A Rising People – The Brian P Burns Collection of Irish Art

A Rising People – The Brian P Burns Collection of Irish Art
ED Roger Kohn
Brian P Burns, 2017
pp 255 fully illustrated h/b
ISO: 9001:2008
Reviewed by Margarita Cappock

The is a lavishly produced, beautifully illustrated publication that celebrates the collection of the Irish-American collector, Brian P Burns and for the first time gives one the opportunity to view the entire collection of works that he has owned over the course of his life. In 1978 Brian P Burns became Director of the American Irish Foundation, formed by Presidents John F Kennedy and Eamon de Valera to encourage American charity for Ireland. It later became the American Ireland Fund and has collected over $550 million in support of Irish charities that promote art, culture, peace and community development in Ireland.

Prompted by a strong desire to explore his own cultural and historical heritage, Burns began his collection with the intention of both visually documenting Irish cultural identity and educating Americans on the Irish contribution to the visual arts. Given the wide acclaim Irish writers and musicians are rightly afforded, Burns, following in the footsteps of Hugh Lane, wished to promote the idea of a distinct Irish School of Art that would dispel the myth that the Irish nation lacked a visual imagination. To this end, he began acquiring Irish art over forty years ago and his considerable collection consists of some 200 works of Irish art from the 19th century to the present day.

Artists include John Lavery, William Orpen, Walter Osborne, Roderic O’Conor, William Leech, Paul Henry, Jack Yeats, Leo Whelan, Evie Hone, Mary Swanzy, Letitia Hamilton though lesser known, frequently overlooked artists such as William Sadler, James Hore, Maria Spilsbury Taylor and Kathleen Fox are a welcome inclusion. The highly individualistic approach developed by Irish artists who travelled overseas is reflected in the selection of works by Frank O’Meara and Roderic O’Conor. The more vexed question of the depiction of the Irish by artists who travelled to Ireland is not neglected either with significant works by Erskine Nicol including his iconic work, The Tenant – Castlerackrent. Contemporary Irish artists from whom Burns has commissioned works include Rowan Gillespie, Noel Murphy and Paul Kelly.

Brian P Burns began his collection with the intention of both visually documenting Irish cultural identity and educating Americans on the Irish contribution to the visual arts

Burns’ inspiration was, in part, informed by his friendship with Dublin art dealers and friends, Willie Dillon and James Gorry. Burns’ willingness and generosity to lend his collection to various significant museum exhibitions (ten in total) is laudable and has meant wide public access to his collection. He also presented Yeats’ masterpiece, Patriotic Airs, to the National Gallery of Ireland. Furthermore, Burns is also the chief benefactor of the John J Burns Library at Boston College which consists of rare books and special collections on Irish literature, history, music and culture.
The book consists of a short introduction by Peter Murray, a biographical essay on Burns by Christian DuPont, an essay by Fintan Cullen and a very fine, longer essay by Eimear O’Connor. The essays are followed by the catalogue proper which is broadly chronological in arrangement and commences in 1800 running up to 2015. Short biographical entries on the artists are written by different contributors with each painting illustrated in colour. Cullen’s essay focuses on a specific aspect of the collection and he contextualises Irish visual art of the 19th and early 20th century with British and wider European trends through an examination of the display history of a selection of paintings in the collection, most of which were first exhibited either in Dublin or London. O’Connor explores in-depth the concept of a national identity in Irish art and expertly outlines how several of the artists represented in the collection such as George Russell, Paul Henry, Maurice MacGonigal and Seán Keating, on whom she is the recognised expert, were crucial in the debate about national art.

Although the book is not intended as a scholarly publication, it will appeal greatly to anyone with an interest in Irish art. All works currently owned, donated and released back to the market feature though one minor quibble is that given the omission of provenances, it is not immediately apparent to the reader which works remain in the collection. However, some of my personal highlights of this comprehensive collection were, amongst others, the exquisite group of paintings by Roderic O’Conor, Walter Chetwood Aiken’s A Song for Spring, Lilian Lucy Davidson’s The Flax Pullers and two beautiful works by Leech. Collectively, it is a fitting testament and celebration of a supreme collection of Irish art and the philanthropy of Brian P Burns.

Margarita Cappock is Deputy Director at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane