The National Gallery of Ireland

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

The establishment of a permanent collection in Dublin of the works of the Old Masters had been long desired by those interested in the advancement of the Fine Arts in Ireland. The Society of Artists, when its Exhibition Room was built in William Street in 1766, appears to have contemplated, in addition to a teaching Academy, a permanent gallery of pictures; but it was not until the Viceroyalty of the Duke of Rutland, 1784 to 1787, that any practical steps were taken to carry out such a design. It then was proposed to establish an Academy of Painting to which the pupils in the Dublin Society's Schools might proceed; and a National Gallery was to be erected, for which works by the Old Masters were to be purchased for the use of the students and the public. Peter De Gree, a Dutch painter then in Dublin (See Vol. I, page 268), was designated as its Keeper, But the death of the Duke in 1787 interfered with the carrying out of the project, and it was subsequently placed in the hands of John Foster, the Speaker. A new design was brought forward by which it was proposed to unite in one Society an Academy of Arts, a museum for mechanical works, and a repository for manufactures. This scheme, though supported by the Earl of Charlemont, was not carried out, and had the effect of rendering abortive the original plan for establishing an Academy of Painting and a National Gallery for Ireland.

The National Gallery of Ireland, 1913

The interest occasioned by the collection of pictures brought together in the Exhibition held in Dublin in 1853, once more suggested the establishing a National Gallery. At the close of the Exhibition the Irish Institution was formed for the purpose of holding annual exhibitions and for the ultimate establishment of a National Gallery. After the close of the Great Exhibition of 1853 a Testimonial Fund was started to commemorate the public services of William Dargan, who had defrayed the expenses of the undertaking; and from the amount obtained the Committee of the Fund in 1854 voted a sum of £5,000 towards the erection of a Gallery of Art to be called "The Dargan Institute." In the same year an Act of Parliament (17 and 18 Vic., cap. 99), "to provide for the establishment of a National Gallery of Paintings, Sculpture and the Fine Arts, for the care of a Public Library and the erection of a Public Museum in Dublin," was obtained. This act provided not only for the establishment of a National Gallery and erection of a suitable building, but also for the housing of Marsh's Library in the same building. The Act was amended by two subsequent acts, 18 and 19 Vic., cap. 44 (1855), and 28 and 29 Vic., cap. 21 (1865). In the second of these the section providing for Marsh's Library was repealed. Under the Acts a body corporate, by the name of "The Governors and Guardians of the National Gallery of Ireland," was established, with whom the control and government of the Gallery was vested. The number of Governors and Guardians was fixed at seventeen, namely, five ex officio members—the President and the Senior Vice-President of the Royal Dublin Society, the President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, the President of the Royal Irish Academy, and the Chairman of the Board of Works. Of the remaining twelve, two were to be artists resident in Ireland delegated by the Royal Hibernian Academy; three were to be appointed by the Lord Lieutenant, and seven were to be elected from time to time as vacancies occurred by a constituency of all annual subscribers of one guinea or upwards, all donors of £10 or upwards, and all donors of works of art accepted by the Board, valued at £20 or upwards, provided such subscribers and donors should number at the time not less than one hundred. Should there be no such constituency by reason of the numbers being under the specified limit, these appointments are vested in the Lord Lieutenant. The first occasion on which this constituency was enabled to exercise its right of election was in 1859, when, on 10th August, seven members were elected by ballot; but for many years the number of donors having fallen below the necessary number, all appointments have been made by the Lord Lieutenant.

Opening of the National Gallery of Ireland by the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, in 1864.

The Act of 1854 contains the names of the first appointed Governors other than the five ex officio members: George Petrie, George F. Mulvany, William, Earl of Meath, Thomas A. Larcom, William Dargan, Francis W., Earl of Charlemont, Right Hon. Maziere Brady, Lord Chancellor; Lord Talbot De Malahide, Sir George F. J. Hodson, Bart., Robert Calwell, John Calvert Stronge and John Edward Pigot. Each of the Governors, except the five ex officio members, hold office for five years and are eligible for re-election.

A site for the building of the Gallery was obtained on Leinster Lawn; the first stone was laid by the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Eglinton and Winton, on 29th January, 1859, and the building was formally opened by the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle, on 30th January, 1864. Its doors were opened to the public in the following March.

The original arrangement entered into by the Government was that a building should be erected for £11,000, of which Parliament was to be asked to vote £6,000 in two years, and £5,000 was to be contributed from the Dargan Fund. In 1858 a larger scheme was adopted and the Government agreed to an additional vote of £5,000. Further expenditure was found necessary, and by the time the building was completed £22,483 had been voted. Additional sums for internal fittings, etc., were voted in 1865 and 1866, so that the aggregate Parliamentary grants amounted to £24,396. This, with the addition of the Dargan Fund, makes the cost of the building not far short of £30,000. In handing over the sum of £5,000 the Committee of the Dargan Fund at first insisted that the building should be styled "The Dargan Institute"; but they afterwards agreed to the title of "The National Gallery of Ireland" on condition that a memorial tablet commemorating Dargan's eminent services and munificent liberality should be placed on the building, that a statue of Dargan should be erected in a prominent position, and his portrait hung in the Gallery.

Under the Act of 1865 the building was vested in the Commissioners of Public Works, who maintain it.

