There are days when it seems we’ve reached peak list-mania in an online environment crowded with top ten, must-see and do-before-you-die compilations. Personal chart-style offerings are prevalent in the book world too, and Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch has correctly spotted an Irish artworld gap and added a tally of her own. The former curator of Irish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) has produced a book with a suitably internet-age, urgent, click-bait style title: 50 Works of Irish Art You Need to Know. It could have made a very nice blog post.
One of the jobs of a best-of list is to ignite debate, hence its enduring popularity as a form. Personal favourites and top recommendations seldom match, especially when it comes to art. Bhreathnach-Lynch’s book is nicely timed. Over half of the works are in the collection of her former employer, the NGI, which is set to unveil the results of its lengthy refurbishment early next year, along with a collection re-hang. This will be a handy guide for those wishing to make a whistle-stop tour of its offerings.
Pitched as a tome for “art lovers” it promises to tell “the unique stories behind each work” as well as leaving readers with a tick-box selection of Irish artworks “that simply must be seen”. Unlike many such tomes, the big advantage of this one is that the works in it can actually be seen, for the most part on regular display in public locations. There are no storage room treasures, hidden favourites or obscure secrets here, although there are works highlighted in pleasingly unexpected places, including Evie Hone’s stained glass window My Four Green Fields (1938) at Government Buildings, Oliver Sheppard’s The Death of Cuchulainn (1911-12) bronze sculpture in Dublin’s GPO, Patrick Cunningham’s Bust of Jonathan Swift c1766 in St Patrick’s Cathedral and John Hogan’s marble Dead Christ (1829) in St Theresa’s Church on Clarendon Street in Dublin, about which Bhreathnach-Lynch writes with some personal passion.
The rest are predominantly in the collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Hugh Lane Gallery, Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ulster Museum and Trinity College, Dublin. It’s an open-handed and generous list, frequently offering examples of similar or contemporaneous works that readers might wish to seek out in the context of Bhreathnach-Lynch’s own personal selections. The book’s scope neatly matches the span of the art history curriculum for Leaving Certificate Art, which should guarantee deserved sales. It is written in a clear, didactic tone, with informative sentences that build without fuss or hyperbole to form an overall picture. Concise introductory essays tie all fifty works into chronological context, taking readers full circle from the carved entrance stone at Newgrange in County Meath (c.2500BC), to the contemporary abstraction of Sean Scully in 2000.
The essays begin with a quick archaeology lesson, gallop through cultural nationalism, Irish Impressionism (mostly learnt in Paris), and the significant number of Irish women who studied art abroad during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The journey from the 1950s to the end of the century is speedy, beginning with the establishment of the Arts Council in 1951 and the sending of Irish artists to the Venice Biennale, starting with Norah McGuinness and Nano Reid, neither of whom make the list.
Bhreathnach-Lynch states optimistically that “The contemporary art scene in Ireland…remains in good shape…in spite of many difficulties, especially financial, faced in the first decade of this century.” But her claim that “The stature of Irish art remains consistently high and its reputation continues to be secure both at home and abroad” reads more as wishful thinking than ascertainable truth, although it can be argued this situation is slowly changing. The market for Irish art has always been slim outside Ireland, as is widespread general awareness of the vibrancy of our visual culture. Still, Bhreathnach-Lynch is a champion for what we have achieved so far and this book is her paean to that.
From a 700BC gold collar, the Ardagh Chalice (AD750) and the Chi Rho Page of the Book of Kells (AD 800) she jumps to the eighteenth century, beginning with the fascinating and lesser-known Susanna Drury’s Giant’s Causeway painting (c1739). There are some great, big, ambitious compositions in this selection, including Nathaniel Hone the elder’s The Conjurer (1775), John Lavery’s three and a half metre tall The Artist’s Studio (1909-13), and Daniel Maclise’s Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (c1854), the largest painting in the NGI collection, measuring five by three metres.
Some of the fifty are more important for what they depict, or the moment in Irish art history they represent, than the quality of the work. Others are simply enduringly popular with gallery visitors, including The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864) by Frederick William Burton, which was selected by RTE viewers as “Ireland’s favourite painting” in a public vote in 2012, and appears on the cover of the book.
Bhreathnach-Lynch’s factual, descriptive and occasionally anecdotal style, leaves cursory room for personal or critical engagement with the image. The book is essentially an expanded version of a listicle (list-based article). Timely, but predominantly safe, designed to catch the eye and leave readers feeling they learnt something new in a series of easily digestible, bite-sized portions. Alice Maher’s iconic Berry Dress (1994) is one of the few artworks the author engages with in a really heartfelt way. Although her writing loosens up by the time she gets to William Leech and his “rippling grass…for all the world looking like a large bright, shaggy rug” in Convent Garden, Brittany (c1913), this is essentially an art history lesson. Regular use of exclamation marks plays as a poorly disguised move to engage the casual, younger reader: the Powerscourt Waterfall painter George Barret “was apprenticed as a stay-maker in the production of women’s corsets!” Oooh er.
Edith Somerville’s charcoal-haired Goose Girl (1888) is here. Jack B Yeats is represented by his spirited, and spiritual, horse painting, For the Road (1951). Bhreathnach-Lynch makes deserved space for Louis le Brocquy’s mid-career masterpiece A Family (1951). Only one painting from the 1960s makes it: Patrick Collin’s superb, scar-like mythical island painting, Hy Brazil (1963). No list would be complete without Harry Clarke’s Eve of St Agnes (1924) stained glass window, on which he “used a needle to scratch all the intricate details into the surface”, and it is air-punchingly fantastic to see Maria Simonds-Gooding’s Habitation 1 (1970) composition in plaster, collage and paint at number 43 on the list. It would have been good to see more contemporary works.
Lists will always cause debate. This book could have done without James Brenan’s Patchwork (1892), a cottage scene Bhreathnach-Lynch describes as “useful documentary evidence for the political and social historian.” Can we not have useful documentary evidence that is also great art? She picks an unexpected Roderic O’Conor painting, but in describing Still Life with Apples and Breton Pots (1896-7) draws valuable, close attention to a composition that might otherwise be overlooked.
She throws in one last surprise at number fifty, with Francis Bacon’s reconstructed studio, on display at the Hugh Lane Gallery since 2001. This deserves a place on any list of must-see Dublin art offerings, but it is not an artwork, unless you consider the idea to move it with archaeological precision and documentation from London to Dublin an artistic statement. In which case, it is not a statement Bacon made. Its inclusion also serves to remind that Ireland, shamefully, has no strong example of a finished Bacon canvas on public display. The Hugh Lane collection contains six unfinished paintings.
In an information age populated by quick-hit, eye-grabbing listicles, from 21 Pictures That will Restore your Faith in Humanity to 10 Quotes That Will Change the Way You Think, Bhreathnach-Lynch’s selection shines like a solid, useful, self-sufficient friend. It’s an informative book, written with clear affection and admiration for the artworks that made her list, even if she does keep them at an art historian’s arm’s length.
50 Works of Irish Art You Need to Know by Síghle Bhreathnach-Lynch, Gill and Macmillan, 2015. HB 160 pages, €19.99.