Crossing the centuries at the Crawford Gallery, the harmonious home of an ‘extraordinary collection’

The gallery’s proposed expansion, a multi-million euro project led by Grafton Architects, aims to amplify its unique link to the history of Cork city

“One of the first things the Gibson Bequest committee had to consider was the display cabinet, which Joseph Stafford Gibson had requested be made for the exhibition of his personal collection.”

That was in 1922, according to Peter Murray, a former director of the Crawford Municipal Gallery in Cork and author of an account (in the Gallery Summary Catalogue 1991) of the legacy to what was then the School of Art. Gibson, a keen amateur painter and a native of Cork who spent most of his life in Spain, died in Madrid in 1919, bequeathing £14,790 to the Crawford for “the furthering of Art in the City of his boyhood”.

“We’ve removed something that hasn’t left here for 100 years,” says a triumphant Kathryn Coughlan, the Crawford’s production manager. As supervisor of the gallery’s exodus to make way for a major extension project, she, like the bequest committee of 1922, has had to devise a way of dealing with the Gibson cabinet. Designed by Daniel Levy and built in mahogany and inlay at the then Munster Arcade (now Penney’s) in 1923 it has stood for decades upright as a sentinel outside the Gibson gallery on the first floor, displaying Joseph Gibson’s array of coins, ceramics and family silver. “We had to put a plan together to dismantle it,” says Coughlan. “It had been assembled here in several pieces which couldn’t be separated so we had to lay a cradle of foam under its main case and cover the stairs in even more foam.”

In storage with Sven Habermann of Conservation Letterfrack, the cabinet will be re-assembled at the Crawford where the staff are now engaged in a two-year process of dissolution almost as dramatic but not as terminal as the dissolution of the monasteries. This hiatus is due to the planning application for the multi-million euro expansion programme involving an interdisciplinary design team, led by Grafton Architects, which is about to be lodged with Cork City Council.


“A lot of our timing depends on what happens then,” says gallery director Mary McCarthy. " It was a very complex brief drawn up by ourselves in partnership with the Office of Public Works. This building is a hybrid, it is a place where you can cross the centuries.” The Crawford, named for its greatest benefactors William Crawford and his son William Horatio Crawford, whose wealth came from the brewing firm Beamish and Crawford, was never intended as an art gallery. Originally a customs house, it had several institutional identities and it was both gallery and school (including a school of anatomy) until 1979 when the students moved out to the Crawford College of Art and Design.

Gibson’s hope for the furthering of art in Cork has been so well served through the years that the acquisitions allowed by his money form the core grouping of the Crawford’s riches. Enumerating the other formative pillar collections which include James Barry, the Port of Cork, AIB and Great Southern collections, McCarthy says all galleries believe that they are unique. What’s unique about the Crawford is its link, like a historical narrative, to the history of the city – and of its wealth, which grew from the quays outside its windows.

Much of the creative complexity of the proposed extension suggests a sensitivity of approach demanded by the different architectural languages of the generations since 1773. There is also the public affection born from familiarity with the charming redbrick façade trimmed with limestone, accentuated by the vivid banners tied to its railings with promises of excitements beyond the arched doorway. The State’s only national cultural institution located in its entirety outside Dublin, with major collections and a strong educational bias, the building, in architect Arthur Hill’s extension of 1884, is both harmonious and discreet. Perhaps too discreet, as McCarthy, examining the gallery’s missed opportunities along with its potential, questioned the actual visibility of its location on Emmet Place in the centre of the city. “We do as much as we can to announce ourselves,” she says, “but people still say they can’t find us”.

The full library catalogue drawn up last April helps: “We know now what things are, where they are and where they go back. It’s so much a matter of balancing the time against the potential.

Taking the gallery’s pieces to pieces is another very complex operation, supervised by Kathryn Coughlan, whose charge includes finding the correct kind of protection for the 3,000 library records, some containing multiple volumes, for the institutional and governance archives and the many library holdings. The full library catalogue drawn up last April helps: “We know now what things are, where they are and where they go back. It’s so much a matter of balancing the time against the potential. There are books here with drawings all over them from former students, and there are also some beautiful discoveries like finding an Estella Solomons portfolio. We knew it was here, but not where, and now it’s found.”

So far, the major depositions have been for the paper and the antique furniture items, possibly more easily fostered than, for example, the Canova casts in the sculpture hall. Do these go or do they stay, is an issue as yet unresolved. There’s a big risk-assessment concern, and engagement with conservation specialists, while a collection inventory gave an initial idea of the scope of the work needed to move safely everything that can be moved. Even the picture frames have to be weighed; the hanging devices that will be needed when the pictures are brought back must be assessed; the items for conservation while off-site so they’re in a better condition on their return must be chosen.

Above all, with more than 4,000 artworks to manage, where does what’s going go? “We have moved through the building with partners such as the OPW and other institutions to see what can be loaned out, what curators want, what can first be sent away.” says McCarthy. “This is an extraordinary collection that a lot of other people want to share, it will be documented in new ways and a significant number of key art works will be requested by other cultural bodies. so that items from the Crawford’s collections will be seen temporarily in a different context.”

The specifications of this decant, or emptying, are demanding: for handling, packing, protection, safety from weather, from theft, from the environment. There are so many different areas of expertise, “it can be both terrifying and intense”. As former director of the National Sculpture Factory and cultural manager of Dublin Docklands Development Authority, McCarthy doesn’t quail under terror or intensity. This decant has been in preparation for at least two years, delayed but not distracted by Covid during which she and her team were able to maintain the “huge momentum” behind the new capital project. “We found that we could do a lot of work during Covid, and that two years can go by very quickly.”

We would be hopeful that when people see these plans they’ll recognise them as a very positive development for the Crawford and for the city

Now there are another two years in play; the decant proper ends early in 2024 and the reopening is planned for the spring of 2026. In the meantime there is a long and thorough planning process and then begins the creation of 1970 square metres (21,205sq ft) of additional galleries, storage, bathrooms, educational facilities, and conservation and administrative areas. The staff will use a rented office in the city because nothing stops, the acquisitions will continue to enhance the collections until everything that had to go will be coming back and the dilemma of visibility will gradually be seen to be solved.

“The height of the extension is determined by our own needs,” says McCarthy. “We’re not going high for height’s sake; it’s space we require, especially as space determines acquisition. We would be hopeful that when people see these plans they’ll recognise them as a very positive development for the Crawford and for the city. We also have a tourism identity, and this will be another beacon, another calling card for Cork.”

As for the public reaction to the realigned interiors, McCarthy is equally optimistic. “There’s a very personal connection between the Cork public and some of the collections here, and they will see familiar items but perhaps in a new space, and a much more comfortable one with easier access, better facilities and a café which stays open when the gallery is closed.”

They’re not gone yet. “We stay open till early 2024, We’ll be shutting spaces randomly while we take things down, wrap them up, carry them off, even giving, where possible, hard-hat tours to bring the public into the building.” As always with the Crawford, there’ll be another way of seeing.

Mary Leland

Mary Leland is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture