Who do I think I am?

Homan Potterton
Merrion Press, 2017
pp 300, col ills 10, b/w ills10 h/b
€24.99 ISBN: 9781785371509
Reviewed by Peter Somerville-Large

The title of Homan Potterton’s memoir derives from a poem by Paul Durcan who described him as ‘the new young dynamic whizz-kid Director’. This sequel to Rathcormick, Potterton’s engaging account of his childhood, brings together his life in the art world of London and Dublin.

The farmer’s son from County Meath attended Trinity College in the 1960s, where the lectures of Anne Crookshank on the history of art encouraged him towards his chosen career. He worked for two years at the National Gallery of Ireland, making many friends in the Dublin art world whom he lists in a diary he kept in 1973 which reads like a social gazetteer of important names.

In 1974 he obtained the post of Assistant Keeper at the National Gallery in London. ‘I felt that the job was not at all my field and I knew next to nothing about old master pictures.’ However, his diffidence was disproved and he spent six enjoyable and successful years at the post. James White, the long-time Director of the NGI, noted his achievements and proposed him as his successor. Potterton was very young.
‘Thirty-three… the same age as Jesus Christ!’ White remarked.
‘And look what happened to him,’ Potterton countered.
After he had arranged a big exhibition of 17th-century Venetian paintings in London, Ireland still beckoned. He came to Dublin reluctantly where he was elected to the position of eleventh and youngest Director of the NGI. He took up office in June, 1980.

From the start Potterton found that his position offered major pitfalls. These included staff dissatisfaction: he lacked White’s tact and patience; confrontations with unions, government cuts, the shabby state of the Gallery buildings, outdated electrical wiring, filthy wall coverings and telephones that didn’t work. There was very little money for the Gallery upkeep, and with water dripping from its roof, the fabric needed a substantial overhaul which was not forthcoming. He had a thorny relationship with Charles Haughey who considered him ‘the little County Meath brat.’ He was taxed on his salary at sixty-seven per cent.

His major triumph as Director was the acquisition of the Beit paintings. That we have a Vermeer and a Velázquez is largely due to his capacity for friendship; he had met the Beits in London

On the positive side Potterton set about the important task of arranging the cataloguing of the Gallery pictures which, amazingly, had never been done properly. With money from the George Bernard Shaw fund he purchased a number of significant continental paintings. He bought and refurbished No 90 Merrion Square, an important neighbouring addition to the Gallery. The Board of the Gallery which included Bill Finlay, was ‘unanimously and unequivocally supportive and agreeable to every thing I asked.’

His major triumph as Director was the acquisition of the Beit paintings. That we have a Vermeer and a Velázquez is largely due to his capacity for friendship; he had met the Beits in London. His account of his role in the second robbery at Russborough reads like a John le Carré thriller.

When the Beit paintings were formerly handed over to the Gallery, a number were still in the hands of thieves, and were not recovered until 1994, long after his departure from Dublin. I was shown Goya’s battered Doña Antonia Zárate which had been rolled up, exposed to damp, had lost sections of its paint, and its sides were slashed when it was cut off its stretcher.

Alas, in 1988 Potterton decided he had had enough of the impoverished and dilapidated National Gallery of Ireland and resigned his directorship. Almost immediately afterwards the Department of Finance allocated more than IR£5 million for the first phase of the Gallery’s refurbishment.

Peter Somerville-Large is a novelist and travel writer.

Making Majesty: The Throne Room at Dublin Castle

Myles Campbell and William Derham
Irish Academic Press, 2017 pp 360, fully illustrated h/b/p/b
ISBN: 9781911024736/ 9781911024729
Reviewed by John Coleman

This beautifully illustrated, thoroughly researched and well-written book is much more than its title suggests. A fresh perspective is provided on the British administration of Ireland through a series of scholarly articles exploring previously untapped archival material to trace the evolution of the fabric of the ‘presence chamber/throne room’ and the State Apartments in Dublin Castle. The book is the fruit of an on-going multifaceted research project sponsored by the Office of Public Works on the unique and historically important castle complex from which Ireland was governed for centuries. A volume has already been produced on Francis Johnston’s Chapel Royal.

Before the Act of Union, constitutional theory held that it was the common monarchy that bound the two kingdoms, though the political reality was that the viceroy was effectively the agent of the government in Whitehall. The State Apartments provided the setting for ceremonials associated with visits by King George IV, Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V. The first presence chamber was located in a room next to the current throne room which was laid out in the late 18th century and refurbished for a visit by King George IV, including a singular throne which might reflect his particular marital circumstances. Due to the infrequent nature of Royal visits, the finely carved, gilded and richly upholstered throne, raised on a dais, in front of a cloth of state decorated with the royal arms, had added significance in conferring majesty on viceregal ceremonials.

Jane Fenlon sets context for the evolution of presence chambers in royal palaces and the courtly settings created by the Duke of Ormond. A recurrent theme is the efforts of office holders from the 18th century onwards to source decorative and furnishing materials locally, notably in the case of the magnificent 1839 giltwood wreaths supplied by Cornelius Callaghan (1770-1845) of Clare Street to frame the previously overlooked mythologies now firmly attributed to Gaetano Gandolfini (1734-1802). Lady Aberdeen, who entirely overshadowed her husband, is remembered as a promoter of Irish industry and was a mover behind the pioneering establishment Peamont Hospital for the treatment of TB.

Over 150 plates include comparative images of Windsor, Hampton Court, St James’s and Buckingham Palace. There is an impressive array of plans of the State Apartments at different periods, though it is a pity that they are not reproduced in a larger scale. Portraits are illustrated in their original frames, including several of the unique set of liveried frames of office holders surmounted by crests and coronets and Lely’s regal restoration portrait of the 1st duke of Ormond, a picture which amply illustrates the temptation for office holders to cross the line between representing majesty and personal presumption. Davison Associates have provided superb modern photographs of rooms as well as shots of details.

The still potent symbolism of the throne room might have influenced the decision to locate a televised reception line for guests at the state banquet hosted by the President on the recent state by Queen Elizabeth II in the adjacent drawing room

Despite the removal, by various means, of royal statues, it is remarkable that the throne is in place today, particularly as a decision had to be taken to reinstate it following the room’s temporary use as a court of law and a significant reconstruction and reordering in the 1950s and 1960s. Appropriately a foreword by the Prince of Wales heralds a new age of rapprochement in Anglo-Irish relations which has encouraged a greater interest in the material history of British rule. The still potent symbolism of the throne room might have influenced the decision to locate a televised reception line for guests at the state banquet hosted by the President on the recent state by Queen Elizabeth II in the adjacent drawing room.

It is admirable that the Office of Public Works is supporting such excellent scholarly research and future publications would be most welcome. It would be particularly interesting to know of the impact of two figures not mentioned in the current study, the first resident lord lieutenant, the 4th Viscount Townshend (1724-1807) and the 1st Duke of Dorset (1688-1765) who served two terms and whose lavish entertainments are known through van der Hagen’s depiction of St Patrick’s Hall and surviving wall hangings. A nice touch of verisimilitude in any further restoration work might be the restoration of the royal arms on the back cloth behind the throne – perhaps the Royal School of Needlework could be prevailed upon to oblige?

John Coleman is a writer and is currently completing a biography of Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont.

Mid-century showcase

From the Winter 2017 edition

Christian Dupont follows the relationship between art and cultural identity as seen in two works from the collection of Burns Library at Boston College

Following the enactment of the Republic of Ireland Act in December 1948, Minister for External Affairs Seán MacBride appointed a Cultural Relations Committee to advise him on ‘the development of cultural relations with other countries.’ Made up of figures such as Senator EA McGuire and architect Michael Scott, one of their first initiatives was to organize a travelling exhibition of ‘Contemporary Irish Painting.’ It showcased the work of 73 living artists, nearly half of whom were women. Of the 89 paintings selected for display, 81 were labelled for sale, and 53 sold.

Exhibitions in multiple North American cities were envisioned, yet venues in only three were secured for the spring of 1950: Providence (Rhode Island), Boston, and Ottawa. The Boston stop came under threat when the Museum of Fine Arts objected to an exhibition that included pieces with price tags.

To save the face of the city’s prominent Irish, the Eire Society of Boston stepped in. Its officers voted to underwrite costs and drew on their relationship with the Boston Pops Orchestra to have the exhibition installed in Symphony Hall. Organizer Elizabeth Curran of the National College of Art, Dublin, was invited to speak at a monthly meeting of the Society ahead of the opening on 6 May. Curran also gave guided tours throughout the month.

