There are things we know about Irish art and things that we think we know. There is also a vast amount of new research into this subject that most people know very little about. The Royal Irish Academy’s latest project – the five-volume Art and Architecture of Ireland, published on November 16th, takes a fresh look at both the extensive body of information already compiled on the subject and the discourse surrounding it. Irish art history has taken well-trodden archaeological (dealing largely with the period leading up to the late middle ages) and connoisseurial (from then to the middle of the last century) paths. Art and Architecture of Ireland expands the discourse by looking at Irish art over the past one thousand six hundred years from widely differing positions, taking the focus far beyond the traditional search for treasures and greatness to raise questions instead about Irish identity, about movement of artists, designers and patrons between this country and the rest of the world, and about the notion of greatness itself.
The twelve-hundred-year span of Volume I Medieval saw successive changes, from the establishment of Christianity to the arrival and settlement of Viking communities, to the Anglo-Norman invasion and Tudor plantations. The fresh requirements and creative impulses emerging from these events on Irish art are, for the first time, treated equally, examining the manner by which both natives and newcomers helped to shape the history of Irish art and architecture. Was it really Irish artists and illustrators who masterminded Insular art thirteen hundred years ago, or to what extent did this country enjoy a genuinely collaborative, developmental process with their neighbours in northern Europe? In fact, as Volume I, points out the term “insular”, (used to refer to much of the art of the medieval period and often seen as inward-looking style) was created as part of a dynamic climate of cultural exchange. The volume provides fresh information about artists, stone masons and designers, not alone on the island of Ireland but scattered around Europe, whose lives we can now begin to construct from a study of legal documents, payrolls, contracts and literary sources from all over Europe as well as from archaeological evidence. In addition, tracing the materials they used and the proclivities of the patrons who paid for their services provides an extraordinary tapestry of cultural activity not widely known until now. Who, for example, was the “William of Ireland”, whose fine statuary embellishes the Eleanor Cross in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire in 1291? What do contemporary illustrations tell us about the practices and interests of medieval artists and their patrons? How many Donegal footballers of today are aware of Maghnus Mac Orristín’s tomb at Clonca, which proudly bears a camán and sliotar alongside his sword, showing the status of hurling there in the sixteenth century? These questions are raised and some answered in the volume, but as interesting is the study of the various scholars and collectors who, over the last millennium, gathered the evidence, and their nuanced reasons for doing so
Volume II Painting 1600 – 1900 covers the work of Irish painters in Ireland, on the Grand Tour and in various parts of the British empire as part of the colonial regime, bringing a vast amount of new research to a subject only widely covered for the first time since the 1970s. In doing so the volume throws new light on the market for Irish art both at home and internationally and on the development of easel painting and formal art education, along with developments in patronage, the exploration of antiquarianism and a search for the pictorial expression of national identity. Essays explore exhibiting practices and the social history of Irish art, revealing how pictures were produced, acquired and traded in Ireland. Surprises include the discovery of the identity of the Italian who ran an art gallery on Dublin’s Dame Street as Francesco Geminiani, an opera singer who also performed there. That new information led immediately to the identification of a long-lost portrait of Geminiani by the Irish artist James Latham. Figgis and her contributors show how much further the researches of Ann Crookshank and the Knight of Glin have been taken in the decades since they first published their groundbreaking Painters of Ireland (1978), and show, if evidence were needed that there is still a great deal to be revealed.
Volume III Sculpture 1600 – 2000 brings together substantial new research on issues such as public art and its positioning, including its destruction, in both well-disposed and hostile environments. It looks at the issues surrounding traditional sculptural practices in a critical climate that is increasingly fed on new media and issues around ownership, permanence and aftercare. The contribution of Irish sculptors to the development of their art form both within and outside their own country is examined, starting with John Hogan, one of the most acclaimed sculptors in Rome in the 1820s and ’30s but denied state commissions in Ireland because of his nationalist and Catholic leanings, going on to John Henry Foley, whose commissions extended from Dublin to London and form thence to imperial India, and the diametrically different work of contemporary artists John Gibbons and Siobhan Hapaska. The volume reveals that the well-known Dublin sculptor Lawrence Campbell lived on in New York for four decades after he was thought to have died and that monuments sometimes had to change identity and location to survive the politics of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Text-based essays and biographies are augmented by a number of pictorial essays exploring different aspects of sculptural practice across the whole island.
In Volume IV Architecture 1600 – 2000, a team of five editors compiled the most complete survey of architecture in Ireland ever published. Essays cover all aspects of Ireland’s built environment, not only buildings but infrastructure, landscape development, town, cities, public and private construction and much else. Projects from outside Ireland in which Irish architects and engineers were to the fore extend over a time frame that includes James Hoban’s “presidential palace”, the White House in Washington, in 1792, to innovative building designs in the twentieth century by Eileen Gray, Kevin Roche, Niall McLaughlin, O’Donnell Tuomey and Grafton Architects. Volume IV explores the history of building types over four hundred years, from mills and grain stores to railway stations, churches, houses and hospitals. Using newly commissioned photographs, drawings and old sketches and reconstructions of now defunct buildings, it challenges the traditional understanding of Irish “architecture”, giving novel interpretations of the field and encourages a new engagement with our surroundings.
As its name implies, Volume V Twentieth Century, is neither discipline- nor medium-specific. It examines not only key works of art created during that period in Ireland but also the critical contexts from which they came. It looks at the Irish diaspora, issues about identity, aesthetic judgments and the development of art-historical writing in Ireland. The work of conceptual and digital artists is considered, as well as that of those who used more traditional media. Critical biographies of some of the artists, who contributed to shifts in practice or perception are interspersed with essays on cultural policy, politics, patronage, art collecting and modern display culture, which suggest a revision of the notion that Ireland is predominantly a country of writers rather than artists. It points to the impact on generations of future audiences and artists of a direct instruction from Taoiseach Eamon DeValera to Irish primary teachers, in 1946, to not waste valuable time encouraging children to enjoy learning or imaginative activities. It questions the relationships between fine art and more popular art disciplines such as film and the economy, while the discourse on Irish portraiture is expanded to encompass such popular icons as Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara.
Experienced separately, each volume has its own integrity and its own internal coherence. Taken collectively, the volumes provide a wide-ranging and informative history of Irish art and architecture, along with the biggest collection of images of it that have, to date, ever been gathered together and offer a comprehensive synthesis of the current state of scholarship.
The research and writing for the publication overall took five years and two hundred and fifty contributors, working both at home and in universities and cultural institutions abroad. It combines archaeological, connoisseurial and documentary approaches to material culture but marries these to the new art history, with its emphasis on postcolonial, structuralist, feminist and psychoanalytical studies. With approximately three thousand images, some especially commissioned for the volumes, and many from private collections, it could be said to present the biggest collection of Irish visual and material culture on show anywhere at any one time. This quantitative summary is necessary only because the publication is far bigger than anything undertaken to date on the visual arts in Ireland. Despite that, the editors are fully aware that this publication only marks a moment in current knowledge and as a recent political slogan pointed out, much remains to be done. The unanswered questions in each volume then merely point the way ahead for future scholarship and establish a benchmark of what we think we know now.
The volumes are:
Volume I Medieval C.400 – C.1600, ed Rachel Moss
Volume II Painting 1600 – 1900, ed Nicola Figgis
Volume III Sculpture 1600 – 1900, ed Paula Murphy
Volume IV Architecture 1600 – 2000, eds Rolf Loeber, Hugh Campbell, Livia Hurley, John Montague and Ellen Rowley
Volume V Twentieth Century, eds Catherine Marshall and Peter Murray