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The Development of Art in Ireland

July 22, 2009

First Governor General of the Irish Free State (TM Healy) at an art exhibition.

This post is about the development of modern art in Ireland, so if you’re looking for torcs, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sorry!

The below extract is from Saorstat Eireann Official Handbook, published in 1932.  Its age requires that I turn the pages gently, but here’s what it has to say about Irish art up to that time.

”The arts of painting and sculpture only flourish in communities that enjoy peace and prosperity. The Free State has not yet been established for a sufficient time to redeem the promise of those Irish artists who, in the eighth century, won for their country a pre-eminence in illuminated manuscripts and precious metal work over all the other nations of Europe. The intervening dark ages of turmoil and misery effectively prevented the developmnt of a distinctively Irish School of Fine Art.

Towards the close of the eighteenth century, a period of comparative social and economic libery produced a brief spell of artistic endeavour. Fine private houses and public buildings were erected in profusion. Irish galss, silver ware and abinet work of the time still excite the admiration and the cupidity of collectors. But they are valued, properly, more for the excellence of their materials, for the skill of the craftsmen, for their present rarity, than for their national character or their aesthetic charm. The models that inspired their makers were too often foreign to the traditions of the country and with the fall of the Irish Parliament, the opportunity of subduing an alien culture to national ideals faded away for more than another century.  Pictorial art in Ireland suffered, in the same way, from the same causes. Painters of Irish birth there were in plenty, at the outset of the nineteenth century, whose talents were first discovered and fostered in t heir native land. But almost all of them were driven abroad in the endeavour to find adequate reward and reputation for their talent.

George Barrett, R.A. , one of the founders of the Royal Academy and the most esteemed landscape painter of his day, began life as an apprentice to a maker of corsets in Crow Street, Dublin.

Nathaniel Hone, R.A., that able portrait painter, another foundation member, was  born in a small house on the Dublin Quays.

James Barry, R.A., the first Professor of Painting in the Royal Academy, was the son of a poor publican in Cork.

Sir Martin Archer Shee, P.R.H.A.  (President of the Royal Hibernian Academy), who succeeded Sir Thomas Lawrence in the Presidency, was a Wicklow orphan boy.

William Mulready, R. A, who has just claims to be considered the chief precursors of the pre-Raphaelites, was the son of a maker of leather breeches in the town of Ennis.

There were very few painters of the time who could afford to endeavour to practice their art in Dublin. Chief among them were Hugh Douglas Hamilton who had alwready won fame and fortune in England and William Cuming, the first President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, who had inherited a competency.

The foundation of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1821 gave rise to hopes which have not yet come to fulfilment, though such brilliant painters as Nathaniel Hone the younger, Walter Osborne and William Orpenhave more than justified its existence.

It seems, for the moment, to have fallen upon evil days and has not even possessed a local habitation for the past fourteen years (remember, this was written in 1932) . But we are still entitled to expect much from an institution which contains upon its roll of active membership such well-known names as Lavery, Yeats and Hughes and which attracts such talented younger artists as Mrs. Margaret Clarke, Estella Solomons and Messrs. Henry, Keating, Whelan, Power, Lamb, Craig and Sean O’Sullivan.

Sean O'Sullivan 'Sybil Connolly'

John Lavery 'The Chess players.' (1929)

A little more encouragement, or a little more opposition, would probably stimulate the Hibernian Academy into a period of vigorous achievement.

The National Gallery of Ireland was not opened until 164. It then contained a small  nucleus of unimportant works, most of which have long since been wisely withdrawn from its walls and laid in oblivion. Nowadays, it contains about seven hundred pictures and six hundred drawings, a  large number of which are universally acknowledged to be masterpieces and it takes, accordingly, a high rank among the great public galleries of Europe. The section devoted to national portraits which was inaugurated in 1884, is rich in historic interest.

The most remarkable features of the general collection is the group of Dutch and Flemish paintings, which includes superb examples of the art of  Rembrandt, Hals, Steen, Ruysdael and Rubens.

This was formed mainly by Henry Doyle, the second Director, who at a time when Dutch art was in temporary disrepute, showeed admirable courage and foresight in expending a meagre grant to marvellous advantage. It was he who bought, in 1883, for five hundred and fourteen pounds, the Rembrandt landscape ‘Shepherds reposing at night’ which attracted so much attention at the Dutch exhibition in Burlington house in 1929.  He also bought, three years later, for seventy-three pounds, the Fra Angelico panel of the Martyrdom of SS. Cosmas and Damien, one of the loveliest and best preserved works of the master now to be found outside his monastery in Florence.

Doyle’s achievements as Director were equalled, if not surpassed, by those of Sir Hugh Lane, who held office for only nine months before he was drowned in the Lusitania. He adjusted the undue predominance of the Dutch School in the collection and added, mostly by his personal gifts and bequest, such treasures as Titian’s ‘Baldassare Castaglione’, El Greco’s superb ‘St. Francis in Ecstasy’, Claude’s ‘Io and Argus’, Goya’s ‘La Moué’, ‘The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus’ by Poussin, the ‘Portrait of Mrs. Horton’ by Gainsborough and ‘The MacKinnon Family’ by Hogarth.