If Pearse envisioned Ireland as not Gaelic merely, but free, the diaspora pictured an Ireland that was not only rural, but revolutionary

Members were urged to see the show and buy its contents, both to help the artists and as a ‘permanent memento’ of the Society’s purpose ‘to spread awareness of Irish Culture.’ President Joseph Gannon acquired for himself four modestly priced paintings by Micheál de Búrca, Sylvia Cooke-Collins, Ernest Hayes, and Tom Nisbet.
Others acquired paintings for Boston College, which had lately established a special Irish collection in its college library with support from the Eire Society. In memory of her husband, an alumnus of the Class of 1884, Mrs Francis J Barnes purchased a depiction of Donegal’s Tramore Bay by Frank McElvey.

Mrs Edward C Donnelly, heiress to her husband’s profitable outdoor advertising agency, purchased a Paul Henry landscape of Connemara. Priced at $1,015, it was the most expensive canvas in the exhibition, attesting the emblematic status Henry’s landscapes had achieved through their use in tourism campaigns and previous showings in American galleries. A booklet published by the library deemed it ‘of special interest because one of the thatched cottages shown in the painting was for many years the vacation home of Padraic Pearse.’ A doubtful claim, it nevertheless reflected the prevailing nationalist sentiments of the Boston Irish: if Pearse envisioned Ireland as not Gaelic merely, but free, the diaspora pictured an Ireland that was not only rural, but revolutionary.

Although not a member of the Eire Society, Monsignor Francis Burke acquired, in memory of a younger fellow alumnus and priest Randall Coyne, a portrait that Margaret Clarke had painted of her son-in-law, John Damien Bourke. First displayed in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1946 under the name of its subject, it was listed in the exhibition catalogue with the symbolic title it has since retained, The Gael.

This is the third in a series of articles on Burns Library and its collections that attempts to provide context for appreciating the work of Irish artists and their reception in America.

Christian Dupont is Burns Librarian and Associate University Librarian for Special Collections at Boston College.

Lightning conductor

New from the current edition.

‘I identify as an artist and I identify as a designer’, Niamh Barry tells Eleanor Flegg who pays a visit to her studio in Lusk, Co. Dublin

In a world in which most contemporary art is driven by concept, led by ideas, and supported by a conceptual framework, those whose thinking evolves through the process of making can find themselves adrift in the parallel universes of craft and design. These categories – based on the way that the art world is organised – don’t always provide a useful framework for understanding process-driven work.

To read this article in full, subscribe or buy this edition of the Irish Arts Review

Man on the bridge

New from the current edition.

Stephanie McBride reflects on the extraordinary life’s work of Arthur Fields, the last of the street photographers

The V&A’s ‘Memory Palace’ exhibition in London in 2013, based on Hari Kunzru’s novella, presented a world after the ravages of a magnetic storm, in which all recording and collecting are banned, and acts of remembering become acts of resistance. In such a dystopia, Ciarán Deeney and David Clarke, co-ordinators of the Man on the Bridge project, would likely be jailed as rebels, given their extraordinary act of amassing thousands of old images and stories.

To read this article in full, subscribe or buy this edition of the Irish Arts Review

Centenary harvest

New from the current edition

Carissa Farrell explores the civic values inherent in Rachel Joynt’s soon-to-be-unveiled 1916 commemorative commission, Dearcán na nDaoine, for the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin

Sculptor Rachel Joynt’s many public art commissions have won her peer respect while enjoying an active resonance with the public that encounter them. Her signature process is to adopt organic forms as a conceptual starting point and then evolve and adapt their core qualities with glass, bronze, patination, embedded light, and moving image, while retaining a recognisable sense of their organic identity. In her public art practice, scale and location are key, where hand sized forms expand to ‘mythically surreal’ proportions and typically invoke uncanny and playful connections to their environment. Joynt is very interested in the idea of place and meaning and the need to acknowledge the insight of the public in an active and relevant exchange. Her technical skill and understanding of the complex structural requirements of working with permanent materials underpins the authenticity of her intentions and her commitment to the aspiration that public art is an important civic endeavour. She is well rewarded by the popularity her work enjoys.

Joynt is in the process of completing a new commission for President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins, at Áras an Uachtaráin, to celebrate the centenary of the 1916 Rising. In keeping with her methodology she proposed to cast a giant acorn in bronze, People’s Acorn / Dearcán na nDaoine. An intrinsically elegant ornament of nature, the acorn is long beloved of the art and design world. In the hand they are a jewel, whose smooth nut is set into a tiny foliage embossed cupula and an object of great affection for children in autumn. They have provided an allegory for a multitude of ideas and values for centuries – learning, growth, strength, longevity and regeneration. For Joynt the acorn symbolises the cycle of life, in her proposal she wrote, ‘The nut/seed determines the form of the tree and in turn the tree nurtures the seed…’

‘The acorn, I feel is a very appropriate and enduring symbol to commemorate the centenary of the birth of our National Independence and our aspiration towards growing with maturity, optimism and wisdom for the future’.

