Ruth Ferguson obituary: Enthusiastic curator of Newman House

Art and architecture expert was a vital force who made things elegant with a light touch

Ruth Ferguson:  Visitors to Newman House would bear witness to her encyclopaedic knowledge and immense enthusiasm for the buildings themselves.

Ruth Ferguson: Visitors to Newman House would bear witness to her encyclopaedic knowledge and immense enthusiasm for the buildings themselves.

 

Born: January 29th, 1963

Died: December 25th, 2021

Ruth Ferguson, the well-known expert on art and architecture and curator of Newman House, St Stephen’s Green for over 15 years, died on Christmas Day, 2021.

Famous for her guided tours of Numbers 85 and 86 St Stephen’s Green, Ferguson would regale audiences with stories of Cardinal John Henry Newman (the founder of University College Dublin, the precursor of which , the Catholic University, was in these buildings on St Stephen’s Green from 1854); later Jesuit professors including poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins; and notorious students from James Joyce to Flann O’Brien.

Visitors to Newman House would also bear witness to her encyclopaedic knowledge and immense enthusiasm for the buildings themselves, which were constructed in 1738 and 1765 respectively. Number 85 was the first stone-faced house built on the Green and was designed for Hugh Montgomery by Richard Castle (also the architect of Leinster House). Number 86 – one of the largest buildings on the Green – was built for Richard Whaley. Whaley later linked the two buildings together with a secret stairs from the upper hall in 85 to what later became the Bishops’ Room in 86 – which was one of the treasures that Ferguson liked to reveal to visitors.

The preservation and promotion of Newman House as a centre of cultural and academic activities was central to Ferguson’s role as curator. Yet, this did not prevent her from tackling the practical and sometimes daunting demands of maintaining a building of such historic importance. Nothing deterred her – whether it was clambering over the roof of No 85 to unblock a leaking gutter or investigating water ingress or animal intrusions within the bowels of the building complex.

In May 2007, when the last medical and engineering students made the journey from Earlsfort Terrace to Belfield, Ferguson was one of the team organising the “Farewell to the Terrace” to mark this historic transition. When 5,000 people registered for what was expected to attract 200 people, the Farewell was transformed into a week-long festival that included reunions, talks and tours, a large garden party in the Iveagh Gardens, debates between the students and the “oldies”, and a special performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor in University Church. Ferguson – with her typical panache – hosted a very, very long post-event lunch in the garden of Newman House.

Cultural evolution

Ferguson cherished the past of Newman House but she also believed that it should evolve continuously. So, when plans for the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) began over a decade ago, she was a vital force whose ability to make things elegant with the lightest touch encouraged others to aim for excellence. Many elements of MoLI reveal her distinctive imagination at work; for example, it was she who gave the immersive “riverrun of language” installation its name and creative energy. As she noted at the time, “MoLI makes the perfect bedfellow to the historic fabric of nos. 85 and 86. The museum gives new life to the vision and tradition of Dr J H Newman who wrote in The Idea of a University (1852): ‘ The central aim of a university is to give those who pass through it true enlargement of mind’. I know that MoLI will be truly mind-expanding!”

In recognition of her deep knowledge of Cardinal Newman and his importance in Irish education, the Oratorian Community extended a personal invitation to Ruth and to her mother, Monica, to attend the canonisation of John Henry Newman at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in October 2019. Much to her delight, she was seated on the dais overlooking St Peter’s Square with other eminent dignitaries.

In her early years at Newman House, Ferguson helped set up the J H Newman Bequest Library. This scholarly collection grew into a centre for research on Newman and evolved into the UCD Newman Centre for the Study of Religions based in the UCD school of philosophy. Ferguson’s infectious enthusiasm made its way across UCD and onto Belfield campus. She was a founder member of the Visual Arts Committee in the late 1990s and spearheaded the acquisition of the modest but inspiring collection of new works for the halls and corridors of the buildings across the campus. Later, when the emphasis shifted outdoors, she was central to the creation of the UCD Sculpture Trail in 2008.

Talent for exhibitions

Ruth Ferguson grew up one of three children in north Dublin. She was educated with the Loreto nuns in North Great Georges Street before going to UCD to study history of art and archaeology. During her undergraduate studies, she worked as an assistant education and press officer at the National Gallery of Ireland where she demonstrated her talent for exhibitions, events and communications. Following her graduation in 1988, she moved to work at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) where she became head guide and liaison with production companies who used the building as a film location.

Later, as exhibitions officer for the RHK, she selected and curated exhibitions. She was appointed assistant curator for the newly established Irish Museum of Modern Art in 1991 and thereafter her role and reputation expanded across the world of art, heritage and culture. In 1995, University College Dublin appointed her curator to the newly restored Newman House. And, in 2002, she completed a masters in Palladio and Palladian art and architecture at UCD.

Ferguson never stopped being enthusiastic. And when ill-health meant she could no longer tear along with her laughter pealing ahead and her auburn hair flowing behind, she was still contributing to “Making Belfield”, the publication marking the past 50 years of UCD on Belfield campus. And she was, as always, charming, obliging, efficient and cheerful with a great sense of humour.

Ferguson loved colour, especially yellow as portrayed in Van Gogh’s sunflowers at Arles. The front door of the family home which she shared with her mother, Monica, was yellow, and the plants and flowers in her garden were yellow.

Ruth and Monica had an extraordinarily deep bond and their home in Belton Park in north Dublin was a treasure-trove of art and literature as well as quirky style and generous hospitality. They were known for their glamour and elegance and enjoyed travelling together, especially to cities where Ruth would be as much a guide as a tourist. Monica died in April 2021.

Ruth is survived by her siblings, Susan and Nick, nieces Sive and Genevieve, and nephew Sonny.