To Lane also, Ireland owes the Dublin Municipial Gallery of Modern Art, which he founded in 1907. There is nothing leglible there, with the exception of a few of those pictures which have been acquired by gift since the death of its founder. No one who saw for the first time the decayed exgterior of Clonmel House in Harcourt Street, could dream that it hid a series of delightful canvasses by Degas, Monet, Corot, Whistler, Sargent, Brangwyn, Osborne and Hone; the finest group of Mancini portraits to be seen outside Italy and the finest groups of pictures by Mr. Augustus John, R.A. and Mr. William Steer, O.M. to be seen outside England.

The present Municipal Collection is a mere shadow of the magnificent gift which Lane originally projected. Because he was unaware of the necessity of having the codicil to his will witnessed, England claims and holds in the Tate Gallery, thirty nine pictures by such masters as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Daumier, which Lane, according to the finding of an English Governmental Commission destined for Dublin. It is the confident hope of his friends, both English and Irish, that  his last wishes will eventually be made effective and that thesepictures will come to rejoin their fellows in the fine gallery which the Irish Government and the Dublin Corporation are now preparing for their reception in Charlemont House.

Two other public picture collections in the Free State merit the attention of all art lovers; the charming series of watercolour drawings, most of the early English Schoool in the National Museu, and the Cork Municipal Collection, a pleasant little group, wto which interesting additions are constantly being made through the Gibson bequest.

Enough has been written to show the richness of the Free State in pictorial treaure. Its influence on the cultural or the industrial life of the country is not greatly apparent. Modern Irish manufactures, though excellent from a technical standpoint are, for the most part, mediocre in design. There are a few honourable exceptions; the Cuala Industries, directed by the Misses Yeats, produce fine printing, as does the Candle Press, directed by Mr. Colm O’Loughlin. The Dun Emer Guild, directed by Miss Evelyn Gleeson, are justly famous for their carpets.  Miss Purser’s ‘Tower of Glass’ and the firm of Harry Clarke have sent stained glass windows widespread over the world, which have never been surpassed by the greatest masters of the art. But Irish furniture, pottery and textiles are, as a general rule, undistinguished.

Signs are not wanting to show that the Irish people recognise their backwardness in these respects and are resolved to advance. The Royal Dublin Society has recently decided to offer substantial encouragement to designers. The Haverty Bequest provides attractive prizes for Irish painters working in Ireland. The example of foreign countries, such as Sweden, in successfully applying art to industry is not lost upon Irish intelligence. Many of us have asked ourselves how it is that the swedish firm which a few decades ago manufactured nothing but a small supply of coarse glass bottles, can now turn out glassware in enormous quantities which is eagerly sought for, at high prices, by connoisseurs everywhere and has made the name of Orrefors famous.

We realise that the Ringsend Bottle Factory collapsed while the Orrefors Bottle Factory flourished, because the latter appreciated the prime importance of good design.

There are well equipped Schools of Art under Government control in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, but they still suffer from a lack of public encouragement and have great difficulty in recruiting pupils with sufficient preliminary training. Drawing is not yet systematically taught in many Irish schools. Neither of the two Universities in the Irish Free State has fully awakened to the necessity of devoting serious attention to the study of art history or aesthetics.

We have had so many vital problems in the last few years that we may well be excused for having allowed the problem of art to bide awhile; and the government can claim that the public opinion has hitherto been turned towards what are too often supposed to be more urgent realities.

We are now, at last, ready to deal with the situation; and it is not an idle dream to hope that within a few years, travellers will seek, confidently, poplins in Dublin as beautiful as the silk tissues of Lyons, porcelain figures in Belleek as elegant as those of Copenhagen and carpets in Donegal as rich and lasting as those of Persia; and that this nation, once so distinguished in the practice of the arts, will recreate a national art of its own, not based on out-worn styles and lost endeavours, but reflecting the energetic aspirations and enthusiasms of a reborn race.’

Saorstat Eireann, Talbot Press, 1932.

It’s a great extract, not only because of the neatly encapsulated history of Irish art, but because they point out people of merit at the time, some of which have become names familiar to those who study Irish art history.  Harry Clarke, for example, whose work is currently on show in the National Gallery.

Harry Clarke- Ligeia

Harry Clarke- Ligeia

The National Gallery has expanded greatly since 1932 and there are now more art schools, most notably the National College of Art and Design, Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork and the Limerick School of Art and Design.  The number of National Colleges  has grown and many include courses in Art History, often to be taken in conjunction with another subject.  Art is now a part of daily life in Irish schools.

As for the Hugh Lane collection, the dispute was not resolved until 1959- part of the collection is now on permanent loan to the Hugh Lane Gallery and other works rotate between London and Dublin every few years.

Art is not as much a part of current Irish national identity as music.  Cultural events tend to focus on pagan-inspired crafts rather than the pictorial arts.  I feel a change in the wind, though- things are slowly shifting back to realism and an exciting new phase in Irish art.

Coming soon- another article relating the passage of Irish art from the 1930s to the present day.

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