Her choice of the acorn is a suitable metaphor, but also reflects the more difficult legacies arising from the Rising and the subsequent War of Independence for those who may not easily consider those events as wholly in the ‘past’ or sufficiently removed from the present for a commemorative project that represents closure. The acorn is not an oak tree – it is not yet rooted, old and wise, but it is alive with potential and possibility, and this was the key for Joynt, ‘The acorn, I feel is a very appropriate and enduring symbol to commemorate the centenary of the birth of our National Independence and our aspiration towards growing with maturity, optimism and wisdom for the future’.

Part and parcel of her proposal was for the internal space of Dearcán na nDaoine to become a time capsule, filled with writings and messages for future generations. This content would be produced from workshops with collaborating poet Enda Wyley involving cross-generational groups of fifth-class primary schoolchildren from seven schools nationwide, and older people from the Bealtaine Writers Group and the Lourdes Day Centre in Seán McDermott Street. In reference and homage to its contents, the external texture of Joynt’s sculpture is cleverly rendered by casting thousands of pencils into the bronze, many embossed with the names of the schoolchildren who took part and donated their pencils and outwardly reflecting their multi-cultural backgrounds as diverse as China, Eastern Europe, the Middle-East and Africa (Figs 1-4). Mary Robinson’s presidency transformed the Áras into a symbolic refuge for all citizens – a gesture continued by both Mary McAleese and Michael D Higgins turning the Áras into a very visible platform for embracing diversity. The People’s Acorn / Dearcán na nDaoine will represent a permanent and tangible symbol of this aspiration.

Towards the tip of Dearcán na nDaoine extracts of the writings and poetry will fan out along its ribbed surface while a more complete compilation of the texts will form a publication to accompany the commission. Inevitably there is a marked contrast in the content of the writing between the children and older people, who reflect on the hardship of their childhood while being nostalgic about the loss of innocence and changing social norms over the last sixty years. Compared to the worldly schoolchildren their frame of reference is activated by memory and introspection. It is no surprise that in the information age the children seem unanimously and acutely aware of a sense of national and international crisis – around homelessness in Ireland and displacement and war in the wider world. What is striking is how these observations are mixed with happier narratives of friends, family, pets and toys thereby contextualising their concerns with an understated awareness of their position of relative privilege. Appropriately for a time capsule, the greatest commonality between the children and older people are enduring themes of social stability – family, togetherness, and community.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of an oak tree is its lifespan’s potential to straddle the period of Ireland’s pre- and post-colonial history. The oak or Dair, was one of the Airig Fedo or Lords of the Woods and is described in the 8th-century Brehon law text Bretha Comaithchesa as one of seven most valuable trees subject to specific protections and punishments for legal breaches. The choice of the acorn for this commission symbolises the possibility of restoring a continuum from the old Gaelic order to the fledgling Irish State one hundred years ago. Coupled with this, Joynt’s use of monumental scale for such a tiny form brings to mind the supernatural narratives of ancient Irish legends and later fairy folklore. Its large tectonic bronze presence, laying sideways and covered with embedded texts and pencil shapes engenders an almost pagan ritualistic sensibility that points to Ireland’s rich heritage from the Neolithic period. Joynt’s choice of location for Dearcán na nDaoine in an area of natural woodland where many oaks are growing was deliberate, accessed by a mesh path through which grass could grow camouflaging it entirely from view and enhancing the illusion that Dearcán na nDaoine is the result of some kind of unearthly magic. The co-ordination of each element of the design and placement is carefully considered by Joynt whose objective is to maximise the potential of the Dearcán na nDaoine to actively resonate with its environment and audience. Her vision and technical capacity to deliver illustrates a sensitive and intelligent understanding of the true potential of public art. The only pity is that more work like this is not discreetly arranged in unexpected locations throughout the Phoenix Park.

