Exploring A Four Nations Art History: An Irish Perspective

Exploring A Four Nations Art History: An Irish Perspective

This week, Dr Kathryn Milligan (National Gallery of Ireland) argues that travel patterns and social networks reveal more four nations patterns in late 19th and early 20th century art than previously thought. 

Consideration of the artistic relationship between Ireland and England is long established in the historiography of Irish art. Frequent efforts have been made to address or define this relationship, often in a wider argument around influence; in delineating the differences between the tradition of European fine art on the island of Ireland (often linked to colonisation) in relation to the Celtic Revival; the formation of a ‘national’ school of painting as influenced by the wider growth of nationalism; as well as the retrospective reclaiming of artists from Ireland classified elsewhere as ‘British’ or ‘English’.[i] More nuanced understandings of this relationship have begun to emerge, influenced by the methodologies of other histories and studies.[ii]Whilst keeping a questioning eye on the wider historical context, I would like to suggest that a consideration of the movement of art and artists between Ireland and Britain, or indeed, the circulation of same between the four nations, could lead to a clearer understanding of this topic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. To date, I have considered this idea in relation to the career of Walter Osborne (1859 – 1903), and, separately, the history of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Research into this field is still ongoing, the next stage of this research will be to look more closely at the parallels between Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Photograph of Walter Osborne seated in his studio, date and photographer unknown, Walter Osborne Archive Collections, ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art, National Gallery of Ireland. http://doras.nationalgallery.ie/index.php?a=ViewItem&key=RHsiRCI6IkNvbnRhaW5zIHRoZXNlIGl0ZW1zIiwiTiI6MCwiUCI6eyJ0eXBlIjoiZm9yd2FyZCIsInJlbGF0aW9uX2lkIjoxLCJpdGVtX2lkIjoiMjExMiJ9fQ==&pg=10

Photograph of Walter Osborne seated in his studio, date and photographer unknown,Walter Osborne Archive Collections, ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art, National Gallery of Ireland. 

Walter Osborne was born in Dublin, and attended the Royal Hibernian Academy schools from 1876, achieving many successes in his early career. In 1881, he was awarded the Taylor Scholarship, and this afforded the artist the opportunity to travel to the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts in Antwerp.[iii]This period of study strongly influenced his painting style and technique, and also marked Osborne’s introduction to a broader network of artistic peers. The art school at Antwerp attracted artists from across the British Isles, all seeking an alternative to the South Kensington System or the Paris academies.[iv] There Osborne met, amongst others, English-painter Blandford Fletcher (1858 – 1936), who he would later travel extensively with in England. Following his time in Antwerp, Osborne visited France spending a year there in 1883. This time in France further extended Osborne’s artistic network, and it is likely that he met Stanhope Forbes (1857–1947) and Henry La Thangue (1859–1929) during this time.[v]After his time in Belgium and France, Osborne established a base in Dublin, but continued to travel widely in England, capitalising on the friendships and connections made in Antwerp and Brittany. He exhibited work in Belfast, Birmingham, Liverpool, and London. It is clear from the way he exhibited his work that Osborne capitalised on the close geographical relationship between the two islands, and built on the friendships forged in Antwerp and Brittany.

Shortly after Osborne’s death, Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers noted that the artist was ‘an Englishman resident in Ireland’.[vi]In 1920, Thomas Bodkin noted that a study of the artist’s work ‘discovers nothing distinctively Irish in its author’ and that ‘his ancestry must have been predominantly English’.[vii]In his 1926 publication, Stephen Gwynn also noted that Osborne had ‘very strong affinities with much that is English.’[viii]These comments highlight the tendency of commentators to look for something clearly ‘national’ in an artist’s work, but they also elide an understanding of Osborne as an artist who made the best possible use of the networks that were available to him. From a well-connected port city, Osborne had opportunities to travel, and the lure of large audiences for his work, at his fingertips. This career path is not unique to Osborne, and similarities can be found in the lives of artists across the four nations.

T.J Westropp, ‘Royal Hibernian Academy, Wynne’s Hotel and Abbey Street, May 17 [1916], Royal Irish Academy Library/Digital Repository of Ireland, https://repository.dri.ie/catalog/5999z294g

T.J Westropp, ‘Royal Hibernian Academy, Wynne’s Hotel and Abbey Street’, May 17 [1916], Royal Irish Academy Library/Digital Repository of Ireland.