The Governors of the Gallery after their incorporation, and pending the completion of the Gallery building, applied themselves to the purchase of pictures. The Irish Institution had already collected a few, and in 1855 a collection of drawings was obtained under the will of Captain George Archibald Taylor. The first purchase made by the Board was on 15th September, 1856, when the Lord Chancellor, Sir Maziere Brady, one of the most active and prominent workers in the establishment of the Gallery, was authorized to purchase thirteen pictures which Mr. Robert McPherson, his agent in Rome, had selected. The total cost of these, with expenses of carriage, etc., amounted to £3,701, which was advanced by the Chancellor. He subsequently accepted £2,000 in full discharge, foregoing the balance. At the time of the opening of the Gallery in 1864, the Governors had acquired by gift or purchase about 105 pictures. The only merit of many of these pictures was their size; but they helped to cover the bare walls of the newly-founded Gallery, and by degrees, in subsequent years, they were weeded out. Of these 105 pictures only twenty-eight are now exhibited. In 1862 a sum of £2,500 was voted by Parliament for the purchase of pictures, chiefly intended to pay for those procured by the Lord Chancellor in Italy, and it was expressly declared that such vote was exceptional and for that year only; but it was agreed that the purchase-grant should be made up to the sum of £5,000, equivalent to the amount of the Dargan Fund. Accordingly a further vote of £2,500 was taken in 1866. In addition to these sums the Governors had received private subscriptions to the amount of £5,567 15s. 5d., including £2,000 from Mr. Dargan. In 1866 the Government agreed to the principle that an annual vote should be made, equivalent to the amount of private subscriptions and the value of pictures given, and since then the sum of £1,000 for the purchase of pictures has been annually voted.

On the 6th September, 1862, George F. Mulvany, R.H.A., who had been one of the most prominent and zealous workers in the promotion of the National Gallery, a member of its Board of Governors and Secretary to the Irish Institution, was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, and Henry Killingly, Registrar. The duties and powers of the Director were at first circumscribed, most of the actual administration of the Gallery and the purchase of pictures being in the hands of the Board and committees appointed by it.

During Mulvany's administration his efforts and those of the Board were directed chiefly to the acquisition of Italian pictures which, purchased with more zeal than discretion, were remarkable for their area rather than their authenticity; but though his connoisseurship was limited Mulvany bought from time to time some important works, and he was not responsible for the "grand gallery pictures" purchased in the early years of the Institution. Mulvany died on 6th February, 1869, and on the 22nd March the Governors appointed Henry E. Doyle as his successor. Mr. Killingly was succeeded as Registrar by Mr. P. W. Kennedy in 1872. With Doyle's appointment a new era opened for the Gallery. He was allowed practically a free hand in purchasing pictures for the collection, and the confidence reposed in him was fully justified. Without any profound knowledge or connoisseurship he had fine judgment, an instinctive eye for a good picture, and great skill as a buyer; and during his twenty-three years directorship he was able to put together at moderate prices a fine collection. He laid himself out chiefly to making a fairly representative collection of works of the Dutch and Flemish schools of the 16th century, and of examples of the Italian schools of the 15th century as opportunities offered. He bought, with almost prophetic instinct, pictures for small sums which are now in numerous instances worth five or ten times the amount given for them. He paid little attention to the English painters of the 18th century; and although he added to the collection a couple of good pictures by Reynolds and a few others, he never bought any examples of Gainsborough, Romney or Lawrence.

In 1872 a loan collection of National Portraits was included in the International Exhibition in Dublin, and on its close the Governors of the Gallery made an application to Government for an extra grant of £2,000 for the purchase of some of the pictures to form the nucleus of a National Portrait Gallery. This application was refused; but Doyle set himself to work to acquire as best he could Irish portraits, both pictures and engravings, to form a collection. A sufficient number was got together to enable the modest beginning of a National, Historical and Portrait Gallery to be opened to the public on 23rd June, 1884. This collection was arranged in the ground-floor room originally built for Marsh's Library. In 1887 a gift of £1,000 was made to the Gallery by Sir Edward Cecil Guinness, now Lord Iveagh, for the purchase of mezzotint portraits at the sale of the Chaloner Smith collection, and in 1889 £100 was given by the committee of the Stuart Exhibition for the Portrait Gallery.

Doyle died on 17th February, 1892. During his twenty-three years' Directorship he, by his sound judgment and pure taste, had made the collection under his charge one of the most interesting of the minor Galleries of Europe.

On the 24th March, 1892, the Governors and Guardians appointed Mr. Walter Armstrong Director in succession to Henry E. Doyle; and in 1894 Mr. Kennedy was succeeded on his retirement by Mr. W. G. Strickland. Mr. Armstrong was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant, Earl Cadogan, in 1899. The principal event during his administration has been the addition made to the Gallery buildings necessitated by the increase of the collection. The congested state of the galleries in which pictures were crowded together, rendering any proper arrangement or classification impossible, made increased accommodation absolutely necessary, and in 1898, when the Governors accepted the Milltown collection, which required a considerable space for its display, the Government sanctioned an addition to the Gallery building at an estimated cost of £21,150. These additions, from the designs of Sir Thomas Manly Deane, were completed and opened to the public in March, 1903. The National Portrait collection, which had been huddled together, was now properly arranged—the pictures and drawings in the new suite of rooms on the ground floor, and the engraved portraits in the old room. Four of the best rooms in the upper part were given over to the miscellaneous assemblage of objects forming the Milltown collection, leaving the important collection of Dutch and Flemish pictures to be crowded into the remaining three. New offices, a workshop and photographing room were also provided in the building.

With the collection formed under Mr. H. E. Doyle, and the considerable and important additions made by Sir Walter Armstrong, the National Gallery of Ireland now contains an interesting and valuable collection, consisting of a fair number of Italian pictures of the best periods, works by British and Irish artists, and a considerable number of Dutch and Flemish pictures which form, perhaps, the strongest and most important feature of the collection. The increased accommodation in the new building has enabled the collection of National Portraits to be considerably augmented and properly classified and displayed; and this collection, to which much attention and care has been devoted, is now one of the most important and interesting parts of the Gallery.

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