The Dublin Society

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

THE DUBLIN SOCIETY was founded in 1731 for "improving husbandry, manufacture and the useful arts and sciences." In 1739 Dr. Samuel Madden who, with Thomas Prior, had been prominent in its formation, advocated the encouragement of the Fine Arts by the Society, and aided by endowments from him, annual premiums for works in painting and statuary were inaugurated. In 1740 Susanna Drury was adjudged a premium of £25 for her drawings of the Giant's Causeway, and in 1741 Joseph Tudor and John Houghton received premiums for painting and sculpture respectively. These annual premiums continued and the Society held exhibitions of the works of the competitors for some years in a room in the Parliament House. Of these exhibitions, however, no catalogues exist, the names of the prize-winners only being given in the Society's records. James Barry, it is said, was awarded a premium of ten guineas in 1763 for his picture, "The Baptism of the King of Cashel" (see Vol. I, page 35).

The Dublin Society's House in Grafton Street

In encouraging the cultivation of the Fine Arts the Society recognized the want of a school where instruction could be given in drawing and painting. Robert West, an artist who had studied in Paris, and was an accomplished draughtsman, had opened a drawing school in George's Lane, and the Society arranged with him, probably about 1740, to instruct twelve boys in his academy. Later they took over his school and carried it on under their own supervision, appointing West instructor in figure drawing, and, later, engaging James Mannin, a French artist then in Dublin, to teach ornamental and landscape drawing. In this little school in George's Lane many artists who afterwards achieved distinction were educated: Robert Crone; Jacob Ennis, afterwards master in the school; Robert Carver, the scene-painter; Thomas Chambars, John Dixon and James Watson, who all became famous in England as engravers; Patrick Cunningham, the sculptor and wax-modeller; Gustavus Hamilton, miniature painter, and Hugh Douglas Hamilton, portrait painter, all received their early training there.

In 1746 Thomas Prior laid before the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Chesterfield, a report on the objects, management and results of the Society's work; he urged the further promotion and encouragement of the fine arts, and submitted a plan for establishing a school or academy in Dublin for cultivating the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. In the Minutes of the Society, 18th May, 1746, is the following entry: "Since a good spirit shows itself for drawing and designing, which is the groundwork of painting and so useful in manufactures, it is intended to erect a little academy or school of drawing and painting, from whence some geniuses may arise to the benefit and honour of this Kingdom; and it is hoped that gentlemen of taste will encourage and support so useful a design."

The drawings done by the pupils under West were exhibited once a year in a room in the House of Lords, and prizes were given. The following is an extract from the Society's Records, May, 1747: "Sixteen boys under 16 produced their drawings for the premium of £15 appointed to be distributed among them, and a small bust being placed on the table they all copied the figure to show their skill before the Society. Several painters attended to examine the pieces, which were all placed on the sides of the room, and they were surprised, as all others were, at the improvement which the children had made in drawing and designing, most of the performances being drawn with spirit, light and softness, being good copies of original prints and pictures. They all got some premium, from two guineas and a half down to eight shillings a-piece. There is such an emulation among them that in time we may expect some good painters to arise from them. The boys that distinguished themselves best were in the following order: Jacob Ennis, Francis Sandys, William Groves, John and Peter La Touche, George Barret, James Forrester and Thomas Joy, who is deaf and dumb. These eight boys were taught by Mr. West, who keeps a school in George's Lane, and is the best master for drawing we ever had among us. The two young La Touches declined taking their premiums, being content with the honour, and desired they may be applied to future drawings." Of these eight boys four afterwards justified the hopes of the Society; Ennis became a master in the Society's School, Sandys was an architect of some eminence, Forrester a painter, and George Barret became celebrated as a landscape painter in England, and was a foundation member of the Royal Academy. In 1748 twenty-eight boys competed; the principal prize-winners were Ennis, Sandys, Robert Crone, afterwards a successful painter in England, and Patrick Cunningham who became a sculptor.

For some time the Society did not find itself in a position to build a school; and the George's Lane premises continued to be used for ten years more. Up to 1756 the Society had been without a house or meeting-place of its own; but in that year it took a house in Shaw's Court, off Dame Street. There, as the Minutes, 3rd March, 1757, tell us, they "appointed the two rooms on the middle floor in their house in Shaw's Court, one within the other, and two rooms, one within the other, on the upper floor, to Mr. West; and two rooms on the upper floor, one within the other, and another room approached by the backstairs, to Mr. Mannin." In 1758 the stables were converted into drawing schools for the boys. Thus were founded the Art Schools of the Dublin Society, which for over a hundred years were the centre of art teaching in Ireland, and where almost every Irish artist received his training.

