Bodkin: the man who put Irish art in the picture


Included in an exhibition of 18th, 19th and 20th-century Irish paintings that opens at Dublin's Gorry Gallery next Thursday are two landscapes by James Arthur O'Connor, which formerly belonged to Thomas Bodkin. Not as well remembered today as ought to be the case, Bodkin was one of the most important figures in the promotion of Irish art during the present century. He was the friend and supporter of many artists, as well as an ardent advocate of official assistance for all forms of culture in Ireland. Born in Dublin in July 1887, Bodkin originally studied law and was called to the Irish bar in 1911.

By that date, however, he was already closely involved with the emerging Irish art world thanks to his close friendship with Sir Hugh Lane. Twelve years Bodkin's senior, Lane encouraged this interest in art, although the advice he gave was not always necessarily the best; Bodkin later recalled the older man trying to dissuade him from showing any enthusiasm for Gauguin. In 1932, Bodkin wrote a book, Hugh Lane and his Pictures, at the request of the Irish government to stimulate debate on the return to this country of the Lane French paintings. That dispute remained a lifelong concern, and during the 1950s, Bodkin together with Lords Moyne and Longford, strove to convince the British authorities of Ireland's legitimate claim to the pictures.

However, this was by no means Bodkin's only service in the cause of Irish art. In 1927, he became Director of the National Gallery of Ireland (which possesses a portrait of him painted by James Sleator). During his time in the gallery, he attempted to have the post of director made full-time, as well as arguing for the appointment of additional staff. Eventually, defeated by the intransigence of officialdom, he resigned from the post and moved to the Barber Institute of Fine Art in Birmingham.

His links with Ireland remained strong, however, as did his interest in the development of opportunities for artists here. In 1949, at the request of the then-Taoiseach, John A. Costello, he produced a report for the government on the state of the arts in Ireland. This report eventually led two years later to the creation of the Arts Council, of which Bodkin would probably have been the first director had the government not changed in the interim.

Long before this date, Bodkin had been arguing for state support for the arts; in 1922, he had sent a memorandum on the problems of encouraging artistic activity to the minister for education, and the following year he had written an essay called The Condition and Needs of Art in Ireland. During the 1920s, he was a member of the Commission on Irish Coinage Design and of committees on the organisation of both the National Museum and of art education in Ireland. In addition, he was a perceptive and prolific critic, writing for many publications throughout his life. In 1920, for example, he published his book ( Four Irish Landscape Painters), one of whom was James Arthur O'Connor. In 1940, he produced an introduction for art dealer Victor Waddington's publication, Twelve Irish Artists, which included such names as Paul Henry, J. Humbert Craig, William Conor, Sean Keating and Sean O'Sullivan.

Although more tolerant of and interested in modernist movements than many of his contemporaries, Bodkin was nonetheless something of a conservative, which is presumably why the two Gorry Gallery O'Connor landscapes, both dating from the 1830s, appealed to his taste. A man of exceptional vision, energy and commitment to his native country, Thomas Bodkin died in Birmingham in April 1961. The Gorry Gallery exhibition in which the O'Connors are offered alongside work by Daniel Maclise, Erskine Nicol, William Orpen, Beatrice Glenavy and William Leech, runs until Friday, July 9th.