Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

The Essential Editing Problems of Volume V of the Yale University Press Book, Art and Architecture of Ireland

I have paid special attention to this volume, covering Irish Art of the twentieth century and of the first decade of the twenty-first century because much of my writing and scholarship has been concerned with that period and with the lives of certain of the great painters who lived and worked then.

In analysing the major faults I find in
Volume V, the obvious starting point is the one chosen by the authors of the Preface and joint editors of this fifth volume, Catherine Marshall and Peter Murray. They say that the project ‘emerged from a proposal to mark the centenary of the publication of Walter [George] Strickland’s seminal A Dictionary of Irish Artists in 1913’. They further claim that the Dictionary ‘remains the foundation stone upon which our understanding of Irish art history is based’ and that this is widely and warmly acknowledged. Their brief, which they say is shared with their advisory board, is ‘to bring Strickland up to date’.

One might well ask two questions: What has this narrow brief to do with the large number of essays on the selected twentieth-century artists of note together with the disparate essays on a wide variety of related or unrelated subjects? And why try to do it again when it has already been done with great thoroughness by Strickland’s distinguished successor, Theo Snoddy?

Theodore John Snoddy (‘Theo’) whose name is indexed with one reference only, to page two. He is simply named and no more, as one of a group of scholars (including myself) who “followed” ‘Crookshank and Glin’ who, it is claimed ‘led the process of discovering Irish artists from the past’. The single mention of Theo Snoddy on page 2 is without explanation of what he did.

Theo Snoddy is the true inheritor of Strickland. He was born in Lurgan in 1922 and attended the Friends' School in Lisburn and then went to work on the Belfast Newsletter. For thirty years he wrote on art and reviewed exhibitions. In preparing his articles, he used Strickland’s
A Dictionary of Irish artists and was also involved with the publication of a facsimile edition of it in 1969. By then he was working on a follow-up volume to cover the twentieth century.

In his biographies of artists Theo Snoddy followed Strickland and gave the facts. He generally traced every birth certificate and tombstone to check artist’s dates so that, whenever there is a question over dates his are the details that are most reliable. This omission of Snoddy, in the light of the stated intention of the editors, is a grave omission from
Volume V, relevant at this point because it relates directly to Walter George Strickland, so I will deal with it here. It is significant enough also to be taken as the lost blueprint for the course that should have been followed by the editors. This is where their statement of editorial debt and of tribute should have led.

Theo Snoddy’s ‘third volume’,
Dictionary of Irish Artists: Twentieth Century, 1996; 2nd edition 2002, carried on the great work of Walter George Strickland from 1913 to 2002 and is both its scholarly appendix and a great work in its own right. Theo Snoddy’s dictionary included some five hundred artists who had died after 1913 and before December 1990. In a second edition (2002) a further one hundred biographies were added. Altogether, compared with his total of 600, Volume V has 190 artists. If his information about individual artists is used in Yale’s Volume V it gets virtually no scholarly and recorded acknowledgement.

Walter George Strickland’s two-volume work is never far from my hands when writing about Irish art in all centuries, including the century this book is about. Strickland excludes all artists who were his living contemporaries. Since he published in 1913, this makes the coverage of twentieth-century figures limited indeed. Yet where they merit it, they should be in this Yale volume. For example, Walter Osborne, who died in 1903 and had a huge impact on twentieth-century art, does not have an entry in
Volume V nor does Nathaniel Hone, who died in 1917, and was also a major influence on the art of the century he lived in. They are both in Volume II, but neither of them in Volume V. Both are twentieth-century artists and both are in the first rank as recognised by Thomas Bodkin’s inclusion of them in another landmark publication, his Four Irish Landscape Painters (1920). This is noted but not used to help us with the two twentieth-century painters, Hone and Osborne, who accompany the other two, James Arthur O’Connor (nineteenth century) and George Barret (eighteenth century).

It is wrong, with regard to the present volume, to use the word ‘seminal’ about Strickland. He was an analytical historian whose researches were immense and invaluable but he stuck clearly and logically to what he had decided upon which was in the form of a dictionary of people. There is a further departure from the supposed ‘example’ of Strickland. This is the decision to intersperse the Strickland feature, of essays on artists, with essays on other subjects. These are the true weaknesses of the volume, in their choice, their quality, their analysis and also in how they are placed in the book. Interspersing the profiles of artists with the longer essays on mixed subjects is confusing. Neither the book nor its content are enhanced by being linked to Strickland.

Walter George Strickland could not have written as he did without long hours given over to checking, correcting and rewriting. Strickland never wrote a superfluous word. His scholarship is enviable, his judgments restrained and fair. He set standards that I followed, as carefully as I could, in all the writing and lecturing I did as an art historian and journalist covering the fine arts over a period of fifty years. I did the same in
A Concise History of Irish Art, much of the basic research deriving from Strickland. For better or worse, the major early art books set standards of writing in a field that has latterly become popular. Many of the basic qualities of this field of writing are lacking from much of recent art scholarship in Ireland and are not evident to an appropriate standard in Volume V of the Yale book.

Dictionary of Irish Artists sets a high standard of writing about individual artists. Volume V falls short of the great man’s precise research and writing and also the reliable balance of each entry. This is not the norm in the Yale Volume V which generally lacks his crisp and consistent presentation of material. Yet Strickland is set up in the introductory part of the book as the example they follow.

Strickland did not attempt the other road, rightly seeing that a very uneven collection of general ‘essays’ about this, that and the other, could not be intermingled with his well-researched ‘profiles’.

Distorting Strickland by mixing the two quite different approaches to art – the general essay, on a circumstance or situation, with the detailed biographical notes on artists – and then placing the widely varied essays in the same alphabetical order used for artists, seems to be mindlessly confusing. It is made far worse by repetition, poor research, over-writing and inaccuracy. The location is often supposedly alphabetical, relying on the first words in the title, “Art”, “Women” and so on, making these passages even more confused and difficult to find. They should have been shortened and put together in a brief general history, possibly chronological, of art events and institutions in the twentieth century.

I turn now to a further and more detailed analysis of what I see as the shortcomings of
Volume V. The advisory board for the volume included Yvonne Scott as its chairperson, Brian Kennedy, Patrick T. Murphy (of the RHA) and Niamh O’Sullivan. Catherine Marshall and Peter Murray are the Editors and Principal Authors of Volume V. Somewhere in this arrangement was the editing process but it is not easy, by normal Yale University standards, to disentangle.

The very first entry in
Volume V, on Abstraction, looks magisterial. It is illustrated on its first page with a work that is not abstract, if by ‘abstract’ is meant strictly non-representational. It includes human figures and buildings. The wrong title and the wrong size are given, and the work is not, as indicated in the caption, by Gleizes. He did gouaches, black crayons, pencil, watercolour and oil versions of this same work, all noted in the Albert Gleizes Catalogue Raisonné, clearly not consulted by the author of the essay, William Gallagher. Gleizes asked his pupil, Robert Pouyaud, to make the pochoirs. It was at least two years after the original work had been done that Gleizes and Pouyaud met for the first time, and it was not until 1929-30 that Pouyaud made the pochoirs at Moly-Sabata. The correct Gleizes catalogue title for the image is Decoration pour la Gare de M(oscou). It is not indicated where the new title, Composition, comes from nor why it is chosen, when far more significant Gleizes works exist.

