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Complete set: The 5-volume set of Art and Architecture of Ireland can be ordered from www.ria.ie with free postage anywhere

Complete set: The 5-volume set of Art and Architecture of Ireland can be ordered from www.ria.ie with free postage anywhere

Johnny Bambury

Complete set: The 5-volume set of Art and Architecture of Ireland can be ordered from www.ria.ie with free postage anywhere

Twenty years ago, if you wanted to study Irish art, the definitive book, Painters of Ireland 1660-1920, was already out of print. If you could afford it, you might find a copy in an antiquarian bookshop for £65 in very old money. As for architecture, there was Maurice Craig's Houses of the Middle Size but little else other than academic articles in the Irish Arts Review or Burlington. That was how we studied in the 1990's, buying faded photocopies of photocopies. Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin and Professor Anne Cruikshank updated their authoritative survey, re-named Ireland's Painters in 2006. There have been monographs on individual painters and aspects of architecture, but these five volumes surpass all else ever contemplated, never mind produced, in Ireland. The work is also a unique collaboration in international terms, local scholars and diaspora contributed.

'Ambitious' is an understatement to describe Medieval [c400-c1600], Painting [1600-1900], Sculpture [1600-2000], Architecture [1600-2000] and Twentieth Century. At the launch, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, described them as 'Ireland's Gospels'.

The project was initiated by Nicola Figgis and Paula Murphy of UCD, with the Royal Irish Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre. The plan was to update Strickland's Dictionary of Irish Artists (1913). When philanthropist Carmel Naughton came on board, the project extended to architecture, medieval and 20th-century art. The 10 editors and 274 contributors had unprecedented access to private collections and rare archives in public collections, providing a hitherto unseen perspective of town planning, dwellings, landscape, portraiture, sculpture, public and church architecture. Each volume has a helpful time-line of comparative events and an extensive bibliography.

The Medieval volume is edited by Rachel Moss and is a treasure trove of artefacts from early jewellery, illuminated manuscripts, ecclesiastical stone craft, furniture and liturgical ornaments. Architecture is illustrated by the minimalist silhouette of Gallarus oratory to the European influence of the Cistercians. The Viking and Norman influence is well documented, while more on the pre-Christian period would have completed the survey. This does not, however, detract from the incredible material that has been incorporated

Painting is edited by Nicola Figgis and opens with a portrait by Robert Fagan. This once hung on the landing of the Dillon house in Termonfeckin and was fondly known as 'Lady Dillon as Hibernia'. A deshabillé Margaret Simpson, holds a harp with broken strings and a parchment inscribed 'Erin go Bragh', an Irish wolfhound looks on. As a symbolic portrayal of Ireland's political struggle, Fagan's portrait prefaces the depiction of ideal landscape, picturesque demesnes, portraiture, interior and architectural drawings. There are very good essays on patronage, dealing, collecting, the European influence. In all, superb, with 302 biographies and copious illustrations.

The Sculpture volume by Paula Murphy spans 400 years of diverse media and craftsmanship, including a wax portrait of the (Buck) Whaley family from 1767. Many of the 20th-century practitioners in this and Volume V appear in the Dictionary of Living Irish Artists by Robert O'Byrne. It is hard to convey, in a photograph, the physical engagement with the primal force of Dorothy Cross, the virtuosity of Corban Walker, the craft of Maud Cotter and the scale of Éilis O'Connell; what this volume achieves is a canonical foundation. High crosses, stucco work, garden sculpture, bronze, clay, wood carvings, ephemeral, installations and video are drawn together in this most extensive survey yet undertaken on Irish sculpture.

Architecture as an art form embraces design, sculpture, decoration, the spatial response to human needs and wants, in effect, the art that surrounds and connects us to the world. This volume required five editors, Hugh Campbell, Rolf Loeber, Livia Hurley, John Montague and Ellen Rowley for the diverse survey from early municipal (Kinsale market 1610) and Palladian (Bellamont Forest 1730) through modernism and new Irish architecture. There is much detail on stuccowork, chimneypieces, ornament, furniture and joinery. The neo-classical gem, Casino at Marino graces the cover. Only in Ireland could a fire station and housing estate be built in the grounds of such a treasure. The Charlemont demesne could have been like the Borghese Gardens in Rome, for all to enjoy. But that's another story. Of the five publications, this subject has been the least published and is the first definitive guide.

Twentieth Century is edited by Catherine Marshall and Peter Murray. It is a thrilling mix of illustrations, biographies and thematic essays. Quintessential west of Ireland scenes by Paul Henry are grouped with Sean Hillen's wry photography and Frances Hegarty's haunting installations. The survey looks briefly into the 21st century, a necessity as the last fifteen years have been the most technologically advanced since art was first made. This volume is rich in contextual variety, draws together the greatest number of practitioners and opens up the field to women artists, too many to mention.

The general editor is Andrew Carpenter with copy editing by Jonathan Williams. As a special gift or a self-indulgence, adults, teenagers and university students will be enriched by any or all of these books. They illustrate a unique story of Irish history, literally, in graphic detail.

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