Works in progress

John Turpin’s two-vol­ume his­tory of the RHA tells the story of an in­sti­tu­tion that has been fight­ing for its life for 200 years

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE - WORDS BY AI­DAN DUNNE

Ai­dan Dunne on John Turpin’s new his­tory of the RHA

The Royal Hiber­nian Academy came into ex­is­tence 23 years on from the Act of Union in 1800, with a royal char­ter and a mod­est an­nual grant. It was the cul­mi­na­tion of a se­ries of ef­forts to or­gan­ise and pro­mote artists and ex­hi­bi­tions in Ire­land. The es­tab­lish­ment of the academy, although a tacit ac­knowl­edg­ment of the pre-em­i­nence of the Royal Academy London, as­serted and de­fined Dublin as a cen­tre of the arts. The orig­i­nal 14 aca­demi­cians in­cluded Wil­liam Ash­ford, ar­chi­tect Francis John­ston, John Ge­orge Mul­vany – fa­ther of Ge­orge Mul­vany, who would be­come the first di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Gallery of Ire­land – and Thomas Roberts. In an act of ex­tra­or­di­nary gen­eros­ity John­ston, who was rel­a­tively wealthy, built the academy a home, Academy House, as part of a de­vel­op­ment on Lower Abbey Street.

As John Turpin out­lines it in his com­pre­hen­sive two-vol­ume his­tory of the RHA, the or­gan­i­sa­tion fol­lowed the RA in its ap­proach and pro­ce­dures. While in Europe, the aca­demic em­pha­sis had tended to be on teach­ing artists, the RA pri­ori­tised col­lec­tive pro­fes­sion­al­ism and ex­hi­bi­tions. If the very term academy im­plies a con­stancy, a set of ac­cepted stan­dards, con­ven­tions, rules – in this case con­ven­tions in­her­ited from the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance – Turpin makes it clear that academies were al­ways works in progress, that rules were al­ways con­tested, and any no­tion of set, en­dur­ing val­ues was largely wish­ful think­ing.

As it ap­proaches its 200th an­niver­sary, the RHA can pride it­self on hav­ing sur­vived many set­backs, sev­eral ex­is­ten­tial crises and on man­ag­ing, some­times re­luc­tantly, to adapt and de­velop in re­la­tion to the world around it. Back in its early years, buoyed with con­fi­dence en­gen­dered by ris­ing sales, it com­mit­ted to pay­ing its of­fi­cials, a move that earned it a rap on the knuck­les from the trea­sury and the slightly, but only slightly am­bigu­ous stip­u­la­tion that the academy could pay salaries if it wished, so long as the money came from its own profits and not the of­fi­cial an­nual £300 grant.

At which point its for­tunes nose-dived. Cer­tainly, the calamity of the Great Famine had crip­pling eco­nomic ef­fects in Ire­land, but there were other fac­tors as well. Per­haps the nov­elty of an Ir­ish academy had worn off. At­ten­dances and sales were dropping steadily. The omi­nous re­sult was a cu­mu­la­tive debt – two trea­sur­ers loaned their own money to keep the or­gan­i­sa­tion afloat. Bit­ter in­ter­nal di­vi­sions over the pay­ment of salaries and the man­age­ment of debt en­sued.

For a pe­riod the academy was headed by du­pli­cate and an­tag­o­nis­tic sets of per­son­nel, with Ge­orge Petrie on one side and Michael An­gelo Hayes on the other. Petrie had cham­pi­oned one-penny ad­mis­sion to the an­nual ex­hi­bi­tion, an egal­i­tar­ian move that was fi­nan­cially detri­men­tal: why pay a shilling if you could get in for a penny? Both were well in­ten­tioned, but the con­sen­sus was that only Hayes had a strat­egy to de­liver eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity. When Hayes was ousted, ac­ri­mony con­tin­ued in the so­cial me­dia of the day: the var­i­ous press out­lets. The po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion – then as now, per­haps – was to com­mis­sion an in­quiry by civil ser­vant Nor­man Ma­cLeod, at the depart­ment of sci­ence and arts, South Kens­ing­ton.

