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The origins of Irish art are obscure, dating back to perhaps as early as 3,000 BC in tombs and sanctuaries along the Boyne Valley. This art was abstract and three-dimensional, expressing itself through spirals, loops and geometric forms on kerbstones and granite slabs, following the contours of stone pillars at passage graves and burial tombs in Newgrange and Knowth. In the pre-Christian era, the dominant form belongs to the La Tène period of Celtic art, which relates to a broader culture spanning the continent of Europe.
Uninterrupted by the Roman incursions which fragmented Celtic culture in Britain, Irish society remained based on small tribal units whose structure was not affected in a radical way by the coming of Christianity in AD 432. Artists and craftworkers continued to enjoy a privileged position in society, producing bronze and enamel work, as well as some manuscript illumination. By the 8th and 9th centuries, technical advances and the scholarship encouraged by the many monastic settlements throughout the island brought Celtic art to its greatest heights. Illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow, a copy of the Gospels, combined abstract panels of interlocking forms and spirals with a limited palette of red, green and yellow, turning at times into highly stylised animal shapes. These forms were developed in such works as the Book of Dimma and culminated in the late 8th century in the Book of Kells (see page 20), where thee previously central abstractmotifs were organised around the figure of Man, whether as Christ, as Devil or as Angel. The artist’s palette now included several shades of blue, brown, yellow, green, red and mauve.
A centuries-long period of invasions, civil wars and tyranny began with the Viking incursions from the mid-9th century. One form which in particular survived this period was stone sculpture, from the simple High Cross at Carndonagh to the Cross of Moone which depicts scenes from the Gospels. Metal and other craftwork also flourished: the most notable example is the Cross of Cong, a shrine for a fragment of the True Cross which was made early in the 11th century by order of the high king.
The Norman invasion and later the dissolution of the monasteries under English rule interrupted and finally changed the system of patronage through which Irish art had flourished. Guilds of urban craftworkers now emerged, influenced from England and continental Europe; a new ruling class sought images of itself from painters and sculptors. By the mid-l7th century the decorative arts of goldsmithery, plasterwork, silver, glass and furniture flourished under the auspices of guilds such as the Goldsmiths’ Company of Dublin. Easel painting replaced tapestry and wall painting and a ‘painters’ guild’, formed in l670, included in its number such artists as Garrett Morphy (fl. l680-l7l6) and James Lathan (l696-l747), who had studied at Antwerp.
The prosperity of the 18th century and the influence of the Enlightenment throughout the fields of philosophy and aesthetics produced an atmosphere in which great public buildings were commissioned. Examples include the Parliament House, now the Bank of Ireland, by Edward Lovett Pearce, and the Custom House and Four Courts by James Gandon. At the same time, men and women of ideas were debating one of the century’s most influential works on aesthetics, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1756 but probably written earlier. Two major painters of the period, George Barret (1732-84) and James Barry (1741-1806) were protegés of Burke and embody in their work many of his aesthetic ideas. With such ideas as the excitement of pain or danger (the sublime) or love (the beautiful), the subject-matter of painting broadened to include historical and some landscape work, often with classical or mythological allusions. Topography, too, was a central concern and was best expressed by James Malton, a former draughtsman in Gandon’s practice, who drew his Views of Dublin between 1790 and 1791.
The Act of Union in 1800 removed the centre of power from Dublin to London. Many artists emigrated to London; others stayed at home and formed structures which were to support the arts for many years to come. The foremost of these was the Royal Hibernian Academy, established in 1823 as an amalgamation of previously splintered artists’ groups. The Academy’s annual exhibitions established a reliable market for its members, and stimulated debate on the concerns of painting. A major tradition of landscape painting emerged, led by James Arthur O’Connor (1792-1841), amongst whose influences was 17th century Dutch engraving.
George Chinnery (1774-1852), William Sadler (1782-1839) and Gaspare Gabrielli (fl. 1805-30) were also concerned with the art of landscape through watercolour, gouache and oil, as were Cecilia Campbell (1791-1857), Henry O’Neill (1798-1880) and Edward Hayes (l797-l864). Daniel Maclise (1806-70) and William Mulready (1786-1863) had significant impact on English art, as had Francis Danby (1793-1861) whose work was characterised by the Romanticism which influenced much Irish painting at the time. Sculptors such as John Henry Foley (1818-74), John Lawlor (1820-1901) and Samuel Ferris Lynn (1834-76) worked with British sculptors to produce the Albert Memorial. Foley’s work includes the memorials to Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke in Trinity College Dublin, and the memorial to Daniel O’Connell in O’Connell Street, Dublin.
Impressionism began to influence Irish art with the work of Nathaniel Hone, John Butler Yeats, John Lavery, Sarah Purser, Walter Osborne, William Orpen and Roderic O’Conor. Foremost among painters of this period, however, was Jack B. Yeats, (1871-1957), whose appeal continues to the present day. Brother of the poet and playwright William, Jack Yeats’s work focussed upon key moments and actions in the lives of individuals. The best-known artist of the period was Paul Henry who had studied at Whistler’s studio in Paris before settling in Connemara to paint landscapes based on a palette of matt blues and greys.
The assurance with which Yeats, Orpen and Henry had painted Irish life came less readily to that generation of artists whose lives coincided with the Civil War and the establishment of the Irish Free State. The cultural aspirations of the young State were based on those of a nationalist tradition, historically separate from the ruling class which had been the main patrons of art in colonial times.
Some artists travelled abroad to absorb the heady advances of Cubism, Futurism, Dada. Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone returned from a period of work with André Lhote and Albert Gleizes in Paris to become leaders of the modern movement in Irish painting. Others belonged to a landscape tradition of academic realism: Seán Keating, Maurice MacGonigal, Sean O’Sullivan were foremost in this school.
By the end of the second World War, the modern movement had begun to challenge the academic tradition through such artists as Louis Le Brocquy and Norah McGuinness. They, together with Hone and Jellett, had in 1943 founded the Irish Exhibition of Living Art as a salon refusé for work which was unacceptable to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Hibernian Academy.
Sculptors like Oisín Kelly and Hilary Heron pioneered the use of new casting techniques and promoted the concept of an Irish vernacular sculpture. The Living Art Exhibition became a forum for artists whose influences were derived from the international language of visual art: Patrick Scott, Gerard Dillon, Gerda Fromel, Nano Reid, Barrie Cooke, Cecil King and Camille Souter, as well as artists like Patrick Collins and Tony O’Malley whose work derived from landscape. Living Art’s activity continues to the present day, headed in the sixties and seventies by such artists as Brian King, Michael O’Sullivan, Tim Goulding, Michael Farrell, Martin Gale, Robert Ballagh and by immigrant artists including Alexandra Wejchert, Erik Adriaan van der Grijn, Adrian Hall. In the eighties, Living Art extended its concerns to video and performance art as well as painting and sculpture, exhibiting the works of Aileen MacKeogh, Nigel Rolfe, Eilis O’Connell, Helen Comerford, Joe Butler, Cecily Brennan and a host of emerging artists. A strong new expressionist movement has emerged from the Independent Artists group, represented by Michael Kane, Patrick Hall, Brian Maguire, Patrick Graham, Eithne Jordan, Michael Mulcahy and Michael Cullen. Sculptors of achievement include Michael Bulfin, John Behan, Edward Delaney, Conor Fallon and John Burke.