In 1788 almost 28,000 silver teaspoons were recorded in the ledger of the Dublin Assay Office, an institution established in 1637 – and still in operation today – to assess the purity of all gold and silver manufactured in Ireland. Teaspoons were especially popular both because their small size made them more affordable than other items in the same metal, but also thanks to the rise in consumption of drinks such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, all of which were sweetened with sugar. By the late 18th century, for example, the average annual consumption of tea in this country is estimated to have been two or three pounds per person. This fascinating information, and much more beside, can be found in a newly-published study of Silver in Georgian Dublin by Dr Alison FitzGerald.
While Irish silver has been well explored by Douglas Bennett and others, the focus of these connoisseur-driven investigations has usually been on matters of style and authorship. FitzGerald on the other hand is representative of a new generation of art historians keen to explore the character of material culture and thus contextualise the object of their attention within its period. This is what she has done so admirably in the present book, which looks at the production, distribution and consumption of silver in Georgian Dublin, and beyond. So, for example, when discussing the increasing popularity of tea over the course of the 18th century, assisted by a gradual reduction in its price, she looks not only at silver tea pots but also the greater use of ceramic vessels, preferable because less expensive. So a household might have a ceramic teapot but also silver sugar tongs (selling for 12 shillings in 1772).
The choice of retail premises from which they could make their purchases, while never as great as that in London (where some Irish grandees preferred to shop for such goods) certainly improved over passing decades, and for local clients had the advantage of offering credit for purchases: FitzGerald provides a number of instances where goldsmiths such as Isaac D’Olier had to advertise that all accounts owing to him had to be settled immediately and in full. Then, as now, it was often cheaper to buy at auction, and these events regularly took place, often following a collector’s death: Charles Cobbe, who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1740 acquired a considerable amount of silverware at the sale of his late father-in-law Sir Richard Levinge’s effects. And silver was regularly melted down and refashioned as tastes, and consumer requirements changed.
Some items survived better than others, not least teaspoons. The set of ten shown above above, dating from c.1800 and carrying the mark of Carden Terry and Jane Williams, was recently sold by Adam’s of Dublin for €2,500. On the other hand, buckles – once a staple in every gentleman’s wardrobe – gradually disappeared as styles of dress altered. In 1788 more than 24,000 silver buckles were sent to be assayed in Dublin, mostly intended for shoes and knee breeches: by 1800 that number had dropped to a mere eighteen. Once deemed redundant, they faced recycling, and accordingly only a certain number can now be found. The pair shown below, today in the collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, were made c.1790 by Joseph Jackson of Dublin.
Drawing on a huge range of sources ranging from diaries and letters to contemporary guild accounts, inventories and trade ephemera – not to mention the archives of the Dublin Assay Office – Alison FitzGerald’s book is a wonderfully informative, entertaining and engaging read, absolutely packed with information and profusely illustrated with illustrations that complement an already eloquent text. A terrific addition to our knowledge of this period.
Often overlooked by visitors to Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery is the institution’s remarkable collection of classical sculpture casts. Derived from those in the Vatican, the casts were made on the instructions of Pope Pius VII and under the supervision of Antonio Canova. They were originally presented to Britain’s Prince Regent (the future George IV) but he having no desire for them, the casts languished until William Hare, Lord Ennismore (later first Earl of Listowel), then President of the Cork Society of Arts persuaded the Prince to have the collection shipped to Ireland where they duly arrived in 1818. Initially displayed inside a converted theatre on Patrick Street, the casts subsequently passed into the care of the Cork School of Art and thus came to reside in what is now the Crawford Gallery. Above, the Belvedere Torso can be seen through the form of the Lancellotti Discobolus. The latter also figures below, sighted beyond the Borghese Gladiator and the Apollo Belvedere.
