Appreciation: John Gilmartin

A conservative Catholic who made a valuable contribution to social and artistic life of Dublin

John Gilmartin had a singular talent for explaining art to all-comers and was possessed of a droll wit laced with quaint phrases that enlivened his presentation.

John Gilmartin had a singular talent for explaining art to all-comers and was possessed of a droll wit laced with quaint phrases that enlivened his presentation.

 

John Maiben Gilmartin, who died on July 19th, aged 80, seemed a detached figure out of a less hurried, more gracious age but in his own time he made a valuable contribution to the social and artistic life of Dublin.

He was born into the purple of Dublin’s professional life and brought up at 32 Lower Baggot Street, an elegant Georgian house.

His father Prof Tommy Gilmartin, who came from a western business family with ecclesiastical connections, was an ambitious doctor who established anaesthesia as a reputable specialty in Ireland; his mother, Peggy Maiben was an exceptionally beautiful and gracious woman. John, an only child, was a devoted son and lived with her until her death aged 90.

His parents’ world rather than that of his contemporaries fashioned his outlook.

His artistic leanings were apparent at St Conleth’s, where he spent most of his schooldays. The hurly burly of Clongowes, where he boarded briefly, was less congenial to a boy who hated games and eschewed the rough ways of fellow teenagers.

History

He went on to Trinity, where he read history. Tall, handsome and stately with a deliberate voice and an accent that was lofty yet Irish, he debated in the College Historical Society and was elected an officer. At his father’s behest he enrolled at King’s Inns, but the arid discipline of the law was not to his taste.

John tried his religious vocation briefly in the fashionable setting of the Birmingham and Brompton Oratories. On his return to Dublin he studied for a Masters in Fine Arts under Francoise Henry in UCD.

He was awarded the Sarah Purser Prize for an essay on Peter Turnerelli, the sculptor, and won a travelling scholarship to Italy. He joined the staff of the National Gallery and helped to secure for it Haverty’s painting of Father Mathew receiving the penitant pledge-breaker.

In 1971 he moved to the City Museum in Birmingham as deputy keeper under Peter Cannon-Brookes.

Teaching rather than administration, or even scholarship, was John’s forte and he seized the opportunity to return to Ireland as a lecturer in Limerick and, from 1984, taught at the Dublin Institute for Art and Design.

He enjoyed teaching young students. Conventional himself, he had a taste for friends who were less so.

John had a singular talent for explaining art to all-comers and was possessed of a droll wit laced with quaint phrases that enlivened his presentation.

His latter-day apartment in Pembroke Road was a monument to his own excellent taste. A proud possession, on which he often lectured, was Casimir Markievicz’s painting of the Knights of St Patrick. He was a board member and benefactor of the Waterford Museum.

Ancestry

John was much exercised by people’s ancestry and by the far-flung interesting ramifications of his mother’s Protestant Maiben family. This led him into the Huguenot Society, of which he became president. He was also president of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland.

As such, he voiced protests in 2015 against the sale of paintings that had been willed by Sir Alfred Beit with his Wicklow home Russborough. “Deaccessioning of art given for public benefit,” he warned perceptively “undermines generosity of givers who would see such actions as lack of appreciation of their public-spirited activities”.

He also campaigned against the dispersal of the Victoriana that made up the contents of religious houses. A highly conservative Catholic, he found an outlet for his love of the traditional world and of ceremonial in the Order of Malta and was part of the congregation at Harrington Street where his funeral Mass in the Tridentine rite was held. He had forbidden any eulogy, so revealing in his farewell what he believed really mattered.