Another example of the highly selective entries researched in
Volume V would be the long article on the Art Market, which in its first sentence refers to ‘the Irish Art Market’. For many decades the international art market covered important Irish works. The trade in Irish art expanded and so did the galleries and auction houses responding to that growth. The research does not take note of good reporting on the subject done mid-century in the newspapers in Ireland, both covering sales and analysing the artists who were popular then. The Irish Times had a Fine Art Correspondent in the 1960s, the first such appointment after The Times of London had appointed of Geraldine Norman. There was, at that time, an important discussion about the timidity of Irish collectors, over-emphasis of the quality of Jack Yeats (arguably in order to sustain investment), and the very significant failure of Irish art generally to achieve a serious standing in the international art market. As collecting developed and spread among a wider set of men and women, both taste and judgment changed. It was, for example, a surprise when Orpen surged into prominence after long years of neglect. For a limited period of time Ireland discovered and supported its own market, but this later contracted. The story of this, though it is of limited interest, should have been analysed better.

A third example might be the one on ‘Artists’ studios and residencies’ (surely the word, ‘residencies’ is wrong, unless it applies to appointment for working employment?) ‘Residences’, the plural of ‘residence’, would be marginally better, though also wrong. In the early years of the twentieth century, John Butler Yeats used a studio in St Stephen’s Green. This was later rented out and used by other artists in a very public way. This has been noted in various biographies and is surely worth a mention? Surely, too, the use of the Metropolitan School of Art as a studio should be part of the century’s narrative? William Orpen painted his portraits there. He also painted genre scenes and, famously, one of his great nudes. Students joined him and learned from him. His father also called in and was embarrassed by the nude his son was finishing. The
Volume V entry, however, confines itself to artists’ co-operatives at the end of the century and the rather muddled confusion of the Arts Council, whose members talked a lot but did very little (a justified criticism on much of its work, but one that is largely ignored in the relevant essay.) The subject is massive, covering, presumably, private shared studios and other places and dealing with the whole century. This essay, in common with others, is a lightweight abstract of the subject and seems to have a burdensome argument that the State did less than it should have without showing the problems this would have created.

‘The Body’ is a curious essay, its nature defined by the first sentence: ‘How the body is represented in art depends on how art is defined at particular moments in history’, and rambles back into classical art, which the author (Alyce Mahon) says ‘idealised, controlled and perfected’ the body, and represented the view ‘that art should elevate the body and the mind’. The essay, one of the longest in the Volume, running to eleven columns, manages a lengthy passage on Mainie Jellett. This is done without dealing with the body at all and repeating much of what is said repeatedly in the book about this artist and her Cubist technique. The author’s analysis seems out of place in an essay entitled ‘The Body’.

There is an essay on women artists, where a whole cast of talented painters do not get mentioned. (Mildred Anne Butler, one of our greatest watercolourist, lived until 1941, no full entry; Eva Hamilton, often thought to be better as a painter than her sister, has no profile; Sarah Cecilia Harrison, brilliant portraitist, witty woman, lived until 1941, no entry.)

The authors who write in the book, many of them women, seem unaware of the balance between male and female painters in the first half of the twentieth century. Many other essays are either too short or too long, too different from each other in editorial style and consistency, too lacking in up-to-date research, misdirected (History of Art: the Academic Discipline’ deals through almost half its length with writers, publications and arguments outside the twentieth century) and repetitive (in a marked number of cases essays in the book repeat views about well-known artists). Mainie Jellett is a favoured candidate with 72 different references spattered throughout the volume. This leads to a prejudicial overlapping of, and duplication in, many different essays.

This last is a particular example that exposes the free hand of the many different authors and the absence of any firm and decisive editorial hand controlling the work. Because of its huge scale and the variety of the thinking that should have governed this, a firm hand of authority was necessary and seems to be missing.

This brings me to the key question about
Volume V: how did the editing work and who was responsible? It seems that the necessary job of scrupulous editing was continually being passed in various directions some of them from the top downwards. However, no certainty emerges. In my view, strong and consistent editorial judgments do not always register in the text. My view is that there was a lack of these requirements being either properly addressed or fulfilled in Volume V. The editorial structure was open to question from the start and was subsequently changed as senior figures bowed out for one reason or another. In the case of several senior figures, no claim was made that they commanded any scholarly authority about pictorial or plastic art, least of all Irish art.

