I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.
Nicola Gordon Bowe, who died very unexpectedly on January 5th was an exceptional art historian. She was a publisher’s dream, but in some ways an editor’s nightmare. Aware of her first Harry Clarke book, which delighted everyone with the promise of more to come, I first encountered her directly in the mid-1980s, when Nicola Figgis, Jane Fenlon and myself invited her to contribute to a festschrift to honour Anne Crookshank. Having just completed her doctoral dissertation on Clarke under Anne Crookshank’s supervision and swamped with a growing list of essay and lecture requests on stained glass, the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland, the Celtic Revival, and other topics, she nonetheless accepted our invitation with alacrity. Then, with characteristic generosity, she picked a subject close to Anne Crookshank’s heart – the work of another distinguished, if critically neglected, Ulster woman, Wilhelmina Geddes. For Crookshank, who had lovingly stencilled images of them on her kitchen furniture in Donegal, Nikki’s focus in that study reflected a love that she, Geddes and Crookshank all shared – cats. The result, like so much of Nikki’s work, was warm, generous and funny, while never relaxing a steely eye on the artist’s reputation and never, ever sinking towards sentiment. Although still working on Harry Clarke, on whom she published definitively in 1989, she was already asserting her authority on Geddes. The editorial problem became clear very quickly when her essay for us came back at about three times the length we parsimonious editors allowed and we had to, timidly (she was far more established than we), insist on reduction. Word counts were to be a problem that dogged her career as one of the best researchers and writers in her chosen field, not just in Ireland but internationally. Nikki always researched her subject to within inches of its informational life, then fell in love with her discoveries and found it virtually impossible to withhold them from a public that she knew would love them too. If really put to it she could summarise as well as the best, but, she believed in her material and liked to tell it her way. In spite of that, she was gracious in compliance with our editorial constraints and this pattern was to be repeated throughout her life. Just a few days before Christmas she returned a greatly reduced chapter on the Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland to Yvonne Scott and myself….
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