Studying the Classics

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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.

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The Regency Buck

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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.

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Adam Buck (1759-1833): A Regency Artist from Cork runs at the Crawford Gallery until April 9th next.


Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design VII

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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.

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design VI

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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.

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design V

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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.

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design IV

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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.

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design III

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A monteith is a large bowl usually made of silver with a scalloped rim: the bowl would be filled with ice and water, and wine glasses would be cooled and rinsed in this, their stem bases suspended in notches around the rim. Now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, this example was made in Dublin by Thomas Bolton in 1702-03 at the request of Sir Richard Cox, Lord Chancellor of Ireland at the time of William III’s death. It was one of the prerogatives of the office that the holder could keep the Great Seal of Ireland when a monarch died: Cox had his melted down and used to create the monteith seen here. It carries both his arms and those of James Butler, second Duke of Ormonde who was then Lord Lieutenant, contained in foliate cartouches on the vessel’s fluted sides. One clever detail: the scalloped top can be removed, thereby transforming the piece into a regular punch bowl.