Joynt’s success as a public artist working to complex engineering requirements has not diminished her capacity for producing powerfully intimate pieces for gallery exhibition. Earlier this year, Joynt was the recipient of the Solomon Fine Art Award at the RHA Annual Exhibition for River Goddess Series II, a graceful figurine-like representation of the highly endangered freshwater pearl mussel whose special areas of conservation include the Slaney, Barrow and Nore rivers, practically on the doorstep of Joynt’s studio and home. Cast in bronze and nickel plate she presents the mollusc in an unlikely upright position and returns to her playful instincts by bestowing a majestic title on such a fragile and passive organism (Fig 5). The exterior surface has a tough slate texture as though shielding its precious glimmering pearl and gold lining from the elements, and indeed, environmental pollution. It is conjoined to its own perfectly measured elegant plinth – a recurring feature in Joynt’s small work.

Joynt’s vision and technical capacity to deliver illustrates a sensitive and intelligent understanding of the true potential of public art

In producing work for exhibition her approach to scale is skilfully inverted by incorporating light, video, glass and metal elements in astonishing miniature. For the series ‘Sea Change’ Joynt constructed a series of delicate exoskeletal mollusc forms in bronze (Fig 7). Their hybrid appearance mingles references to loaves of bread, embroidery, human organs and sea creatures. Tiny apertures in the bronze casing project internal illuminations outward, activating the internal space and endowing them with an otherworldly consciousness and supernatural possibilities. Like River Goddess Series II each work in this series incorporates is own beautifully hewn Portland stone plinth. A coin-sized image of Joynt floating in open water forms the central aperture of Buoyant and in Murmuration, a cast-bronze animal heart conceals a miniscule looped video of a flock of starlings in flight in one of its arteries. These startling entities seem to peer inside the subconscious or perhaps consciousness in an alternate dimension. A wall-mounted work Surge approximates the form of a human heart pulsing with light from within and a work from a later series, the playfully titled Fathom mutates a sea coral into the profile of a human brain that is perilously perforated as a result. These works are delicate, intricate and require close examination to be fully appreciated.

Rachel Joynt collaborates from time to time with partner artist Remco de Fouw. Theirs is Ireland’s best-known work of public art, Perpetual Motion at the Naas bypass Co Kildare, a family favourite whose visual impact is as strong as it is playful, it has stood the test of time and popularity since 1996. Joynt and de Fouw more recently completed Waggle Dance for NUIM, University of Ireland, Maynooth (Fig 6). Set in a shallow lake-like water feature outside the Iontas building designed by Scott Tallon Walker, this substantial plate bronze partial sphere is made with open sections that reveal its internal cellular structure. Inspired by the complex architecture of a bee-hive it reflects on the ‘creativity, intellectual endeavour and commonality behind the activity of the university through the geometry, complexity and ecology associated with the beehive’. It also represents the growing synergy between the organic world and the built environment and points to the increasing tendency for engineering and science innovation to harmonise itself with ecological and environmental sustainability. Early next year Joynt and de Fouw will complete a related but much larger work based on this design for a public space in Sandyford.

Carissa Farrell is an independent writer on art based in Dublin.




New from the current edition.

‘All around the globe, conflicts have and continue to shape the land and their inhabitants’; Elizabeth Magill explores the flipside of the buccolic in conversation with Brian McAvera. Photo©Hugo Glendinning

Brian McAvera: Tell us about your current work in Limerick City Gallery of Art which will tour to the RHA Galleries in January 2018.
Elizabeth Magill: ‘Headland’ is the title of my current show. It’s about what’s inside your head, what you encounter, experience and see. Perhaps an inner landscape being shaped by an outer one, an external view shaping an inner one, and what exists on the cusp of consciousness. Headland is also a geographical promontory and a prominent feature especially around Ireland’s Antrim coast.

To read this article in full, subscribe or buy this edition of the Irish Arts Review

‘Making Great Art Work’

ALTHOUGH the Arts Council’s 2016 Strategy Document was introduced under the enigmatic headline of ‘Making Great Art Work’, in practice the AC appears to have rather little to do with ‘Great Art’. And there was no sign of any involvement of the AC during the recent, rude scattering of WB Yeats’ most personal ‘great art’ and belongings – although there should have been.

Since the Arts Act 2003, the AC has, in effect, operated as a very efficient distributor for the funds allocated by the Department of Arts. But the AC has paid much less attention to section 24 of the Arts Act 2003 which empowers the AC to much higher ambitions like ‘stimulating public interest in the arts; improving standards in the arts; and otherwise assisting in the development or advancement of the arts’. And importantly, the Act states that ‘The Council shall be independent in the performance of its functions under this section’.

