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Sunday 4 December 2016

Chance encounter brought home the value of what we take for granted

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 11/05/2016 | 02:30

Jack B Yeats's painting, Jazz Babies.
Jack B Yeats's painting, Jazz Babies.
Oscar Wilde

'Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope." Oscar Wilde.

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These words were recently quoted to us by a red-haired middle-aged Canadian lady during a family visit to the National Gallery in Dublin.

She was the only other person on a guided tour of the gallery, currently dubbed "highlights of the highlights".

The gallery is in the midst of a major renovation so only a few rooms are available to showcase its treasures and these are now curtailed further with the opening last week of an exhibition of 10 drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci, on loan from the Queen of England. I spent four years attending Trinity across the road and, while I paid many a visit to The Lincoln Inn on the college perimeter, I never once made it to the National Gallery.

I now know I was afraid of art, fearing it was above me. Only later I began to realise you don't need to understand it to enjoy it or be enriched by it.

Back to our chance encounter, it turned out that the lady, called Maureen Prendergast, is from Prince Edward Island, setting of the famous Anne of Green Gables novels.

Maureen reminded me in ways of the books' heroine, Anne Shirley. There was the red hair, of course, but she also demonstrated an empathy with people and joy in the natural world that was so characteristic of Anne, generously and unaffectedly sharing with us a broad and colourful knowledge of art and literature.

By coincidence, I am reading Anne of Avonlea at present and was recently smitten by the following passage:

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"How quiet the woods are today… not a murmur except that soft wind purring in the tree-tops! It sounds like surf on a faraway shore. You beautiful trees! I love everyone of you as a friend."

Perhaps it seems a lot to say about someone whose company we shared for a scarce hour but Maureen seemed full of life in the best possible way, bringing to mind another of Wilde's quotes: "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all."

She used the opening quote when it came up about admission to the gallery being free, by way of pointing out how lucky we are in Ireland to have such beauty accessible to all.

The National Gallery depends heavily on the public for support. Family membership costs €100 per annum. It's great value and a very worthwhile cause.

Different arts are sometimes seen as being in competition with each other but the generosity of another writer, George Bernard Shaw, has helped the gallery enormously.

Shaw strongly believed in the power of our cultural institutions to educate, entertain and inspire. When he died in 1950, he bequeathed one third of his royalties to the National Gallery, the "cherished asylum of my boyhood".

His legacy has helped the gallery make many significant purchases, including works by Paul Henry and Jack B Yeats.

At the entrance to the gallery, a life-size statue of Shaw is accompanied by his words: "You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul".

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