Artist who valued skill and tradition

 

PETER GRANT: The Catholic and national ideals of Irish society during the 1930s, 40s and 50s found their expression in the sculpture of Peter Grant who died recently.

He was a traditionalist who valued skill and the legacy of the past. He was also a man of great warmth, humanity and openness, appreciated by generations of his students at the National College of Art.

He was born on December 5th, 1915, at Pomeroy, Co Tyrone, one of a family of six boys. His father came from a farming background in Co Tipperary. Following partition the family moved to Dublin in 1922, since his father could see no future for a Catholic family in Northern Ireland. They settled at first on Bolton Street, where his father had a business.

There was no formal art experience in the Grant family, although his father was encouraging. He went to school to the Holy Faith Sisters, Dominick Street, and to the Christian Brothers at O'Connell's School. These years provided the bedrock of his strong Catholic faith which was fundamental to his later sculptural work and to his outlook on life.

He studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (National College of Art) from 1933, where he was a close friend of the future studio potter Peter Brennan. He worked under Maurice MacGonigal, Seán Keating, Oswald Reeves and Jimmy Golden. He received prize medals for modelling in 1935 and 1936. He was awarded a three-year scholarship for 1935-38, which enabled him to become a sculptor.

He learned traditional figure and portrait modelling under Oliver Sheppard's direction. Academic European sculpture was moving away from naturalism towards carving and more stylised forms during the 1930s. Grant was influenced by Middle Eastern sculpture in his early work - notably Moses the Lawgiver, which won the Taylor Art scholarship at the RDS in 1937.

In that year he also qualified with the Art Teacher's Certificate and in 1940 he was awarded the new Diploma in Sculpture. During his student years he was a regular reader at the Central Catholic Library, interested in the writings of G.K. Chesterton, Eric Gill, John H. Newman and Jacques Maritain. The high point of his period at the college was his collaboration with the new German professor of sculpture, Friedrick Herkner. Assisted by Grant and Brennan, Herkner modelled the figure of Éire for the Irish pavilion at the New York World Fair in 1939. Grant was commissioned to model the Warrior of Ancient Ireland for New York.

In 1939 he had a major personal disaster when he lost the sight of his right eye in a sculpture accident.

During the war he was assistant professor of sculpture to Laurence Campbell, who had replaced Herkner temporarily. Grant got additional employment as art master at the Catholic University School. He resigned from teaching in 1945 to concentrate on sculpture - a brave decision at the time. He took over the studio formerly occupied by Jerome Connor, the Irish-American sculptor. He made a study tour of Italy in 1954.

During the 1940s Grant came increasingly to public notice. His Manannan Mac Lir (1940) is a fine example of the stylised forms of the period and is now the Ernie O'Malley memorial in Castlebar. He also began to exhibit religious pieces, with St Patrick overthrowing Crom Cruadh (1941). This was followed by a commission from the architect Joseph V. Downes for religious plaques for Kilkenny Hospital chapel (1942).

He made a number of crucifix figures between 1946 and 1961, for Dungloe, Benburb, Thomastown and Botanic Avenue church, Dublin. He made statues of the Virgin for Cabra, Roscrea and Carrickmacross. He also made an elaborate drawing for the Vatican "Holy Door" competition of 1948, and provided designs for carvings on the Irish Room of Pittsburgh University. The strength of his work, especially its religious dimension, was recognised in the 1950s by art critics: Thomas MacGreevy, James White and Patrick Glendon. Grant himself admitted that "the Christian ethos has been the mainspring". He retained an idealistic and traditionalist view of the role of art and religion.

He was particularly interested in public sculpture and he was most proud of his monument to Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers, in Callan, Co Kilkenny (1950). He also made political memorials. One was to Father Manus Sweeney, a patriot priest of 1798, in Achill (1942). His most elaborate memorial was The Threshold of Freedom (1959) at Ashbourne, Co Meath. He was also commissioned to make busts of Joseph Mary Plunkett, Henry Grattan and Maj John McBride.

One of the most important aspects of his career was his involvement in the Institute of Sculptors of Ireland, of which he was the founding member and first chairman. Gary Trimble was the secretary. It lasted from 1952 to 1959 and held five exhibitions, with Arts Council support.

The second exhibition, in the City Hall, opened by Seán T. O'Kelly, then president of Ireland, marked a high point in Grant's career. Many Irish sculptors, both modern and traditional, showed in these exhibitions at the City Hall and Municipal Gallery. The final exhibition in 1959 had a range of invited foreign modern sculptors and marked the beginning of modernism in Irish sculpture in terms of public awareness.

He returned to full-time teaching at the NCA in 1959 on the invitation of Micheál de Burca, the director. He was a successful and popular teacher. However, he had to weather difficult years during the student turmoil of 1969-71, particularly as chairman of the staff association.

He retired in 1980 but continued to work in a minor way during the decade. One of his last important works was a bust of Lady Valerie Goulding from life (1986). He married Una Mac Eoin on January 26th, 1960.

Peter Grant: born December 5th, 1915; died February 12th, 2003