Just outside the massive Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, there is a separate museum devoted to Vincent van Gogh who is celebrated in the public imagination as much for having cut off his ear as for having painted the Sunflowers. Van Gogh’s collection could easily have been accommodated in the vast Rijksmuseum but by presenting his ‘great art’ as a separate tourist attraction, the Van Gogh Museum attracted no less than 2.1 million visitors in 2016 bringing in an estimated €20 million to its coffers. That’s how the Dutch make their great art work for them.

What a shame then that John Butler Yeats’ self-portrait, which he himself had described as his ‘masterpiece’, was hawked around at auction last month and allowed to leave the country

Contrast this experience with poor WB. There is indeed a very good exhibition devoted to WB Yeats in the basement of the National Library on Kildare Street and approximately 68,000 people visited this modest shrine to perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century last year (free entry). Of course there should be a major museum devoted to the two great sons of John B Yeats, and the AC should be amongst the leading exponents for its creation. What a shame then that John Butler Yeats’ self-portrait, which he himself had described as his ‘masterpiece’, was hawked around at auction last month and allowed to leave the country. The phenomenon of a great poet and a great painter in the same family is a great story in itself. There is no doubt that a museum devoted to the Yeats family would be a huge success.

Only the AC has the capacity to Make Great Art Work in this country by promoting the work of great Irish artists both as an inspiration to the emerging generations and as a source of further funding for the arts through tourism. Already the AC should be planning, with the national cultural institutions and Fáilte Ireland, an international Festschrift to mark the centenary of the publication of Ulysses in February 2022 – a massive celebration with international conferences, exhibitions, readings, publications and fireworks and, most importantly, the involvement of schools nationwide, to celebrate the creation of one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. In essence, if the AC is to live up to its own slogan of Making Great Art Work it must move on from its established role of paymaster for the Minister (about whom it has recently had good reason to complain) to become the real exponent for great art and artists in Ireland today.

In that respect, it was encouraging to see John McAuliffe, the Deputy Chair of the Arts Council striking an independent note in relation to the AC’s funding last month and let’s hope that we will see much more of the same.

John Mulcahy

Auctions in 2017

Results from the following auctions in 2017 have been included in the Online Price Guide to Irish Art Sales.

Adams Important Irish Art 29.03.2017
Adams Important Irish Art 31.05.2017
Adams Important Irish Art 27.09.2017
Adams Country House Collection at Townley Hall 10.10.2017
Bonhams Modern British and Irish Art 28.03.2017
Bonhams Modern British and Irish Art 14.06.2017
Bonhams Modern British and Irish Art 11.07.2017
Bonhams Modern British and Irish Art 07.11.2017
Christies Modern British & Irish Art Sale 23.03.2017
Christies Modern British & Irish Art Evening Sale 19.06.2017
Christies Modern British & Irish Art Day Sale 20.06.2017
De veres Irish Art Auction 04.04.2017
De Veres The Design Auction 21.05.2017
De Veres Irish Art Auction 20.09.2017
Dolans Rosslare Auction 30.04.2017
Morgan O’ Driscoll Irish Art Online Auction 23.01.2017
Morgan O’ Driscoll Irish Art Online Auction 06.03.2017
Morgan O’ Driscoll Irish & International Art 10.04.2017
Morgan O’ Driscoll Irish Art Online Auction 15.05.2017
Morgan O’ Driscoll Off The Wall Online Art Auction 26.06.2017
Morgan O’ Driscoll Irish Art Online Auction 19.06.2017
Morgan O’ Driscoll Irish Art Online Auction 08.08.2017
Morgan O’ Driscoll Irish Art Online Auction 18.09.2017
Ross’s Irish Paintings 01.02.2017
Ross’s Irish Paintings 01.03.2017
Ross’s Irish Paintings 20.04.2017
Ross’s Irish Paintings 03.05.2017
Ross’s Irish Paintings 31.05.2017
Ross’s Irish Paintings 28.06.2017
Ross’s Irish Paintings 09.08.2017
Ross’s Irish Paintings 13.09.2017
Sothebys Irish Art Sale 27.09.2017
Sothebys Yeats: The Family Collection 27.09.2017
Whytes Irish & International Art 27.02.2017
Whytes Irish & International Art 29.05.2017
Whytes Summer Art Auction 17.07.2017

Marine commission

From the Summer 2017 edition

The allure of art glass and proximity to the sea combine in the career of Cork-based sculptor-designer Eoin Turner, writes Mark Ewart

The splendour and beauty of the sea has had an enduring impact upon the life and work of sculptor and glass designer Eoin Turner. In particular, his years working on a fishing trawler in the dangerous and unpredictable waters off the South West Coast, left an irrevocable mark upon him. In sharp contrast however – and indeed within 24 hours of leaving West Cork – Turner found himself in the glamorous Mediterranean resort of Antibes, on the Côte d’Azur . He was to spend two years working in the South of France, doing everything from painting hulls in dry-dock at Marseille, to captaining motor yachts for tycoons and oligarchs (including patrons of prestigious galleries and fashion design houses).

