Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1947 – Bust of James Connolly, by Hilary Heron

Commissioned to carve busts of writers and activists, the young artist brought a layer of history to the labour leader’s familiar face

 

Four Provinces House, the new premises of the Irish Bakers’, Confectioners’ and Allied Workers’ Amalgamated Union, which was designed by Michael Scott in collaboration with Uinseann MacEoin, opened on Harcourt Street in Dublin in 1946.

Several artists were asked to work on the building, notably Laurence Campbell, who carved reliefs depicting the story of grain, from field to table, on the facade, and Frances Kelly and Nano Reid, who painted murals in the ballroom, showing aspects of the bakers’ trade-union history and images of Irish labour writers and activists. Hilary Heron was commissioned to carve portrait heads for the library, which opened on the first floor of the building in June 1947.

One of the best libraries in Dublin, it owed its existence to the conviction of John Swift, the organisation’s general secretary, that unions should seek to improve the intellectual and cultural lives of their members, as well as their material lives. Maintaining a tradition that dates back to the ancient world of placing busts in libraries, the union asked Heron to create likenesses of George Bernard Shaw, Oliver Goldsmith and WB Yeats, among others, as well as a bust of James Connolly, who had been executed during the Easter Rising.

Heron was already making her mark as a student at the National College of Art (now NCAD) in 1943; praise followed for the work she showed at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1944 and at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1945. The commission for the bakers’ union was significant patronage for the young sculptor, and the representation of Connolly would have been of particular interest to her, as her relation Archie Heron, a trade unionist and, briefly, a Labour TD, had worked closely with Connolly and married his daughter Ina.

It is not surprising to find portraits of Connolly (1868-1916) in trade-union buildings, but the fact that he worked in a bakery in his early years in Edinburgh – even if he disliked the work and the long hours – augments the significance of the commission.

Heron’s is a sensitive portrait, in which the use of wood rather than bronze or stone reduces the severity that usually accompanies a military portrayal, Connolly being depicted in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army, whose Dublin brigade he had led in 1916. A gentle smile that suggests itself on the face of the labour leader seems to resolve into an expression of profound sadness, and the man appears older than his 47 years. Although Heron would have known Connolly’s features well from photographs, she has layered an element of history over the familiar face.

The popularity of the Four Provinces ballroom means that many more people will have seen Reid’s painted depiction of Connolly than saw Heron’s bust.

Portraits were not a particular feature of Heron’s work subsequently. In December 1947 she was awarded the Mainie Jellett Travelling Scholarship for her sculptural work, and she was to travel widely in the course of her career. In the 1950s a certain zaniness and willingness to experiment became manifest in her work, and she alternated between representational and abstract forms. Reviewers often noted the originality of her work. In hindsight the bust of Connolly marks an early traditional phase in her output.

Four Provinces House was demolished in 1988 and, with it, the work of Campbell, Kelly and Reid – a shameful episode in the development of Dublin. Fortunately, the Heron busts were saved.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie

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