The National Gallery needs a new ‘mission’

Resplendent in its latest reconstruction, the National Gallery of Ireland needs a new and inspiring ‘Mission’ that places Irish art and artists at the centre of its activities, argues John Mulcahy

IN THIS ISSUE, James Howley surveys the internal rebuilding of the National Gallery of Ireland just completed at a cost of €30 million which he finds ‘now matches the highest museum standards found in some of the greatest galleries in the world’. Coinciding with the gallery’s 150th anniversary, the restoration heralds a new era for the gallery whose continental collection includes many magnificent Italian, French and Dutch old masters. But at a time when the Minister for the Arts has just launched her Creative Ireland initiative which ‘calls on all of us to play a part in placing our rich cultural heritage, and its potential, at the centre of our lives’ why is the work of so many outstanding Irish artists still so poorly represented in the National Gallery of Ireland collection?

The answer to that question goes back to the very beginnings of the gallery when George Francis Mulvany (Director 1862-1869), was appointed in 1862 having been the prime mover since 1847 for the establishment of a ‘National Gallery of painting and a conjoint museum of sculpture’. Although a portrait painter himself and a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy since 1835, Mulvany’s taste in paintings was strictly for old masters and until his death in 1869 that’s exactly how he spent the meagre funds provided to the gallery for acquisitions.

After Mulvany’s death a correspondent wrote a long letter to The Irish Times entitled A Plea for Irish Art. ‘We have a National Gallery which, with few exceptions, contains no Irish pictures and is singularly deficient in modern works. …What is wanted is a collection of first class works by Irish artists like Barry, Danby, Mulready, Foley, Hogan …’ he wrote. Happily, Mulvany’s successor, Henry Doyle (1869-1892), who acquired a total of 240 pictures during his twenty-three year incumbency, initiated the purchases of some Irish artists and established the first Portrait Gallery of ‘eminent Irish men and women’. But the over-riding propensity for acquiring non-Irish art persisted, although many Irish paintings were presented to the gallery which continued to have very meagre public funds available for purchases in the open market.

Fast forward to a single development which, for the first time since its foundation enabled the gallery’s Governors and Guardians to acquire top quality paintings of their choice. Following the death of George Bernard Shaw in 1950, it was revealed that he had bequeathed one third of the royalties from My Fair Lady to the NGI ‘for the purchase of pictures as distinct from general establishment charges’. It was an extraordinarily generous gesture from the Irish-born author and came like mana from heaven to the NGI’s Director, Thomas MacGreevy (1950-1963), who promptly set out on a buying spree of French, Italian and then Spanish old masters. Before he retired in 1963, MacGreevy had spent almost £500,000 (say £5 million today) on mostly good quality continental paintings. But he was a great admirer of Jack Yeats (‘the Cézanne of our time’) and was bold enough to acquire one Yeats, the Double Jockey Act for the gallery at £2,500.

It is important to note here that Jack Yeats had died in 1957, because somewhere along the line the NGI appears to have adopted a ‘rule’ against purchasing the work of any artist during his/her lifetime. But long before Yeats’ death, the gallery had happily accepted, through bequests, no less than a dozen paintings by the artist from benefactors such as the Friends of the National Collections, the Haverty Trust, Mr Raymond Best, Ms Evie Hone and Mr Frank Vickerman.

James White (1964-1979) who followed MacGreevy continued the old masters buying spree paying £145,00 for Goya’s Sleep, £220,000 for Yverni’s Annunciation and £375,000 for Fragonard’s disputed Venus and Cupid among many others. But at least White stepped up the frequency, if not the value, of Irish purchases acquiring two works by Yeats for a total of £10,000, two Roderic O Conor’s and a good watercolour of Daniel Maclise’s Strongbow and Aoife for £400 and many others. But it was also during White’s directorship that the Board, in July 1971, accepted a policy recommendation from its Finance Committee that ‘small purchases of Irish pictures were to be made out of the grant-in-aid’– which at that time was around £20,000 per annum. So in effect, the long established custom of allocating the great majority of the Shaw funds to the purchase of non-Irish works of art, was formally written into stone.

It was Homan Potterton (1980-1988) the Director during the depressed 1980s, who acknowledged that ‘It is difficult for the visitor to the Gallery to gain an impression as to what happened in art after about 1870 as our collection is extremely poor in examples of paintings later than that time.’ But he did pay out £110,000 for Francis Wheatley’s double portrait of the Marquis and Marchioness of Antrim and £40,000 for the four Views of Lucan House and Demesne by Thomas Roberts. He also acquired important Irish paintings by Richard Thomas Moynan, Henry Jones Thaddeus and even some 20th-century portraits. But the big money continued to be spent on late Impressionists like Kees van Dongen, Paul Signac ($165,000) Emile Nolde (£315,000) Camille Pisarro ($280,000).