The school was divided into three departments, each under its own master—1st, the Figure School, with Robert West as master; 2nd, the Ornament and Landscape School, presided over by James Mannin; and 3rd, the School of Architecture, established later under Thomas Ivory. The pupils, who had to be under fourteen years of age, were admitted free to one or all of the schools; examinations were held yearly and medals and money-prizes awarded. In the case of promising pupils the Society encouraged and helped them, sometimes paying for their apprenticeship, or giving them an allowance for their clothing and maintenance, and occasionally enabling them to go to London or to Italy for further study. Patrick Cunningham, afterwards eminent as a sculptor, was apprenticed by the Society to Van Nost, and encouraged by them in his early struggles as an artist; and George Grattan and William Waldron were similarly helped. But the object of the Society was not to produce painters and sculptors only; instruction was given in free-hand, mechanical and pattern-drawing to those boys intended for various departments of manufacture—cabinet makers, silversmiths, calico-printers, seal engravers, builders, surveyors, etc.; and such boys formed the majority of the pupils during the eighteenth century. In 1764 the Society gave notice that "having established schools for figure and ornamental drawing, all painters, carvers, chasers, goldsmiths, carpet-weavers, linen and paper stainers, damask and diaper weavers, their journeymen and apprentices and others whose professions depends upon design, may have free admission to view the drawings of said schools in Shaw's Court, Dame Street, having first obtained tickets from the Society."

In 1764 a plan of the instruction to be given in the drawing-school was laid before the Society by Joseph Fenn, "heretofore Professor of Philosophy in the University of Nants," and having been considered by a committee was approved by the Society on 4th February, 1768. This plan proposed: "That the youth of this kingdom should receive in the Drawing-School established by the Dublin Society the instruction necessary to enable them to become proficients in the different branches of that Art, and to pursue, with success, geographical, nautical, mechanical, commercial or military enquiries." By direction of the Society Fenn embodied his proposals in a book: "Instructions given in the Drawing-School established by the Dublin Society, pursuant to their Resolution of the Fourth of February, 1768, etc." "Printed by Alex. McCulloh, in Henry-Street, M,DCC,LXIX." The work consists of: I, a Plan of a course of pure Mathematics; II, Plan of the Physical and Moral System of the World; III, Plan of the Military Art; IV, Plan of the Mercantile Arts; V, Plan of the Naval Art; VI, "Plan of a School of Mechanic Arts where all Artists, such as Architects, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Clock-makers, etc., receive the instructions in Geometry, Perspective, Staticks, Dynamicks, Physicks, etc., which suit their respective professions, and may contribute to improve their taste and their talents." This ambitious and varied programme, as set forth in the six "Plans," was, however, never carried out, nor apparently even attempted. The book used in the school in teaching the pupils the elements of art was Robert Dodsley's "The Preceptor," published in 1748.

The Dublin Society's House in Hawkins Street, West Front

John O'Keeffe, who studied in the schools, has left us in his "Recollections" a description of the school in Shaw's Court: "We were early familiarized to the antique in sculpture and in painting, to the style and manner of the great Italian and French masters. We also studied anatomy; and indeed the students there turned their minds to most of the sciences. We had upon the large table in the Academy, a figure three feet high, called the anatomy figure; the skin off to show off the muscles; on each muscle was a little paper with a figure of reference to a description of it and its uses. We had also a living figure to stand or sit; he was consequently a fine person; his pay was four shillings an hour. Mr. West himself always posed the figure, as the phrase is, and the students took their views round the table where he was fixed. To make it certain that his attitude was the same each time we took our study, Mr. West with a chalk marked upon the table the exact spot where his foot, or his elbow, or his hand came. We had a large round iron stove nearly in the centre of the school, but the fire was not seen; an iron tube conveyed the smoke through the wall. On the flat top of this stove we used to lay our pencils of black and white chalk to harden them. The room was very lofty; it had only three windows; they were high up in the wall and so contrived as to make the light descend; the centre window was arched and near the top of the ceiling. At each end of the room was a row of presses with glass doors, in which were kept the statues cast from the real antique, each upon a pedestal about two feet high, and drawn out into the room as they were wanted to be studied from; but the busts were placed, when required, on the table. The stools we sat upon were square portable boxes, very strong and solid, with a hole in the form of an S on each side to put in the hand and move them. Each student had a mahogany drawing-board of his own; this was a square of three feet by four; at one end was a St. Andrew's cross fastened with hinges, which answered for a foot; and on the other end of the board a ledge to lay our port-crayons upon. When we rose from our seats we laid this board flat upon the ground, with the drawing we were then doing upon it. We had a clever, civil little fellow for our porter to run about and buy our oranges and apples and pencils and crayons, and move our busts and statues for us. We had some students who studied statuary alone, and they modelled in clay.............The members of the Dublin Society, composed of the Lord Lieutenant and most of the nobility and others, frequently visited our academy to see our goings on; and some of the lads were occasionally sent to Rome to study the Italian masters."

