A Corkman’s philanthropy

An Irishman’s Diary on the Gibson Bequest in the Crawford Gallery, Cork

Seán Keating’s ‘Men of the South’ bought by the Crawford Gallery with the Gibson Bequest in 1923.,

Seán Keating’s ‘Men of the South’ bought by the Crawford Gallery with the Gibson Bequest in 1923.,


While it is sometimes said that the Irish don’t “do” philanthropy, there are many excellent examples of it in our art galleries.

One such example can be viewed in Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery. Called the Gibson Bequest after the generous benefactor, Joseph Stafford Gibson, it comprises paintings, sculptures, sketches and prints by many well-known artists such as John Lavery, William Orpen, Jack B Yeats, Grace and Paul Henry, Seán Keating, Seamus Murphy and Harry Clarke.

Gibson was born in Kilmurry, Co Cork in 1837 and died in Madrid on February 3rd, 1919. Even though he lived in Spain for most of his life, he maintained a strong affection for his birthplace. He said that the bequest was “for the furthering of art in the city of his boyhood”.

Gibson was a keen amateur artist and bequeathed his own paintings to the gallery, or Municipal School of Art, as it was at the time. He also bequeathed his coin collection and antiques including Spanish ceramics and silverware. Many of these items are now housed in a cabinet in the gallery. Two bronze plaques on either side of the cabinet, one in English and the other in Irish, tell visitors the story of Gibson’s kind donation.

The most important element of the bequest was the money that was realised when Gibson’s investments were encashed, the capital sum of £14,790, which amounted to a small fortune at the time. This money was to be used to purchase works of art to add to the gallery’s existing collection. A committee of experts was established to advise and decide on the purchases to be made. It included the principal of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, George Atkinson and the head of the National Gallery of Ireland, Robert Langton Douglas. Daniel Corkery, later professor of English at University College Cork, also sat on the committee and played a key role in the choice of the acquisitions.


Men of the South,

It’s a colourful painting that depicts a group of fighting men from the IRA’s North Cork Brigade. It was produced by Keating in Dublin during the truce in the War of Independence, when he invited the IRA commander Seán Moylan and others to pose for him. Keating later said it was one of his most important works and the painting featured in a recent exhibition of Keating’s work at the Crawford.

Another important acquisition was made the following year in 1924, when the committee purchased 23 illustrations by Harry Clarke. Included in this lot was a collection of preparatory coloured drawings by Clarke for the window he was making based on John Keats’ romantic poem The Eve of St Agnes. These fine pieces are now on display in a room in the gallery, along with some stained-glass work by Clarke.

The second element of the bequest was the creation of the Gibson Bequest Scholarship, which allowed the trustees to offer gifted students a travel grant to develop their understanding and appreciation of art. Gibson’s will stated that he wanted to help “a student of unusual talent and good habits . . . to travel on the Continent of Europe for a period not exceeding one year to study oil-painting or sculpture”.

He went on to state that the recipient must be a native of Munster and that the money should only be sent to them once every month or every two months. He said “it is not advisable for young people to have too large a sum at one time – they squander it”.

One beneficiary of Gibson’s gift was the stone carver and sculptor, Seamus Murphy. He travelled to London and then on to Paris in 1932 where he developed his skills and understanding of the art of stone carving and sculpting. Examples of Murphy’s work can be seen in churches, graveyards and public spaces all over Ireland. Several of his bronze busts of past presidents line the corridors of Áras an Uachtaráin.

Through this generous bequest, Joseph Stafford Gibson allowed art students and the public the opportunity to see unique pieces of art up close and gain inspiration. It also helped the gallery to develop through the acquisition of a wonderful collection of art by gifted artists, including some of the most prominent Irish artists of recent times.