Wandering star – Brian Maye on travel writer, explorer and artist Isaac Weld

In 1795, he set off on a tour of North America

Isaac Weld: topographical and travel writer, explorer, artist and Royal Dublin Society activist

The topographical and travel writer, explorer, artist and Royal Dublin Society activist Isaac Weld was born 250 years ago on March 15th. His father, also Isaac, was an official in the Irish customs, and his mother was Elizabeth Kerr, his father’s first wife.

Isaac senior owed his lucrative employment position to his friendship with the famous Whig MP and minister, Charles James Fox, while both father and son owed their first names to great-grandfather Nathaniel Weld’s close friendship with Isaac Newton.

Isaac junior, the eldest son of the family, was born in Fleet Street, Dublin, and was educated at Samuel Whyte’s school on Grafton Street, at Palgrave Academy, a private school in Suffolk, and finally attended a private tutor in Norwich.

In 1795, he set off on a tour of North America (where he’s said to have met George Washington and Thomas Jefferson). He wasn’t happy with conditions in Ireland, or indeed Europe, at the time and the purpose of the American tour was to see how suitable that part of the world might be for Irish immigration. He concluded that the United States would be unsuitable; he disliked its treatment of the native peoples, was appalled by slavery and viewed Americans as being obsessed with material things. Canada he found more appealing, particularly its natural scenery and how one could live comfortably on relatively moderate means.

When he returned to Dublin at the end of 1797, he wrote Travels through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada during the Years 1795, 1796 and 1797, which was published two years later. It sold extensively, with three more editions being printed, and was translated into French, German and Italian. In 1801, Lord Hardwicke, the Irish lord-lieutenant, asked Weld to provide information on Canada as a destination for emigrants in preference to the US, and as a reward for his work, he was given his father’s position in the Irish customs service.

His entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (www.biographi.ca/en/bio/weld_isaac), has the following comments about his book: “Although some of his judgements were obviously rather subjective, Weld’s book was a substantial piece of work. He spent more time in North America than did many other travel writers. He was fortunate in his timing: in the 1790s he was able to give an early, sometimes a first, account of many aspects of North American life. Finally, Weld had a special skill in describing the topographical and physical aspects of the country through which he travelled . . . This aspect of the book was strengthened by good maps and by plates made from his own sketches.”

In 1802, he married Alexandrina Hope in Edinburgh. According to one source, they had no children, while according to another, they had a daughter, Esther, who was named after his sister. That sister married the eminent Irish lawyer, radical political pamphleteer and freethinker George Ensor.

Near the end of 1800, he was elected to the Dublin Society (Royal Dublin Society, or RDS, from 1820) and from then on, he devoted most of time to promoting and advancing the society. He served on its library committee and was elected honorary secretary in 1828. In this role, he set up an annual exhibition of Irish products and manufactures (after 1835, the exhibition was held every three years rather than annually). The writer, editor and philanthropist Anna Maria Hall, and her husband, the journalist and author Samuel Carter Hall, praised the quality of the 1841 exhibition in their book, Ireland: Its Scenery and Character.

Weld was also a capable artist. He’d illustrated his travel book on North America (his drawing of Niagara Falls was particularly impressive) and in 1807 another book, Illustrations of the Scenery of Killarney, was favourably reviewed. He became the RDS’s art authority, advising on purchases in various forms.

The RDS began a series of statistical surveys of Irish counties in 1801 and Weld took on Co. Roscommon. His account, which was published in 1832, was considered the best, along with William Tighe’s survey of Co Kilkenny, according to Bridget Hourican, who did the entry on Weld in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

He was elected vice-president of the RDS in 1849 and spent a lot of his later years travelling in Italy, where he became very friendly with the famous neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. He died on August 4th, 1856, at his home, Ravenswell, near Bray, Co Wicklow, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin. The RDS erected a monument to him there the following year. There is a portrait (1843) of him in the RDS library by Martin Cregan.

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