The advent of Raymond Keaveney’s (1988-2012) long period as director brought several developments which favoured more attention to the Irish collection. In his first Director’s Report for 1990, Keaveney stated the long obvious, but long ignored, first principal that ‘The role of a national gallery is to assemble the finest possible collection of national art…’. So he added to the gallery’s collection of Jack Yeats and set up the Yeats Museum supported later by a host of archival material for research and education. Thus indeed the NGI has ended up with a very good collection of the work of Jack Yeats but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the works of James Barry, William Orpen, John Lavery, Harry Clarke, John Luke, Louis le Brocquy, Basil Blackshaw or William Scott to name but the most obvious. Now well into the 21st century, and according to their own Online Index, it is astonishing to find how few of the outstanding Irish artists of the 20th century are represented in the NGI collection.

‘The role of a national gallery is to assemble the finest possible collection of national art…’ Raymond Keaveney

Of course in 1991, the establishment of the Irish Museum of Modern Art was meant to provide a potential home for the work of contemporary Irish artists and this no doubt further distracted the NGI’s focus from the home scene. But because of the lack of funds, IMMA has had to rely almost entirely on bequests while having no formal arrangement with the NGI on the acquisition of Irish works. The same applies to the Hugh Lane – Dublin City Gallery.

Unfortunately the Shaw bonanza has come to a close and the NGI again is bereft of funds for acquisitions. But this is partly because it has given over €12 million of its own reserve (some from the Shaw Fund despite GBS’s strictures) to support the structural rebuilding over the last few years, as indeed it did in support of the Millennium wing at the turn of the century. It is not generally appreciated that the gallery buildings have been vested in the Board of Works since 1868 and are thus the property and responsibility of the OPW while the works of art are in the independent Trusteeship of the Governors and Guardians as established under the original Charter in 1854.

The National Gallery publishes a lengthy ‘Mission Statement’ which highlights its purpose as ‘ to care for, interpret, develop and showcase art in a way that makes the NGI an exciting place to visit’. What a modest ‘Mission’ for such a venerable institute of learning which, until 1984, had operated under the Department of Education. Why no mention of scholarship and education in this so-called Mission? Yes, the NGI deserves full marks for ‘caring’ for the collection although it was not until 1966 (a full century after its foundation) that a small conservation department was finally established. But why is there no mention in this Mission Statement as one would expect from a National Gallery, of the objective to foster the reputation of Irish art and artists rather than just ‘showcasing’ it? It was Enrique Juncosa, the former director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, who stated that ‘A Museum’s collection should be a tool for debate, education and research rather than a static, ostentatious display of expensive or famous works of art’. The Irish collection should be all of that as well as a principal instrument for the wider appreciation and understanding of the history of Irish art and artists.

The ethos within the National Gallery is evident in the decison to stage the grand reopening this month with an exhibition centred around Johannes Vermeer. After five years of preparation, did nobody think of a more appropriate, not to say more exciting alternative, namely a glorious celebration of the genius of the Yeats family, their painting and their poetry, which together represent the most striking example of creative imagination that this country has ever witnessed? Resplendent in its new magnificence, the National Gallery of Ireland needs a new and inspiring ‘Mission’ which places Irish art and artists at the centre of its activities and which both respects and reflects the magnanimous support it has received from the Irish public over the past 150 years.

I am indebted to Peter Somerville-Large’s 1854-2004: The Story of the National Gallery of Ireland (2004) for many of the particulars above.
John Mulcahy is the editor of the Irish Arts Review

Image caption left to right:
1 George Francis Mulvany (1809-1869), Director National Gallery of Ireland (1862-1869) Self-Portrait oil on canvas 76 x 63 cm Presented, The Misses Mulvany 1930
2 Henry Doyle Director National Gallery of Ireland (1869-1892) Photo Courtesy NGI Archive
3 Thomas MacGreevy Director National Gallery of Ireland (1950-1963) Photo Courtesy NGI Archive
4 James White Director National Gallery of Ireland (1964-1980) Photo Courtesy NGI Archive
5 Homan Potterton Director National Gallery of Ireland (1980-1988) Photo Courtesy NGI Archive
6 Raymond Keaveney, Director National Gallery of Ireland (1988-2012) Photo Courtesy NGI Archive

There is one comment

  1. Michel de Piles

    No, I think that the role of a National Gallery is not to favor the national art. It is a nonsense. The National gallery in London shows all the European painting until 1900, it is Tate Britain (and the Bristish Council) which defend the English art; the National Galleries of Waschington, of Scotland in Edimburgh, of Prague, the Louvre in Paris show the western art and do not expose more theirs national art than that of the other countries. You don’t undertand the term “National Gallery” which means that thoses museums belong to the people of a country, opened on the wordl, universal in the sense of the 18th century and not for the benefit of a nationalist propaganda. Is the British museum dedicated to British Art ? ? I am French, I visited theNational Gallery of Ireland and I find that the Irish painting is very well represented on all the ground floor. It is already very vast and widely sufficient. And there is also Irish rooms in the second floor (National Portraits gallery ) and some other in the third floor.

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