James Brenan, Figure Painter

(b. 1837, d. 1907.)

Figure Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

James Brenan, R.H.A. Photograph.

Was born in Dublin in 1837. He was educated at Strong's school in Peter Street, and at Dr. Stuart's in Temple Street, and commenced his art training in the School of Art in Leinster House, and was also a student in the School of the Royal Hibernian Academy. While still at an early age he went to London and studied decorative art under Owen Jones and Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt, assisting them in the decoration of the Pompeian and Roman Courts in the Crystal Palace. Returning to Dublin he worked for a time in the Dublin Society's school, and in 1855 was admitted to the Training School in Marlborough House, London. In 1857 he was sent as an assistant to the Birmingham School of Art; but the following year he, at his own request, returned to the Training School, which had then been moved to South Kensington. There he remained until 1860, occasionally taking charge for a month or two at a time of the schools at Liverpool, Taunton, and Yarmouth. He was appointed Head Master of the Cork School of Art in 1860, and held that post until 1889. He was a member of the Committee of the Cork Exhibition of 1883, and had charge of the Fine Art Section.

Always interested in the application of Art to industries he planned, with Mr. Alan S. Cole, the arrangements for encouraging and influencing the lace industry in Ireland. The first lace class was established at the Convent of Mercy, Kinsale, in 1884, and before long there were ten classes in operation at different convents, visited by Brenan once a month. By means of a grant from the Committee of the Cork Exhibition, supplemented by one from the Department of Science and Art, a collection of old lace was purchased for use as examples for the classes. Portions of the collection were lent to the convents, being changed every month, and the classes in drawing and design which have had so great an influence in developing the Irish lace industry were established.

Brenan was a regular contributor to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1862, confining himself chiefly to small pictures of cottage interiors and subjects of Irish peasant life. He was elected an Associate on 27th January, 1876, and a Member on 13th April, 1878, and by his commonsense, shrewdness and tact, became one of the Academy's most useful and influential members. After nearly thirty years at Cork he was, on the 1st June, 1889, transferred to Dublin as Head Master of the Metropolitan School of Art, in succession to R. E. Lyne retired. In his new position he devoted himself with characteristic energy not only to the extension and improvement of the school, but also to the advancement of industrial art throughout Ireland.

The school is largely indebted to him for the establishment of the present craft classes which have become so prominent a feature under his successors. He continued to interest himself in the lace industry, and established the classes for design which gave a valuable impetus to lace-making through Ireland. Brenan's personal qualities, his kindness of heart and upright character, made him popular not only with his pupils but with all who knew him. After fifteen years' energetic work at the school he was retired on pension on the 1st April, 1904, having reached the age limit. Following his retirement his friends and pupils presented him, on 20th September, 1904, with an illuminated address and a purse of sovereigns. He died at his residence, 140 Leinster Road, Rathmines, on 7th August, 1907, aged 70.

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