From the Summer 2017 edition
Putting Irish arts in context has been a principal aim of our collecting mission at the John J Burns Library, Boston, writes Christian Dupont
Among the insights gained from the collaborative challenge posed by the Royal Irish Academy and The Irish Times to represent ‘Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks’ is that for some years during the century that followed 1916 there was an abundance of art and literature from which the judges were at pains to choose their representative selections, while for others they were hard-pressed to find suitable candidates from either discipline. The goal, according to the editors of the resulting catalogue, had been to ‘assemble a cumulative sense of an evolving creative culture, which in turn mirrored the modernisation of the State.’ Instead, the project brought to light gaps and discontinuities. As Fintan O’Toole explained in his editorial note: ‘rather than a supportive relationship between artists and the state, this work reveals a case of artists challenging and upsetting the community and the community, in turn, looking warily at artists.’
This dynamic tension, which O’Toole claims ‘is what makes Irish art, at its best, so edgy, so embattled and so vital,’ points to a need for social and historical context to fully appreciate visual and literary expressions – a truism, perhaps, but perhaps truer for Irish artists than for others.
Putting Irish arts in context has been a principal aim of our collecting mission at the John J Burns Library for rare books, special collections and archives at Boston College. It has also been reflected in exhibitions of Irish art organized by our campus partner, the McMullen Museum of Art. These have included, among others: ‘The Arts and Crafts Movement: Making It Irish’ (2016), ‘Rural Ireland: The Inside Story’ (2012), and ‘Re/Dressing Cathleen: Contemporary Works from Irish Women Artists’ (1997).
Putting arts in context involves not only collecting artworks, but collecting around them. It means taking an archival approach, acquiring evidence of process and not just product. Preliminary sketches, manuscript drafts, correspondence, books and printed ephemera, photographs and recordings, and other documents serve to ‘frame’ an artwork and help us to ‘see’ it, much the way a decorative frame trains our gaze on a painting hung on the walls of a gallery.
To take one set of examples from our collections, we may turn to our holdings pertaining to Mayo-born stained glass artist and illustrator Richard King (1907-1974). King is not as well known as his mentor, Harry Clarke, whose Dublin studios he managed for a time after Clarke’s death before opening his own in 1940 and working as chief illustrator for the nationalist-leaning Capuchin Annual. Reflecting the ethos of the era, King extended the range of Clarke’s Arts and Crafts style and pushed it towards Art Deco.
The style shift is evident in the series of postage stamps King created for the Irish government beginning in 1933. His designs for four airmail stamps produced in 1948/1949 feature the angel Victor, messenger of St Patrick, carrying the Voice of Ireland (Vox Hiberniæ) over historical landmarks from each of Ireland’s four provinces.
King sent a first day of issue cover with all four stamps to Boston College’s chief librarian, Terrence L Connolly, SJ, on 4 April 1949, noting that it would be the last time ‘Éire’ would appear on a stamp. Meanwhile, Connolly’s newly appointed curator for Irish special collections, Robert Emmet biographer Helen Landreth, was preparing to open an exhibition titled ‘Toward an Irish Republic, 1948-1949.’
Connolly evidently admired King’s work, for he had commissioned him to design a bookplate for a large collection of Irish books and manuscripts that the university had received in 1946 through a bequest from Boston attorney John T Hughes, an ardent Republican and friend of Éamon de Valera. Especially rich in historical and political materials, the gift helped set a direction for future Irish collecting by the college library.
Commenting on his conception of the windows, King remarked: ‘when the idea of introducing stained glass into the library was first proposed, I thought it would be a good idea to give visual expression to the fundamental ideals of Ireland’s temperament, as expressed in her literature from the earliest time.’
To give the growing Irish special collections their own form of independence, Connolly repurposed a classroom on the main floor of the library as an office space for Landreth and outfitted it with glass-panelled walnut bookcases. The James Jeffrey Roche Room had been named in honor of one of Boston’s most prominent Irish figures. Roche was a poet, journalist, diplomat and biographer of the Fenian activist John Boyle O’Reilly, whom he succeeded as editor of The Pilot, which later became the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.
In 1951, Connolly commissioned King to design three stained glass windows for the room. To display ‘the kinship between the pagan myths and the Christian truths,’ King chose to depict the Celtic god Lugh crushing the head of the evil one-eyed monster Balor, juxtaposing him with an image of Christ triumphing over Satan. For the third window, he portrayed a monastic scribe at work under the watchful guidance of angelic spirits. King also drew a pastel portrait of Roche and painted a watercolor of his birthplace in Mountmellick, County Laois. Both were presented to the library as gifts by the Éire Society of Boston and added to the room.
Commenting on his conception of the windows, King remarked: ‘when the idea of introducing stained glass into the library was first proposed, I thought it would be a good idea to give visual expression to the fundamental ideals of Ireland’s temperament, as expressed in her literature from the earliest time.’ In addition to the artworks themselves, the correspondence, design sketches and proofs, and contemporary newspaper and magazine articles preserved in the Burns Library archives reflect the nationalist sentiment in Irish art that flourished around the establishment of the Republic and its contemporary resonance among the Irish of Boston.
Christian Dupont is Burns Librarian and Associate University Librarian for Special Collections.