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What Lies Beneath: Niagara Falls from the American Side 1867

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Niagara Falls from the American Side 1867, Oil on Canvas by Frederic Edwin Church [1826-1900], National Gallery of Scotland

Niagara Falls from the American Side 1867, Oil on Canvas by Frederic Edwin Church [1826-1900], National Gallery of Scotland

Niagara Falls from the American Side 1867, Oil on Canvas by Frederic Edwin Church [1826-1900], National Gallery of Scotland

Did we ever think we'd end up talking and thinking and protesting so much about water? Back in the 1980s we laughed when the Late Late Show featured an item on selling the bottled version. But we Irish bought it big time, we drink 160 million litres of H2O, it's a three million euro industry. The Government were caught on the hop when it came to paying for tap.

But look at this spectacular painting of Niagara Falls: all that water. Based on a sepia photograph and an 1856 drawing, it was commissioned by a New York dealer and when it was exhibited in Paris [1867] and London [1868] it caused a sensation. Now in Scotland's National Gallery, Edinburgh, this is the only major Church in a European public collection. The painting thunders with forceful energy and doesn't make a sound. Church was turning forty when he made the work.

Three waterfalls, Horseshoe, American and Bridal Veil make up Niagara, linking Ontario province and New York state and an average 567,811 litres of water roar and tumble down per second. Sixty-three-year-old Annie Edson Taylor, as a stunt, went over in a barrel in 1901, survived, saying "No one ought ever do that again" but since then several daredevils and suicides have plunged and jumped, tightrope walkers stepped out and almost thirty million tourists visit every year. It's a favourite among honeymooners.

This painting's structure is such that the falls sweep across the canvas in a curve. In the immediate left foreground the detail is more precise; on the right the falls are shrouded in mist. Dark green trees on the cliff top break the sweep of whooshing, unstoppable flow and though the clouds are tinged with sunlight it looks uninteresting by contrast - all eyes are on the multi-coloured water. The blue pool is dramatically inviting.

The Coalition's honeymoon is well and truly over. Had Fine Gael and Labour gone to Niagara, seen all that uisce and thought Irish Water through, instead of getting things so wrong and u-turning, the marriage could well survive the rocks.

Sunday Independent