavan. His professional work as a civil engineer did not prevent him developing a rewarding social life both at the local tennis club where he helped lay the courts and with the musical and dramatic society.
However by 1888 Percy French’s services with the Board of Works were no longer required and he became editor of a new Dublin comic weekly ‘The Jarvey’ in which he also was able to advertise his latest songs and his travelling ‘Jarvey Concert Company’.
Eventually c1900 on the advice of his agent Percy French and his family went to live in London where his talents found ever wider scope. Although he had some early music hall engagements he took advantage of the Edwardian fashion for entertaining in the home. He also entertained at public schools and colleges and even for the Royal Family but his more public recitals took place mostly at London’s Steinway Hall where he became united again with Dr. Collisson. So successful were they in partnership that their show Humours of Art and Music travelled to Canada, USA, Bermuda, the West Indies and Panama in 1910.
Meanwhile a fashionable and significant market developed in England for French’s watercolour depictions of Irish skies and western landscapes and there were exhibitions of his work at a number of London galleries. During these years in London Percy French returned to Ireland each summer (August – September) to entertain at the ‘watering places’ around the coast.
The onset of war in 1914 brought an end to virtually all forms of entertainment in London and thereabouts and resulted in a serious decline in income for Percy French. He therefore extended his annual tour of Ireland to include many more inland locations and his engagement diaries illustrate a degree of popularity that was as pleasing as it was physically demanding. During one month (July) he performed at 28 different locations all over Ireland, a feat that could only be achieved by reason of the extraordinary comprehensive railway system that then existed.
During these later years French often joined Dr. Collisson on visits to the winter sports resorts of Switzerland to raise funds for Collisson’s ‘Waifs and Strays’ charity. He loved to paint the snow scenes of the Swiss mountains – his work usually selling at the resorts. He also travelled to the continent to entertain the war wounded in hospitals – his famous painting ‘The Ghost of Ypres’ is a vivid reminder of the devastation wrought during the Great War.
In 1916 Percy French was in Dublin with a new version of Dublin Up-To-Date at the Little Theatre in Sackville Street (subsequently O’Connell Street) but plans to continue the show to England were abandoned after the 1916 Rebellion. By then his health was failing and he suffered a number of accidents. He died from heart failure in 1920.