Even though Turner is an accomplished seaman (having earned his Skipper’s ticket in 1996), he never completely lost touch with art and design, using onshore lay-ups to sketch and paint. His time in France introduced him to the worldwide potential for art and design within the marine architecture marketplace. So with a young family to support – he decided in 2001 to establish a small workshop in Cork City. Today from his much larger 5,000 square foot space in Glanmire Co Cork, he has, in a sense, come full circle. This is because his work once again brings him back into contact with the rich and famous – for instance businessman and Formula 1 enthusiast Eddie Jordan, has become a devoted client.

There is something compelling about this backstory and how the physical challenges and allure of the sea, underscored Turner’s artistic identity.

There is something compelling about this backstory and how the physical challenges and allure of the sea, underscored Turner’s artistic identity. ‘It was my history’. 1 he confirms, ‘I was at sea for ten years and it was very important to me. I grew up with an aspiration to go to sea and to work on boats.’ A comparison with his 19th-century namesake, JMW Turner comes to mind, as both had a fascination with the sea and a desire to channel this into the elements of their respective art forms.

When Turner started at the Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork City in 1984, he was studying painting and had not yet considered glass as a medium. But an interaction with the sculptor Maud Cotter – who was at that time course director for stained glass at CCAD – changed all that. ‘We were doing a project in relation to fabrics and attire’ he says, and ‘It was Maud who came out with the nugget of knowledge that you could bend glass using heat in a kiln’. Then using sections of drawings based on an old pair of jeans as a starting point, he recalls how he, ‘bent some small pieces of coloured glass and made them into a 3D pattern. That was literally the start of the glass, that one piece’. Glass is a temperamental medium to work with. Simultaneously strong and brittle, it is mercurial when heated and will flow into an amorphous form if left unchecked by a mould. Water behaves in similar ways; it also flows and will set hard when frozen, it conforms to a container or becomes liberated when a gas. Both are transparent and are conduits for colour and pattern, capturing and reflecting ambient light. So are the artistic and biographical links between glass and water a conscious statement of intent? ‘I hadn’t considered it greatly before’ he admits, ‘but over the last two decades you can see glass used more and more in architecture and naval architecture. You could certainly connect glass to the fluidity of water. If you ever dive incorrectly from a diving board you discover very quickly that water gets harder the further away you get from it’.

Many artists value the exploration of visual and tactile stimuli as opposed to cerebral subject matter. Educationalist Olivia Gude defines this as ‘attentive living’2 where primary sensory inspiration, guides creativity. This is pertinent; as of course it is light, rather than water, which has true synchronicity with glass. For Turner though he does not necessarily see light in terms of refraction, ‘For me, it’s more often reflected light because I use a lot of metals in my work… gold leaf, silver leaf, aluminium leaf. So it’s the bouncing of light back out of the glass that is critical. That’s where the pieces become back-to-front paintings for me’.

Turner’s marine commissions have made his name and articles on his work can be found in such publications as Yachting, Boat and Top Marques Monaco. This publicity presents Turner as a much sought-after brand name, sitting alongside Franck Muller and Fabergé watches or Aston Martin and DeLavilla supercars – which is certainly not bad company for the Corkman to keep. Since money follows talent and talent is drawn to money, it is not surprising to learn from Turner that the luxury goods marketplace bankrolls innovation in naval architectural technology. On the back of this, Turner has found a niche that allows him to experiment more and more with the potential of glass as a business as well as an artistic outlet. The brand was established through synergy with his wife, Lorraine Mullins, who is a painter. ‘She is the backbone and runs everything from day to day dealing with clients, to purchases,’ he explains. ‘Lorraine has seen the business through the economic cycles of the last two decades. The last couple of years our three children are getting older, Lorraine has returned to her own work painting in the studio. It is interesting to see Lorraine’s painterly aesthetic coming into my own work.’