The instruction given in the school was confined chiefly to drawing; boys left at an early age, some going to London or to Italy to complete their studies in painting, some entering the studios of artists resident in Dublin, and others relying on their own exertions to develop their powers. Pasquin ("Artists of Ireland," p. 6), says "that the Society's School annually vomits forth an immense pictorial fry, who fall short of their expected attainments; . . . their talents are immature and their lives replete with disappointments and sorrow." The want of opportunity for more advanced instruction was recognized by the artists of Dublin when they formed themselves into a Society in 1764; they contemplated the erection of an academy where the young artists and students could study painting under experienced and competent teachers. But, owing to want of funds and encouragement the intention was abandoned. The Duke of Rutland, during his Viceroyalty, 1784 to 1787, favoured the establishment of an academy and school of painting in Dublin. It was proposed that the pupils in the Dublin Society's Schools, after going through their preliminary training there, should pass into the Academy for more advanced study. A President, Keeper and Lecturers were to be appointed, and, in addition to the Academy, a National Gallery of pictures by old masters was to be erected. Peter De Gree (q.v.), a Dutch painter who had come to Ireland with recommendations from Sir Joshua Reynolds, was to have been constituted Keeper, and the project had made considerable progress towards realization when the death of the Duke interfered with the further carrying out of the design. John Foster, the Speaker, then took the matter up; but a scheme brought forward to unite in one society an academy of arts, a museum of mechanical works and a repository for manufactures, favoured by the Earl of Charlemont, ultimately rendered abortive the original plan for the establishment of an Academy of Painting and a National Gallery.

Robert West, after successfully conducting the Figure School for many years, retired in 1763, and was succeeded by Jacob Ennis who had received his early training in George's Lane, and afterwards studied in Italy. On his death, in 1770, Robert West was re-appointed, but died the same year, when his son, Francis Robert West, succeeded him. In the School of Landscape and Ornament James Mannin held the mastership until his death in 1779, when William Waldron, a former pupil in the school, was appointed his successor. Thomas Ivory presided over the School of Architecture until his death in 1786, when Henry Aaron Baker was appointed.

The premises in Shaw's Court being found insufficient for the needs of the Society, ground was taken in Grafton Street and a new building erected, to which the Society removed at the end of the year 1767. This building occupied the site where the Northern Bank now stands. Until suitable rooms were provided the drawing schools were continued for a time in Shaw's Court. On their removal to Grafton Street to rooms in the rere of the house, the teaching of girls, which had been attempted, apparently not successfully, in Shaw's Court, was discontinued.

In 1796 the Society removed to Hawkins Street, where they already had their "Repository." The drawing schools were at first housed "in the room in which the models are deposited in the Repository," and Parke, the Society's architect, was directed, in August, 1796, to prepare the room as a temporary drawing school. Edward Smyth (q.v.) was at the same time commissioned to repair the statues and busts belonging to the school, and "make them all of one colour." The Society having taken additional ground, erected a large and commodious building on the site afterwards occupied by the Theatre Royal. In this building rooms were provided for the drawing schools and for the exhibition of pictures. "The arrangements connected with the drawing school," Whitelaw and Walsh tell us in their "History of Dublin" II, p. 955) "would have been, when finished, very complete, particularly the Bust Gallery and Exhibition Rooms. The former is ninety-one feet in length and thirty feet wide; and the latter sixty-seven by twenty-nine, and both are twenty-five feet in height, and lighted from the roof. The Exhibition Room has one continued upright lanthorn in the centre of the ceiling, which from thence is wood, and terminates in a stucco cornice. It was contrived by Mr. Baker, the superintendent of the School of Architecture, and is, next the Louvre, perhaps the finest exhibition room in Europe." Off the bust room was the drawing school, an apartment thirty feet square, lighted from the roof.

During the period, 1796 to 1815, in which the drawing schools were carried on in Hawkins Street, Francis Robert West and, on his death in 1809, his son, Robert Lucius West, were masters of the Figure School. In the Landscape and Ornament School William Waldron was succeeded, on his retirement in 1801, by Henry Brocas. Henry Aaron Baker was master of the Architectural School. A School of Modelling was added in 1811, and Edward Smyth was appointed to the mastership. He was succeeded, on his death in 1812, by his son, John Smyth.