Born in 1786 at Elm Hall, County Tipperary, John Burke moved to London where he became engaged in genealogical studies. In 1826 he issued his Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the United Kingdom the first such work in which entries were arranged alphabetically, and both peers and baronets were included. Initially continued by his descendants before passing into other hands, the abiding popularity of ‘Burke’s Peerage’ has led to its regular appearance ever since. In 1819 Burke met another displaced Irishman, the artist Adam Buck who that year exhibited a watercolour portrait of his new friend’s wife at the Royal Academy. Further images of the family followed (some seen below) not least the picture above: dating from 1833 it depicts John Burke and his son, the future Sir John Bernard Burke. These works are included in an exhibition devoted to Buck currently running at the Crawford Gallery, Cork (the artist’s native city). As one of the most prolific and successful miniaturists and portraitists of the early 19th century, Buck saw his work widely reproduced as prints or on porcelain. However even before his death in 1833 (the same year as the Burke double-portrait) he had begun to fall out of fashion and for a long time thereafter was little regarded. This exhibition helps to re-establish him as one of Ireland’s finest artists of the period and merits a visit to Cork.
Adam Buck (1759-1833): A Regency Artist from Cork runs at the Crawford Gallery until April 9th next.
The neo-classical painter Robert Fagan was born in London and spent the greater part of his career in Italy. But he never forgot his Irish heritage and in 1801 painted this picture, Portrait of a Lady as Hibernia. The work has often been considered a response to the previous year’s Act of Union, the effect on Ireland suggested by the harp’s broken strings. And the painting is replete with other references to the old country, not least the wolfhound, the pages of text headed by the words ‘Erin go bragh’ (Ireland forever), the thatched cottage and, of course the green gown – worn rather negligently – by the sitter. The proposal has been made that she was a Margaret Simpson, mistress of Henry, thirteen Viscount Dillon, a notion strengthened by the carved nude female reclining luxuriantly on the harp. This is not Ireland as later nationalists would represent her, but serves as a fitting symbol for the cosmopolitan splendour of the country’s culture during the long 18th century which is being so wonderfully celebrated at present in Chicago’s Art Institute.
This ends a week of marking the exhibition Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 which runs until June 7th. The Irish Aesthete reverts to customary coverage from tomorrow.
In 1797 James Wyatt designed a hall bench for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, a set then being made for the house by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Their distinctive features such as the splayed saber legs and corresponding arms gave the benches so widespread and long-lasting an appeal that the design was subsequently copied, not least by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton which produced the example seen here at some date between 1829-42, in other words three or four decades after the original. Above it hangs Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Lady Maria Conyngham commissioned, along with those of her mother and sister, in the mid-1820s by George IV who hung the three in his bedroom in St James’ Palace, London (Lady Conyngham, it will be remembered, was his last mistress). Following the king’s death the pictures were transferred to the Conyngham family residence Slane Castle, County Meath where they remained until sold at the start of the last century. This portrait is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York while the Williams & Gibton bench belongs to the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.
As a regular visitor to Powerscourt, County Wicklow surely Edmund Burke must have been inspired in his emerging concept of the sublime by the landscape in this part of the country. Certainly aspects of the Powerscourt estate would appeal to many artists, not least the waterfall – the tallest in Ireland – which was painted many times. But the setting of the house, designed in the 1730s by Richard Castle, also proved irresistible, not least to George Barret who was encouraged by Burke to look directly at nature for greater authenticity in his art. On the other hand Barret’s view of Powerscourt, dating from 1760-62 cannot be regarded as altogether authentic: he has exaggerated the height and proportions of the Sugarloaf Mountain in order to provide the work with more drama.
When this walnut desk and bookcase entered the collection of Chicago’s Art Institute in 1957, it was catalogued as having been made in England c.1710, even though an article published a year before in Antique Collector had suggested an Irish provenance. However after half a century in the Institute’s collection, a pencil inscription was discovered on the bottom of the lower-right drawer bearing the words ‘John Kirkhoffer/fecit/1732’. Believed to have been born in Germany, by this date Kirkhoffer had moved to Dublin where he worked as a cabinet maker: a not-dissimilar piece attributed to him and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London is reputed to have belonged to Dean Swift. However, the discovery of the inscription makes the Chicago example at present the earliest signed and dated example of Irish furniture.