The technical specifications for marine architecture bring a very different focus compared to Turner’s land-based commissions. ‘The hoops we have to jump through are extraordinary. That’s the whole other side of this business that we have become adept at. I love the engineering side of it and we have to consider impact and vibration and fire ratings as well as IMO [International Marine Organisation] certification and Lloyds certification’. But the part which appeals most to him is when he is able to satisfy the ‘layers of management’ that surround each contract and simply sit opposite a client ‘scattering out your drawings and with a 2B pencil in your hand, scratching out things and pushing ideas around the paper’.

The technical specifications for marine architecture bring a very different focus compared to turner’s land-based commissions

This face-to-face interaction will naturally occur with greater frequency when carrying out local commissions. Installations at Cork Crematorium, the chapel at Manresa House for the Jesuit order in Dollymount, Dublin, or the ‘monumental scale’ of the recent installation at the impressive re-imagining of Nano Nagle’s Tomb and gardens in Cork City, are examples (Fig 2). Here, Turner was able to propose materials and ideas through direct conversations with the clients. Similarly so, the recent commission for Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. In this piece – which is situated behind the main altar – there is a Minimalist simplicity, as the elegant Gothic arch shape, sumptuous crimson glass and gold leaf-adorned structure, show. It nevertheless evokes a tranquillity and stillness that is entirely in keeping with the sanctity of the space. Perhaps working on such commissions allows a discreet nod toward spirituality to influence Turner’s marine commissions as well? Certainly during his time as a fisherman, the sway of the vast oceans and infinite sky above, surely prompted his psyche to ponder deeper questions surrounding life, death and eternity. An iconoclast might go even further and mischievously imply there is, historically, little to differentiate between the church and capitalism, due to their respective appropriation of wealth and property. But a softer view is required and indeed, Turner is more interested in the metaphorical similarities, ‘One of the leading yacht designers in the World, Tim Heywood, equated superyachts to ‘modern cathedrals’ – and yes, they are the cathedrals of our time’. And while Turner accedes this is a captivating analogy, he reflects ‘we are unlikely to be visiting them in 500 years time’. Perhaps this is the nub of why he secures commissions from wealthy yacht owners, whom it might be argued; seek to pay homage to their own materialism. Whereas for contemporary churches – stone, wood and glass are used to exalt Divinity in communion. Turner’s glass and metal sculptures of yachts are at the very least a celebration of the purity of architectural form. But on the other hand, to the person-in-the-street, they might be seen perhaps as effigies to hedonism – adorned sometimes with titanium, black pearls or even diamonds. A passing comparison can be made to Damien Hirst’s $100 million diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God and the ethical and moral furore it provoked. Jeremy Biles considers this artwork a ‘complex ambivalent aesthetic phenomenon’. but is unsure whether it is ‘an icon of grotesque excess or an ironic critique of the same’. 3 Perhaps some of Turner’s more extravagant commissions would sneak in the backdoor of such a debate?

We end with a less provocative deliberation on the role of art education in Irish schools and colleges. Turner recalls being approached by concerned parents seeking recommendations for a career in art or design for their children. ‘Apart from being poverty-stricken [he laughs] the skill to be able to adapt is a great thing to have through life. I used to champion a fine art education on that basis alone’. Going further back still he recalls his school days in Cork and how in the late 1970s early 1980s, art and design was not highly valued on the curriculum. ‘Ashton School was a phenomenally notable exception’ Turner says ‘and being taught by the now almost iconic Liam Nott [who also taught Alex Pentek], allowed us to believe that we could be something other than an engineer or an accountant – and while the world needs all of these people – I think Ashton allowed us to believe that the world could do with a few artists as well’. Art educators across the country would surely hope this message could be heard today by those responsible for funding arts education in Ireland.

Mark Ewart lectures at CIT Crawford College of Art and Design. He is also an art teacher, writer and artist based in Cork City.

1 Conversations with Eoin Turner, 16 March and 10 April, 2017 and all subsequent quotes from the artist.
2 Olivia Gude, ‘Principles of Possibility: Considerations for a 21st-Century Art & Culture Curriculum’, Art Education 60 no 1, 2007.
3 Jeremy Biles, ‘For the Love of God: Excess, Ambivalence and Damien Hirst’s Diamond Skull’, The Uses of Excess in Visual and Material Culture, 1600-2010 (Ed). Julia Skelly, Ashgate, Surrey England, 2014 p. 225.