The Society continued to expend money upon the Hawkins Street premises, which appear to have been well, suited to their purpose; but, in 1814, they purchased Leinster House from the Duke of Leinster, and in 1815, when the necessary alterations had been made, they transferred themselves to it. In 1820 the Society became "Royal," under an autograph letter of George IV. The schools were carried on by the Society in Leinster House, under the old system until 1849, when they were converted into a School of Design under the Board of Trade. The newly-constituted school was called "The Government School of Design in connection with the Royal Dublin Society," and was opened on 1st October, 1849. Henry MacManus, who had for some time held the post of master of the School of Art in Glasgow, was now appointed head master of the School in Dublin, and the Gallery on the north side of Leinster House, which had been built for a museum, was handed over for the use of the school. In the Government report of the first year's working of the school it was stated that, "as compared with the old drawing classes of the Royal Dublin Society, upon which the School of Design has been grafted, the tuition is of a far sounder character and the productions of the pupils far more artistic and practical."

For the first few years, until 1855, the four schools, each under its own master, were continued, with the head master over all. Robert Lucius West, master of the Figure School, had retired on pension in 1845, and was succeeded by William Neilan. Henry Brocas had been succeeded in the Landscape and Ornament School in 1838 by his son Henry Brocas; H. A. Baker was head of the School of Architecture until 1838, when he was succeeded by John Thomas Papworth, who was followed in 1842 by Duncan C. Ferguson. In the Modelling School Constantine Panormo had succeeded John Smyth in 1840. The Government Inspector in his report upon the school in 1850 says of Panormo: "It may be right to add that the modelling class is conducted by Mr. Panormo with a degree of ability and attention leaving nothing to be desired." Under MacManus, Neilan, Brocas, Ferguson and Panormo were continued as assistant masters over their respective departments; but in 1854 these separate schools were abolished, and MacManus conducted the School as head master, with an assistant, Thomas Holmes. Later the assistants were increased in number, and, beginning in 1886, scholars in the school were appointed assistant teachers.

While under the Dublin Society the instruction given in the school was gratuitous; but now fees fixed at 2s. 6d. a quarter were charged. Evening classes were started and female students were admitted.

In 1877, under an Act of Parliament, the Museum and other institutions were taken from the control of the Royal Dublin Society, and, together with the School of Design, were administered by a Director under the Science and Art Department, South Kensington. The school then became "The Metropolitan School of Art."

In 1900 the School and the other institutions were transferred to the newly-constituted Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction.

Henry MacManus retired in 1863, and was succeeded as head master by Robert Edwin Lyne, who held the post until 1889. His successor was James Brenan, who presided over the school for fifteen years. Under him the craft classes, especially designing in connection with the lace industry, became a prominent feature in the curriculum of the school. Brenan retired on pension in 1904, and was succeeded by R. H. A. Willis, who held the appointment for only a short time, dying suddenly in August, 1905. On the 2nd September, 1907, James Ward, the present head master, was appointed.

Under these various masters was a staff of assistants, prominent among them being Luke, still connected with the school as second master; Miss Mary Julyan, who died in 1913; Miss Jacob and others.

In February, 1860, the executors of the will of Captain George Archibald Taylor submitted a plan for the endowment of prizes for the encouragement of art students in Ireland, to be administered by the Royal Dublin Society, which was sanctioned by the Court of Chancery. In carrying out the trust the Society holds annual competitions of students' work, and a scholarship of £50 and several minor prizes are awarded by three judges nominated by the Royal Dublin Society, the Royal Hibernian Academy and the Governors of the National Gallery of Ireland.



Robert West. Had an academy in George's Lane, which was taken over by the Society about 1746. Master in Society's School in Shaw's Court, 1757. Retired 1763.

Jacob Ennis. Appointed 10th May, 1763. Died 1770.

Robert West. Re-appointed 1770. Died 1770.

Francis Robert West. Appointed 1771. Died 1809.

Robert Lucius West. Appointed 1809. Retired 1845.

William Neilan. Appointed 1846. Retired 1854.


James Mannin. Appointed about 1746. Died 1779.

William Waldron. Appointed Nov., 1779. Retired 1801.

Henry Brocas. Appointed 1801. Died 1837.

Henry Brocas, Jun. Appointed 1838. Retired 1854.


Thomas Ivory. Appointed about 1765. Died 1786.

Henry Aaron Baker. Appointed 1787. Died 1836.

John Thomas Papworth. Appointed 1838. Died 1841.

Duncan C. Ferguson. Appointed 1842. Retired 1854.


Edward Smyth. Appointed 1811. Died 1812.

John Smyth. Appointed 1812. Died 1840.

Constantine Panormo. Appointed 1840. Died 1852.

Joseph Robinson Kirk. Appointed 1852. Retired 1854.


Henry MacManus. Appointed 1849. Retired 1863.

Robert Edwin Lyne. Appointed 1863. Retired 1889.

James Brenan. Appointed 1889. Retired 1904.

R. H. A. Willis. Appointed 1904. Died 1905.

James Ward. Appointed 1907.

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