Text­book bu­reau­cracy

His re­port, an ex­er­cise in text­book bu­reau­cracy, con­cluded that there were too few aca­demi­cians, that the Ir­ish pub­lic didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate fine art, that too many Ir­ish artists looked else­where (London) for sup­port and, charm­ingly, won­dered whether the academy should have a gov­ern­ment grant at all. On the plus side he ar­gued that a larger grant was needed if the academy schools were to suc­ceed. But then, the RDS schools were there. The depart­ment’s cen­tral­is­ing bias leaned to­wards the RDS, and to sur­vive at all the RHA had, re­luc­tantly, to open it­self to in­spec­tion of its schools by South Kens­ing­ton.

Still, the RHA was ef­fec­tively re­launched, with a new char­ter that en­com­passed a wider mem­ber­ship. Grad­u­ally it be­came more or­gan­ised, tack­led the deficit and largely mended its in­ter­nal pol­i­tics.

The con­sol­i­da­tion of the academy helped to en­cour­age a shift in Ir­ish art’s cen­tre of grav­ity. With a grow­ing do­mes­tic mar­ket for por­traits and other easel paint­ings, in­clud­ing genre and land­scape sub­jects, Ir­ish artists could make a liv­ing at home. Add the grow­ing in­flu­ence of French paint­ing and the Celtic re­vival and there was a dis­tinct move to­wards a broadly based Ir­ish vis­ual cul­ture. The RHA’s tri­als were be no means over, how­ever.

As the 20th cen­tury be­gan, the academy found its ed­u­ca­tional am­bi­tions side­lined in favour of the de­vel­op­ment of the Dublin Metropoli­tan School of Art, even as the art mar­ket de­clined. More to the point, per­haps, hav­ing taken on board French re­al­ist paint­ing, the academy found French Im­pres­sion­ism, which ar­rived in Dublin cour­tesy of Hugh Lane’s ex­hi­bi­tions, a bridge too far.

As Turpin notes, this was the point where the academy ceded the pro­gres­sive high ground to other ac­tors on the Ir­ish art scene and cast it­self as an op­po­nent of modernism, a role in which it grew in­creas­ingly en­trenched. Yet de­spite es­tab­lish­ment op­po­si­tion, in a con­ser­va­tive cul­tural cli­mate the academy was gen­er­ally re­garded as a pro­gres­sive force.

The academy had been ac­tively cam­paign­ing for a new build­ing when the Easter Ris­ing in­ter­vened. The an­nual ex­hi­bi­tion was in progress. As fight­ing raged, the keeper, land­scape pain­ter Joseph Ka­vanagh, was paint­ing one morn­ing in Academy House when a piece of shrap­nel from an ex­plod­ing shell shat­tered a win­dow and tore into the ceil­ing above him. The gun­boat Helga had made its way up the Lif­fey and started lob­bing shells into the city. Its tar­get may have been ei­ther the GPO or Lib­erty Hall.

Whether the Helga or ar­tillery on the ground was re­spon­si­ble, a newsprint bar­ri­cade on the street was ig­nited and the fire spread un­con­trol­lably, en­gulf­ing Academy House. The hap­less Ka­vanagh grabbed his chain of of­fice, the academy char­ters and some other doc­u­ments and ran for his life. The build­ing was con­sumed by fire and with it the en­tire an­nual ex­hi­bi­tion, the li­brary, in­clud­ing all records, and Ka­vanagh’s life’s work – un­der­stand­ably, he never re­ally re­cov­ered from the loss. On the face of it, the academy’s prospects looked bleak. Not only had it lost its home and its archives, it was also head­ing into a pe­riod of un­prece­dented po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty. For­tu­nately it had a ca­pa­ble pres­i­dent, the pain­ter

Der­mod O’Brien, at the helm from 1910 to 1945. It man­aged, de­spite the sud­denly in­con­gru­ous “Royal” in its ti­tle, to ad­just to the emer­gent Free State. In line with the RA, women be­gan to be ad­mit­ted as mem­bers, though gen­der im­bal­ance is still an is­sue. An­nual ex­hi­bi­tions con­tin­ued, in the gallery of the DMSA and later the Na­tional Gallery of Ire­land. It fi­nally man­aged, in 1938, to ac­quire a new head­quar­ters, or at least a po­ten­tial head­quar­ters since the build­ing at 15 Ely Place was fun­da­men­tally un­suited.

