We Corkonians are often accused, sometimes with justification, of unwarranted pride in our city and our achievements. This accusation may be leveled at me in this instance, but if so it would be manifestly unjust. Three Centuries of Irish Art is undoubtedly an outstanding work.
It documents the history of the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery’s building and the development of the institution itself since its foundation as the Cork Society of Arts in 1818. It was, in fact, the earliest public art museum in Ireland. An overview essay on Irish art of the past three hundred years is perceptive, describing how European and American influences have been absorbed, creating here a distinctive and rich cultural heritage. The various benefactors and gifts, which have enhanced the collection of over 3,000 works, and which give it its distinctive characters, are described. The Prince Regent, Penrose, Crawford, Gibson and more recently Fr John McGrath, the Great Southern Hotels and AIB Collections have been the gallery’s chief benefactors.
The life of the gallery is glimpsed in the section dealing with its temporary exhibitions, which reflect the time-span and importance of the collection itself, and which contribute highly to the cultural life of Cork. Here it is worth noting that Cork’s greatest painters of the past, Barry, Grogan, Maclise and Forde, have all been honoured in recent years by suitably comprehensive shows of their work, accompanied by splendid catalogues.
The uniformity of approach binds the work together as a whole, and the essays are scholarly, perceptive, illuminating and deeply sympathetic.
The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to illustrations of about 120 works in the collection, each one accompanied by an essay giving a short biography of the artist, setting the art work into the context of the time, and adding a critical appreciation of it. This is the work of many hands and the contributors have been chosen with care. The uniformity of approach binds the work together as a whole, and the essays are scholarly, perceptive, illuminating and deeply sympathetic. Each one is an enthralling lesson in art appreciation in itself. Flicking through the illustrations, all in chronological order, the last three hundred years of Irish history comes to life. The book is a portrait of the Crawford Gallery at this stage of its development, and chronicles not just its growth and achievements (particularly under its present Director, Peter Murray, whose work has resulted in the Crawford being given National Cultural Institution status by Minister Jimmy Deenihan in 2005, with the great Southern and AIB Collections following) but also brings to light many of its little known treasures.
The book is beautifully presented by Gandon Editions, and it does justice to the importance of the Crawford Art Gallery.
Richard Wood recently curated ‘Searching For A New Jerusalem’ an exhibition of cartoons and maquettes designed by the Victorian architect William Burges for Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork.