Anchorman, Pop Tarts, Picasso . . .


Trinity College is home to an excellent collection of modern art – and even lets students borrow works for their rooms. This year, it’s showing them to the public and celebrating the scientist who started this cultural treasure trove, writes AIDAN DUNNE

THREE YEARS ago, Catherine Giltrap became curator of the Trinity College Art Collections. Trinity, she notes, is a treasure house of collections extending across the breadth of its academic activities. Books and manuscripts may be the best known but equally, she says, the anatomical, botanical and antiquities collections are exceptional. As that is in her own immediate area of responsibility, the visual arts. Here you’ll find not only – as you might expect – generation on generation of portraits of the great and the good associated with the college, but also the various sculptures that occupy the campus and, perhaps more surprisingly, a substantial modern and contemporary art collection numbering about 700 individual works.

As a Trinity graduate, Giltrap was acquainted with the modern art collection. It had its beginning, essentially, in the College Gallery Picture Hire scheme established by an academic, the late George Dawson (1927-2004), and a group of students during the academic year of 1959-1960. Under the scheme, the college acquired works of contemporary art – from paintings to reproductions – and, for a modest fee, students and eventually staff members could lease them to hang in their rooms and offices. As she set about organising a series of exhibitions to mark the scheme’s 50th anniversary, she realised that the story of the modern art collection is in many respects the story of the remarkable Dawson, universally known throughout his years at the college as George.

“George was the driving force behind the scheme, but he was much more than that,” says Giltrap. “His influence and popularity extended through every level of the college and generations of students. I can’t tell you how many people have come to me with stories about how knowing him affected their lives. He was passionate about contemporary art, and was keen to promote emerging as well as established artists. But the key to everything George did was direct student involvement.

“From the first, he loved the company of students – he said they challenged him – and he got them to take on responsibilities and initiatives.”

Latterly professor of genetics, Dawson began his teaching years in Trinity as a lecturer in botany when the department was headed by the renowned Frank Mitchell. He took up his post in 1950 on, he was fond of pointing out, April 1st. Originally he came from a Cheshire village, Alderly Edge, where his father was a fishmonger, he arrived in Dublin directly after his graduation from Cambridge as a biologist. With the identification of the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953, the 1950s became a vital decade for advances in genetic science, and Dawson established Trinity’s Department of Genetics late in the decade.

His mother painted, and encouraged Dawson’s interest in art. Cambridge had a picture hire scheme and he immediately felt such a scheme would be beneficial to Trinity. “I never understood the educational value of bare walls,” as he laconically put it. “The beauty of the scheme,” says Giltrap, “is that it gets students involved with contemporary art in a casual way. It breaks down the barriers that might otherwise prevent them feeling comfortable with modern art.”

She has heard many first-person accounts of the long-lasting effects of this strategy, which has had a significant impact. “At its simplest, if you choose a piece for your room, it’s likely you’ll end up explaining why you chose it.”

Dawson tended to elicit more from students, involving them in debate about potential acquisitions and encouraging them to develop and trust their own judgment. “In all of this, his attitude was to just do it and deal with the paperwork later – or maybe don’t deal with the paperwork at all,” says Giltrap.

Going over the documentation, time and again she puzzled as to how he managed to raise funds for a purchase, or how he managed to cut through the inevitable red tape. The personal touch and his immense sociability had a great deal to do with it. He mixed easily with people from every sort of background and was singularly unfazed by rank, authority and social status.

He even managed to rope in the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which is how the organisation, based in Lisbon, came to acquire works by such Irish artists as Paul Henry, Patrick Collins and Colin Middleton, and lend them to Trinity for 20 years.

Dawson was instrumental in other significant developments relating to the arts in Trinity. He advocated, and partly funded from his own pocket, art history lectures in the college in the 1950s. In the 1960s he managed to persuade Anne Crookshank, then with the Ulster Museum, to deliver a series of lectures on a part-time basis. So successful were they that they led to the establishment of a department devoted to the history of art and architecture, with Crookshank as its head.

The next major objective was a dedicated exhibition space on-campus and, when the Berkeley Library opened in 1967, it incorporated an “exhibition hall”, enabled by a diversity of funding sources. It marked the beginning of a co-operative arrangement with the Arts Council.

The new gallery opened with a Henry Moore exhibition. Giltrap says: “[It was] as a response to, or even an apology for an incident in the 1950s when a Moore sculpture donated to the Hugh Lane was described by councillors as being something like a repulsive monstrosity.”

Useful as it proved, the Berkeley space was viewed as an interim solution, a precursor to the Douglas Hyde Gallery, which opened in 1978. A joint venture involving Trinity and the Arts Council, the Douglas Hyde quickly developed as an important, auspiciously located venue. “Part of its significance is that its entrance breached the wall on Nassau St, making the college more accessible, more in touch with the city.”

It currently hosts Holding Together, the first of three planned exhibitions. “George was committed to exploring the work of emerging artists in a very open-minded way, and the idea of this show is to juxtapose works by influential Irish artists active during his time with pieces by younger, emerging Irish artists now.”

So Cecil King rubs shoulders with David Beattie, Tony O’Malley with Laura Fitzgerald, William Scott with Liam O’Callaghan, and so on. It makes for a lively mixture; Dawson would surely have approved.

His own taste and influence will be seen in George Dawson: An Unbiased Eye,at the Royal Hibernian Academy in November. More than 35 works by Irish and international artists will trace the evolution of the Trinity Modern Contemporary Art Collection (which now numbers about 700 works).

Among other things, it will demonstrate Dawson’s growing appreciation of fine art prints and feature works by Picasso, Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Kathy Prendergast, Patrick Scott and many more.

The third exhibition, in the Science Gallery in December, will engage with creativity across the arts and sciences.

In addition, a richly illustrated book, George Dawson: An Unbiased Eye, edited by Giltrap and tracing the history of Trinity’s involvement with modern and contemporary art, will be published to coincide with the RHA exhibition in November.

George Dawson: An Unbiased Eye, will run at the Royal Hibernian Gallery from November 19th to December 19th