Turning to the history of the Royal Hibernian Academy, we can see that it was closely tied into a wider institutional network. Through an annual grant of £300 the RHA was, to a large extent, financially dependent on Westminster. Its ties to Britain were further strengthened through its association with its sister institutions in Edinburgh and London – the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA) and the Royal Academy of Arts (RA). In the early years of the twentieth century, the RHA was facing significant difficulties, highlighted in inquiries and reports held and published between 1901 and 1905. At the 1905 Inquiry the RHA compared themselves to the RSA and RA. The comparison with the RSA was seen to be of particular relevance at this time, as it was also outside of London.[ix] However, there were significant differences between the RHA and RSA, not least in terms of public support and patronage. Eric Rowan has outlined the history of the Royal Cambrian Academy in Wales, and further research may reveal an interesting, and more realistic, comparative study.[x]In 1916, the RHA faced a tougher challenge than government-initiated reports and inquiries. Academy House, located on Abbey Street, was destroyed by fire during the Easter Rising. The annual exhibition had opened in March as usual, containing over five hundred paintings. Following the blaze, many letters of sympathy were received, including two from the secretaries of the RA and the RSA. W R Lamb expressed the ‘sincere sympathy of the Royal Academy in the serious loss and damage which must have been sustained […]’, while William D MacKay concluded the RSA message of sympathy with the belief that ‘the Royal Hibernian Academy will face the ordeal with the spirit which had always characterised your people.’[xi] The destruction of Academy House set in train a period of re-establishment for the institution, a difficulty undoubtedly compounded by ongoing political changes through the 1920s. My research into this topic is still ongoing, however, at the crux of the matter sits the question of how an institution, so deeply integrated with the British art world and administration, negotiated the transition to the Irish Free State and beyond. A fuller study of this topic could also provide an interesting context for how the relationship between the different royal academies today.[xii] In his discussion of Ireland, empire and archipelago, Nicholas Allen has described how ‘London was the hub of the merchant world. Dublin and the other Irish cities were distributed on its spokes.’[xiii] This analogy can also be applied to the connections between London, as an artistic hub, and other cities, drawing in, for example, Liverpool, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Dublin, and Cork. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, these cities were connected by a back-and-forth exchange of art and artists, most notably manifest in the areas of exhibitions, education and training – which often extended beyond the shores of the four nations – , and the networks and friendships forged through these. Examining this exchange, the artists who benefited from it, and the institutions that often facilitated it, could lead to a richer understanding of the four nation’s art histories.

[i] See, for example, Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin, Ireland’s Painters, 1600 – 1940, 2nd ed., (New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2002); Fintan Cullen, Visual Politics: The Representation of Ireland 1750 – 1930 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1997); Catherine Marshall, ‘Introduction’, Twentieth Century: Art and Architecture of Ireland, Vol V (Dublin, New Haven and London: Published for the Royal Irish Academy and the Paul Mellon Centre by Yale University Press, 2014), 5-6; Jeanne Sheehy, The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past: The Celtic Revival, 1830 – 1930 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980).

[ii] Fionna Barber alluded to this in the introduction to her text Art in Ireland Since 1910 (London: Reaktion Books, 2013). For a wider introduction to the historiography of Irish art history, see Niamh Nic Ghabhann, ‘Introductory essay: writing Irish art histories.’ Journal of Art Historiography 9 (2013): 1-11.

http://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/nicghabhann-intro.pdf. Some scholars have completed comparative studies, bringing Irish material together with that of one or more of the four nations. See, for example, Nicola Gordon Bowe and Elizabeth Cumming, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Dublin and Edinburgh, 1885 – 1925 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1998).

[iii] The Taylor Art Award, or Taylor Scholarship, is awarded annually by the Royal Dublin Society, and was founded in 1860.

[iv] See Jeanne Sheehy, ‘The flight from South Kensington: British Artists at the Antwerp Academy 1877 – 1885,’ Art History, vol. 20, no. 1 (1997): 124 – 154.

[v] Jeanne Sheehy, ‘Walter Osborne,’ (M.Litt Diss., Trinity College Dublin, 1971), 39.

[vi] Michael Bryan and George Charles Williamson, ‘Osborne, Walter P.,’, Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers (New York: The Macmillan Company; London: George Hill and Sons, 1904), 46, https://archive.org/details/bryansdiction04brya

[vii] Thomas Bodkin, Four Irish Landscape Painters (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1920), 43.

[viii] Stephen Gwynn, Experiences of a Literary Man (London: Thornton Butterworth, Ltd., 1926), 72.

[ix] The RSA had been founded shortly after the RHA, and had followed the example of the Irish academy closely, although they faced more of a struggle to gain their royal charter. See Joanna Soden, ‘Tradition, Evolution, Opportunism: The Role of the Royal Scottish Academy in Art Education, 1826 – 1910’ (PhD Diss., University of Aberdeen, 2006).

[x] Eric Rowan, Art in Wales: An Illustrated History 1850 – 1980 (Cardiff: Welsh Arts Council and University of Wales Press, 1985), 12-13.

[xi] ‘A Special Meeting of General Assembly, Wednesday 24 May, 1916’ and ‘Meeting of General Assembly held on Thursday 20 July, 1916’, Minutes of the RHA General Assembly 1900 – 1924, RHA Archive, RHA154(8)/5A.

[xii] The Royal Ulster Academy, Belfast, was granted its royal charter in 1951, although it traces its history back to 1879.

[xiii] Nicholas Allen, ‘Ireland, Empire, and the Archipelago’, UCD Scholarcast, series 7 (Spring 2013), ‘The Literatures and Cultures of the Irish Sea’, edited by John Brannigan and PJ Matthews, http://www.ucd.ie/scholarcast/scholarcast28.html, 2.

Dr Kathryn Milligan recently completed her PhD at TRIARC – Trinity Irish Art Research Centre, Trinity College Dublin. Her doctoral research focused on the representation of Dublin in visual art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, while additional research themes include the historiography of modern art, the painting of modern life, and artistic networks in Ireland and Britain. At present, Kathryn is the ESB Fellow at the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland. 

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