John McEwen

The gate lodge to the big house

This book succeeds The Painters of Ireland, published in 1978, which established the Knight of Glin and Anne Crookshank as supreme authorities on the subject.

The update adds a further 20 years and takes account of an abundance of new research; but it remains what they describe as ‘a general survey on traditional lines’, a simple, chronological, account in what some critics of their first collaboration disapprovingly called ‘a conversational style’. What a relief, will surely be most readers’ reaction.

The authors have no delusions of grandeur. They quote the artist and critic, Brian O’Doherty, who has described Irish art as ‘the gate lodge beside the big house of Irish Writing’. The applied arts have features specific to Ireland, but its painting is essentially in the European tradition and the authors make no claim for an Irish school. The golden age of Celtic art, as symbolised by the Book of Kells, lies outside this history, as do the murals in the mediaeval churches, few of which survive.

Painting in the modern sense only really begins with the restoration of Charles II. His Lord Lieutenant, the first Duke of Ormonde, had a picture gallery at Kilkenny Castle which one English visitor described as having ‘no equal in the three kingdoms, and perhaps not in Europe’. The last speculation can be dismissed, but there can be no denying the opulence.

Family portraits remained a virtually unchallenged subject until the 18th century. The finest painter resident in Ireland during the restoration period was the Scotsman John Michael Wright. The best Irish painter was Garret Morphy, who did portraits in the style of Lely. His successor was James Latham, ‘sadly an artist completely unknown outside Ireland, and one who should be in all the books of British art’.

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