A closed, cau­tious men­tal­ity seemed to heighten a dis­trust of the in­ter­na­tional mod­ernist spirit driv­ing Euro­pean art. The es­tab­lish­ment of the Ir­ish Ex­hi­bi­tion of Liv­ing Art in 1943 may even have pushed the academy fur­ther into in­su­lar con­ser­vatism. Iden­tity tends to be ac­cen­tu­ated un­der pres­sure. But just as the po­lit­i­cal ideal of eco­nomic self-suf­fi­ciency led to stag­na­tion, the academy’s re­jec­tion of mod­ernist think­ing set it on a path of di­min­ish­ing re­turns. To be fair, from the 1960s there were ten­ta­tive signs of in­creas­ing flex­i­bil­ity, with the ac­com­mo­da­tion of more var­ied artis­tic per­son­al­i­ties, but its re­ac­tionary rep­u­ta­tion per­sisted.

Well-known, aus­pi­ciously lo­cated

The RHA Gal­lagher Gallery in Ely Place is now a well-known, aus­pi­ciously lo­cated arts venue. It might well not have been there at all. Dublin Cor­po­ra­tion made a con­certed ef­fort in the 1950s to wrest the site from the RHA by com­pul­sory pur­chase and turn it into a car park. Fi­nan­cial back­ing for a new build­ing seemed a hope­less dream un­til de­vel­oper Matt Gal­lagher com­mit­ted him­self to fi­nanc­ing a build­ing, de­signed by ar­chi­tect Ray­mond McGrath – a mod­ernist. The process proved to be ex­cep­tion­ally pro­tracted and un­cer­tain. In the mean­time, the Gal­lagher Group col­lapsed in the early 1980s. Matt Gal­lagher had died in 1974 (his brother Charles be­came in­volved in the project) and McGrath died at the end of 1977 (Arthur Gib­ney stepped into the breach). Sev­eral in­di­vid­u­als in­clud­ing Ciaran MacGoni­gal (ap­pointed di­rec­tor in 1992) and aca­demic stal­wart Thomas Ryan poured huge re­serves of time and en­ergy into ad­vanc­ing the plan.

Ex­hi­bi­tions were held in Ely Place from the mid-1980s ini­tially in a build­ing that was a long way from com­ple­tion and, from 1989 and an of­fi­cial open­ing by Charles Haughey, a build­ing that was rel­a­tively co­her­ent if still in­com­plete. The prob­lem was partly the scale and com­plex­ity of the build­ing. Now it hosts a rota of sev­eral sub­stan­tial con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous shows while ac­com­mo­dat­ing stu­dios and the school – the prospects for which, in­ci­den­tally, look more promis­ing than at any other point in the academy’s his­tory. Debt re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant is­sue. Carey Clarke and the late Conor Fal­lon were among those who played vi­tal roles in re­form and re­newal, and the cur­rent di­rec­tor, Pat Mur­phy, has been an in­valu­able pres­ence, prov­ing ex­cep­tion­ally adept at bal­anc­ing tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary pri­or­i­ties.

John Turpin’s His­tory of the Royal Hiber­nian Academy of Arts in two vol­umes, 1823-1916 and The Academy in In­de­pen­dent Ire­land is pub­lished by the Lil­liput Press, Dublin


Clock­wise from far left: Self-Por­trait, 1935, by Brigid Ganly; Sackville Street in Ru­ins 1916, by Ed­mond Del­renne; Self-Por­trait, 1985, by Conor Fal­lon; the burnt-out shell of Academy House fol­low­ing the 1916 Ris­ing.

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