Arts: Gallery keeps us in the picture after 150 years
The National Gallery of Ireland will blow out 150 candles on its large birthday cake next Thursday. It will celebrate with a day of events – the highlight being Niamh Sharkey, Laureate na nÓg, author and illustrator, cutting the cake at 3pm and leading young ones in a 'Monster Anniverary Doodle' drawing workshop.
The National Gallery first opened its doors to the public on January 30, 1864. The metaphorical ribbon was cut by the 7th Earl of Carlisle George Howard, but the man really responsible for its establishment was William Dargan, the great Irish railway magnate. Dargan was inspired by a visit to the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851 and became determined that Ireland should have the same kind of celebration of industry and manufacturing; 13 years later, Ireland's national art collection was initiated.
For what is a national gallery without its own national collection? In 1866, there was an annual purchase grant of £1,000 allocated for the acquisition of new pictures. And so the acquiring began.
In 1883, the gallery bought Rembrandt's 'Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt' for £514 in Christie's in London. Henry Vaughan bequeathed the famous collection of 31 watercolours by JMW Turner (this annual exhibition is on display until next Friday).
The gallery has always done well from bequests. When former director Hugh Lane died with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915, he bequeathed part of his estate to be used for the purchase of paintings.
When Nathaniel Hone the Younger died, his wife Magdalen gave more than 200 paintings and over 300 watercolours by her husband to the gallery, one of the largest gift of works by a single artist.
George Bernard Shaw credited the gallery as being a significant influence throughout his childhood and, upon his death in 1950, left one-third of his royalties to the gallery.
Another major donation was by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, who gave 17 paintings to the gallery in 1987. These featured some of the finest masterpieces of European Western art, including works by Vermeer, Goya, Velasquez and Gainsborough. That same year, the gallery received paintings by Picasso, Giacometti, Jack Yeats, Gerard Dillon and Barrie Cooke, the latter from Maire MacNeill Sweeney in memory of her husband Jack.
In 1990, there was something of an international coup when a painting by baroque master Caravaggio was discovered hanging on the walls of the Jesuit House in Leeson Street, not far from the gallery. The painting, which portrays Christ being betrayed to Roman soldiers by Judas's kiss, needed cleaning, having hung over the priests' dinner table for more than 60 years, but it was soon formally identified as the lost masterpiece, 'The Taking of Christ'. In a very generous move indeed, the Jesuits gave the painting to the National Gallery on indefinite loan. Experts now put the painting's value at more than €30m.
People always think of Jack B Yeats when considering the National Gallery, which makes a change from his brother William, who dominates so many other Irish cultural institutions. And one of the main reasons for this in recent times is that, in 1996, Jack's niece and William's daughter Anne Yeats presented Jack's archive to the gallery.
The gallery has recently had to deal with structural problems in the historic buildings in Merrion Square, deficiencies that were identified in 2000, but have taken well over a decade to be finally addressed. And as a result, regrettably, the gallery itself is only partially open to mark its big birthday. Meantime, an extensive selection of highlights of the collection is currently on view. Sometimes it's easy to overlook that which is permanently on our doorstep – but don't. Do visit.
1 To mark its 70th birthday, The Butler Gallery in Kilkenny Castle is presenting a selection of highlights including photography by Jackie Nickerson, sculpture by Paul Mosse and a very exciting new loan of a suite of prints by world-renowned artist Louise Bourgeois. See www.butlergallery.com
2 What is Living and What is Dead is an intriguing-sounding new work by Simon O'Connor premiering in the atmospheric Pepper Canister Church on Thursday at 8pm. It features Belfast-born pianist Michael McHale performing several pieces from the piano suite, with variations for synthesizers performed by the composer Paul G Smyth. See www.ergodos.ie
3 Ambrose Keogh works for Shell. When the tunnel boring machine he has named Fionnuala sinks into the bog in Erris, Co Mayo, he is magically confronted by Fionnuala of the Children of Lir. Fionnuala puts a geas on him – he's bound to tell the truth about Shell's operations. Expect sparks to fly in Donal O'Kelly's (pictured) suitably confrontational but engaging Fionnuala, which opens in Dublin's New Theatre on Monday. See www.thenewtheatre.com