Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

all big booksANDREW CARPENTER (general ed.)
Yale University Press for the Royal Irish Academy
Full set €475, single volumes €95 each
ISBNs: 9780300179194 (Medieval) 9780300179200 (Painting) 9780300179217 (Sculpture) 9780300179224 (Architecture) 9780300179231 (Twentieth Century)

Reviewed by
Peter Harbison

The biggest book event of 2014 must surely have been the publication in November of the superb five-volume Art and architecture of Ireland set produced by Yale University Press for the Royal Irish Academy. With each just short of 600 pages, and weighing in at 16kg in total, their general editor was Andrew Carpenter, an inspired choice. The project started off with the idea of updating W.G. Strickland’s Dictionary of Irish artists (1913), but the advent of financial support from the government, the Naughton Foundation and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art meant that it was possible to expand the coverage far beyond the original intent. It is now, therefore, a broad history of Irish art and architecture from the time of St Patrick, c. AD 400, up to 2000. The set is by far the largest and most ambitious contribution to Irish fine art and architecture ever to have seen the light of day and a great compendium of research. The decorative arts are, however, rarely mentioned.

Over the five volumes together, the number of contributors reaches a grand total of 271! Among them one misses the names of some of the respected older generation of living art and architectural historians, such as Bruce Arnold and Homan Potterton, but the opportunity has been given to the younger generation to display their writing and research talents, most of them Irish but with a happy sprinkling of scholars from abroad. The trumpets heralding the birth of Irish art and architecture at Knowth and Newgrange around 3000 BC are sadly silent here, though Iron Age La Tène art, which laid the foundations for the early medieval treasury of abstract ornament, does at least get a hearing in the first volume.

Titled Medieval c. 400–c. 1600, this initial volume, edited and largely written by Dr Rachel Moss, covers a much greater span of time than all the others, and also deals with a much wider range of material. The major attractions are the famous manuscripts and metalwork from the earlier period, but there is a lot more besides—including the recently discovered Faddan More Psalter of c. 800. Stonework is covered extensively from the earlier medieval period: high crosses, round towers and all the church buildings from Gallarus Oratory to Cormac’s Chapel.

But one of the delights of this volume is the emphasis laid on the less popular period from 1200 onwards, where we have the great cathedral buildings, and the abbeys and friaries of the various Continental religious orders which came to Ireland after the religious reform of St Malachy in the twelfth century. Secular architecture begins to feature here with the Norman castles and native tower-houses, while simple rural housing also comes in for comment, as do other unexpected topics, such as masons’ workshops and lists of artists and craftsmen.

With the second volume, Painting 1600–1900, we come to a more restricted period and a more unified subject-matter, but one which also offers plenty of scope. It covers an era which, as the volume’s editor Nicola Figgis notes in her Preface, is one ‘that saw the development of easel painting, patronage, formal education, antiquarian exploration and a search for the pictorial expression of national identity’. More than a quarter of the book is given over to very informative essays by many contributors on Irish art institutions, various painting genres—portraiture, landscape, botanical, antiquarian and others—and a brief survey of painters who visited Ireland. Strickland was much more candid than our authors here in his comments on the quality or otherwise of the artists. He also included more artists, many of lesser importance, which space would have precluded from inclusion here, and he provided a more complete list of the painters’ works known to him at the time. Further information on Irish artists whose names begin with A–L can be found in the very comprehensive De Gruyters Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon, which has so far got halfway through the alphabet after 83 volumes! The biographies take up three-quarters of this Painting volume and are well researched, with an up-to-date bibliography. Paintings in private collections are a notable feature.

Nowadays, sculpture is less popular than painting, though more evident in public places, and the third volume, Sculpture 1600–2000, is a witness to the fine sculpture in the country over the last 400 years, which is all too often ignored and passed by yet is very much brought alive here. Until around 1900 sculpture was rather honorific and memorial in nature, following English styles. But the Irish broke free in the Celtic Revival and hastened to make memorials honouring those of 1916 and the Civil War which were anything but English. As Paula Murphy, the editor of this Sculpture volume, reminds us, it took a long time for modernist sculptural trends to permeate Ireland and, within the last few decades, the tendency is for much more abstract sculpture, using a variety of media unheard of a century ago.

