Family silver: the art that Ireland has lost

Almost every work in this book is US owned. The result is a monumental but melancholy survey

Ireland - Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840
Ireland - Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840
Author: Edited by William Laffan and Christopher Monkhouse with Leslie Fitzpatrick
ISBN-13: 978-0300210606
Publisher: The Art Institute of Chicago / Yale University Press
Guideline Price: €50

This weighty and lavishly illustrated volume is, in almost equal measure, culturally monumental and melancholic. No thinking Irish person could fail to see the significance or feel the sadness.

Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design 1690-1840 comprises, as well as an introduction and a coda by the editors, 18 essays about, and the catalogue for, an exhibition that has just ended in the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition is large: 328 items, virtually all owned by institutions and individuals in the United States.

Therein lies part of the sadness: the family silver belongs to somebody else. Quite a bit of the best of it would be lost to sight were it not for Fred Krehbiel, who subsidised the exhibition and the catalogue. Scion of a fascinating and very rich Swiss-American Mennonite pacifist family, Krehbiel keeps a lot of his treasures on his Irish properties, one of which, Ballyfin House, in Laois, is an opulent hotel. To most Irish people (except those employed by the Molex company in Shannon) Krehbiel may be a stranger, but a good part of our culture depends on his kindness.

The family-silver cliche is relevant historically. Had this show been mounted 40 years ago probably only one person in the world, Douglas Bennett, could have written authoritatively about its Irish Georgian silver component: his pioneering book of that title was published in 1972. Now Alison Fitzgerald of Maynooth University has only a few pages at her disposal, but she does have an eye for the telling detail: in 1788, for example, more than 24,000 silver buckles were submitted to the Dublin assay office for hallmarking; in 1810 there were 18 submissions. Bucklemakers had been strangled by shoelaces.


It's curious how that short period was mirrored, but in reverse, 200 years later. When Anne Cruikshank and Desmond FitzGerald's Ireland's Painters 1600-1940 was first published, in 1978, their harvest of 18th-century paintings was thin. By the time the second edition was published, in 2002, the harvest had almost doubled in size.

Forty years ago awareness was dim about other areas of art and material culture in which an Irish style is now recognised and prized. Furniture, glass, portrait miniatures on ivory and enamel, ceramics, bookbinding, painting in pastels, musical instruments, mezzotint prints and textiles: each now gets a chapter to itself.

There are also chapters on the country house (by Kevin Mulligan), the harp as object and symbol (Tom Dunne), Dublin as the second city of the British empire (Toby Barnard), Ireland as a newly sublime landscape best looked at from a distance (Finola O’Kane) and why a native artist felt he would be better off if his name were Signor Somebodini (Brendan Rooney).

This is not the first time Chicago has hosted a major Irish exhibition. The 1893 World Fair attracted 500,000 visitors to a village of thatched cottages populated with “lads and lasses . . . plying the needle, loom wheel or carving tools”. One could also climb the spiral staircase of a two-thirds reproduction of Blarney Castle, pay a dime to a “glum little fellow” clad in corduroys and kiss the Blarney Stone, or rather a genuine chunk of it, “about as big as a man’s head”.

As often happens with stereotypes, the closer one gets to them the more interesting they are. In this case the craft element of the Chicago show originated with the formidable feminist and renowned whistler of Mozart, Lady Aberdeen, wife of the lord lieutenant.

The 1893 and 2015 images of Ireland could hardly be more different. The contention of Fintan O’Toole, this newspaper’s Literary Editor, that “contested spaces can become imaginative places” was borne out in “the long 18th century” examined in this book.

Whether the country was, according to William Laffan’s introduction, “not quite a colony” or, as James Kelly has described it, “every bit as colonial” as America is still debated. Culturally, however, Ireland, or more particularly Dublin, was “a place of artistic fusion, occasional brilliance, and, perhaps surprisingly, cosmopolitan sophistication”.

'Bird's eye view' Laffan also contributes a coruscating essay, Portraits and Pantheons, that takes its title from Wolfe Tone's idea that if we have a republic in Ireland we must build a pantheon. Paradoxically, three of Tone's candidates for sanctity, Jonathan Swift, the philosopher William Molyneux and the municipal reformer Charles Lucas, far from seeking to break the connection with England, wanted to preserve it. It was in Paris in 1796 that Tone named his human gods; two years later he was willing to kill people with such ideals.

For all its breadth the book has little to say about sculpture and architecture. The omissions may be explained by there being so much of everything else. The huge increase over recent years in the number of newly discovered or newly defined art objects and the boom in scholarship about them has destroyed the old conception that the Irish were a people of the word living in a desert of the eye.

It is a pity, though, that so few of us are aware of the work that is being done, largely in the universities, to further this benign destruction. What the average reader gets is a bird’s-eye view of an explosion in scholarship.

But even a professional art historian, never mind an amateur, would be hard put to feel at home on the range of topics here. You might know a bit about buckles, or the densely numinous mezzotints engraved by the “Dublin group” in London, described by Martha Tedeschi; or the Belfast Potthouse, which Peter Francis tells us produced beautiful pottery from the world’s only known turf-fired kiln. You might even know why Kirkhoffer the cabinetmaker (described by James Peil) and Kirchhoffer the painter (by Finola O’Kane) spelled their names differently. But who was James Christopher Timbrell, and how could such a poor painter be so important? Tom Dunne provides the answers in an intriguing analysis of the artist’s portrait of Turlough O’Carolan playing the harp to a respectable Catholic household, complete with a fat Friar Tuck, on the eve of the Great Famine.

One wonders what the average American reader makes of all this. Even the most devoted Hibernophile in Chicago is bound to miss the poignancy, if not the sexiness, of the second-century statue of Venus Genetrix loaned to the exhibition by the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

At some time during the War of Independence or the Civil War the statue had apparently been used for target practice – not Isis-like, of course, but in a simple spirit of innocent Irish fun – and the fragments dumped into the lake at Russborough House.

The story told by Christopher Monkhouse of how the Venus, minus her head, arose from the depths and swam to California, unbeknown to Sir Alfred Beit, is particularly piquant given the Beit Foundation's recent decision, now postponed, to sell off more of the family silver.

Oddly enough, Isis lurks in the background of the most thought-provoking piece in the exhibition, Henry Kirchhoffer's painting Francis Johnston's Belfry and Gothic Folly in His Garden, Eccles Street, Dublin. Had James Joyce seen this bewildering idealisation of a garden across the road from Leopold Bloom's home I think his masculinist vision of Eccles Street as Ithaca in the penultimate chapter of Ulysses would have been transformed, and hugely enriched. Kirchhoffer's Arcadia is bewildering in other ways: it was painted about 1832, yet the belfry it depicts bears an eerie resemblance to the one Bloom could see from his front window – but that church, St Joseph's on Berkeley Road, was built in 1880.

And the Isis connection? Francis Johnston’s masterpiece, the GPO, was deeply influenced by the architecture of Palmyra, in Syria, an entire city now facing a fate more malevolent than merely being used for target practice.

This superb book is a reminder of what we have lost and could yet lose.

Brian Lynch is a poet, novelist and screenwriter. He is writing the biography of the artist and architect Vincenzo Valdre