In contrast to the Painting volume, the biographies precede the essays, and this after a brief but very perceptive introduction to the history of sculpture in this country from 1600 to 2000, starting realistically in the eighteenth century with noble statues and grave memorials of the Ascendancy. The nineteenth century brings us respectability in the genteel moneyed middle classes, while the later part of the twentieth brings a remarkable change with the advent of modernism. The biographies are liberally sprinkled with the names of a younger generation of artists who have been steadily making a name for themselves both at home and abroad. The prolific editor, Paula Murphy, makes the point that there are very few books on Irish sculpture when compared to painting, and this volume must surely arouse a lively interest in the subject which one doesn’t have to go into a gallery or a private collection to see.

The thematic essays, taking up the final third of the volume, offer an interesting collection of subjects, and they at least mention artists who are not otherwise covered in the biographies, possibly because they could be considered to be only on the margins of sculpture, such as the medallist William Mossop (designer of the Academy’s Gold Medal) or the letterer Michael Biggs. The essays explore relevant themes, Celtic Revival sculpture, architectural sculpture and vanished monuments, dynamited or otherwise destroyed during the last 100 years by those for whom politics were more important than an appreciation of art.

The Architecture 1600–2000 volume is a different kettle of fish altogether—a single volume claiming its place in the overall title of the five-volume series. Perhaps that is the reason why there is so much information compressed between its covers, for one gets the impression of a text rushing along like a whirlwind to encompass all the material covered in what will be an essential reference work for the future. In contrast to the art volumes, biography plays a minor role, tucked in at the end, with few entries getting more than a dozen lines, yet helping to elucidate the three capital letters indicating the names of architectural practices used in the text. Many of the articles here are the result of collaborations between the various editors, of which there are five, all contributing to vast areas of knowledge. Maurice Craig might have complained about the comparative lack of plans, but this is made up for by the quality of the photographs, including beautiful aerials of Charles Fort, Kinsale, and Trinity College, Dublin. This volume makes us aware of what we live and work in, and see every day of the week in the streets we walk, without realising who the architects may have been. Here, we can hope to find many of the answers.

Because of the nature of the material, the make-up of the volume differs greatly from the others. It starts with those involved in the construction industry, architects, craftsmen, developers and engineers, not to mention the patrons who pay. Then follows a review of building materials and interior decoration, and a discussion on architectural styles and how they change across the centuries. But, as with all of the five volumes, it is impossible in a review of this length to list the subjects covered. Suffice it to say that all sorts of structures are dealt with, including the fascinating unbuilt, and even the humble ball alley, a building type unique to Ireland. An interesting feature is the number of case-studies appended to the individual chapter sections.

The Preface to the last volume, Twentieth Century, states that the editors and advisory board decided to limit the number of artists, selecting them on the basis of a number of listed criteria. This is fine for the artists who were chosen but may cause a furore among those who were not, though they will at least find solace in their probable inclusion in Theo Snoddy’s Dictionary of Irish artists, 20th century (second edition, 2002), which provides masterfully detailed documentation but no pictures—which is where this book triumphs over it. One of the unusual characteristics of this volume is that, while the artists are dealt with alphabetically, their biographies are often interspersed with thematical essays that make up a sizeable and interesting collection of views and information, often more fascinating than the biographies themselves. As with the Painting and Sculpture volumes, it is remarkable to see how Modernism changed the often conservative Irish art scene to one of a flurry of activity, not just in painting but also in video installations, performance art, etc. The editors and their often youthful contributors have managed to make sense of, and even make more attractive, much modern art which some old stagers like myself find it difficult to appreciate. But whether you are a modernist aficionado of the second half of the last century (and this volume adds a coda up to 2010) or someone who prefers the more traditional work of the first half, there is something to please everyone here.

Of one aspect of all five volumes I have hitherto said little, leaving some of the best wine till last—namely the illustrations, superb in quality of reproduction, in selection and often in rarity. So thanks to the picture researchers, Jenny Fitzgibbon and her team, whose choices delight even independently of the text and are a joy to behold. Congratulations too, of course, to all those myriads of workers who saw the project through to the finish.

Peter Harbison is author of Ireland’s treasures: 5000 years of artistic expression (Southport, CT, 2004) and co-author of Irish art and architecture from prehistory to the present (London, 1978).


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