Certainly no authoritative oversight was provided by the Royal Irish Academy. Its Council approved the handing over of control of content to the Volume editors and their boards. In addition, it suffered from change of personnel. To begin with
Volume V came under three presidents of the RIA: Nicholas Canny (2008-2011), Luke Drury (2011-2014) and Mary E. Daly, the current holder of the office, who presided at the launch. Nor was this seen as a necessity. These individuals chaired the main board, having responsibility for all five volumes, with four members of the RIA forming part of this. The appointees for this work were Tom Brazil, Anne Crookshank (whose contribution was limited by ill-health), Kathleen James-Chakraborty and James Maguire.

Carmel Naughton, on behalf of the Naughton Foundation, without whose financial help the publication would not have been possible, was also a member of the Main Board as was Christopher Flynn, for the Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Then are listed representatives of Ireland’s institutions, eighteen of them, a dozen of them art galleries or museums.

Perhaps importantly, because the Paul Mellon Foundation was a major international institution, Brian Allen and Mark Hallett, representing the Foundation, were members of the main board.

It is virtually impossible to trace any direct and sustained influence from this substantial body of responsible people into the editorial requirements of the vast wordage that makes up
Volume V.

There was an executive board also, covering all volumes, James Slevin, of the RIA, being the chair and Andrew Carpenter, with two later additions, Howard Clarke and Roger Stalley. They had executive secretaries from the RIA and a project manager.

Jonathan Williams was the copy editor for the project and possibly was the only person who read every word of all five Volumes. He did not however see the finished proof. This was an inexcusable shortening of the usual process in book production. There are six additional names giving ‘administrative support’.

Unbelievably, publication date was brought forward, from the early spring of 2024 to November 2014 and this resulted in no proofs being returned, inspected and, where necessary, sent out to the authors. The pressure to bring forward the date – opposed by some on the editorial board – came, in part, from the Royal Irish Academy. Apparently, the money was running out. Without proofs, and changing from a trot into a canter and then a gallop, what chance was there of sober judgment being exercised, and by whom? Two further facts are important: the edition consists of 1500 sets and will not be reprinted. The next stage is a digitized version, which, if my own judgments are correct, will have to be massively edited raising issues over contracts and agreements that have already been confirmed.

So we come to the heart of the matter: the editorial control for
Volume V. This, as previously stated, had an advisory board chaired by Yvonne Scott, head of the Irish Art Research Centre in Trinity College, and essentially the first person both directly involved and with a serious reputation in art scholarship. She had Brian Kennedy, Patrick T. Murphy (Director of the Royal Hibernian Academy) and (from 2010-13) Niamh O’Sullivan as her ‘advisory board’. Andrew Carpenter was there ‘in an ex officio capacity’. His very considerable scholarship is in Irish writing, notably poetry. As a result he regarded Irish art and architecture as not his close responsibility but did see it as the academic and scholarly position of the advisory board to decide on the artists who would be included or excluded, what essays would be commissioned and who would write on what subject. According to him, ‘editorial control … was exercised by volume editors and by volume advisory boards’. I assumed this gave a key role to Yvonne Scott, as chair of the Volume V Advisory Board. They also approved (or should have approved) the illustrations proposed by Catherine Marshall and Peter Murray and dealt with by picture editors. But in a lengthy email to me Yvonne denied that this was the case and said I was ‘misinformed’. She told me that ‘a team of editors took on the role of delivering that volume and once the project was under way, invited me to assist as chair on an advisory board’. In this capacity she was involved in topics addressed as well as proposed writers, ‘established in their field’ and bringing ‘traditional and more contemporary approaches’.

It would seem from this that the editorial role did not happen in a strict and consistent way and when it did the team of editors who took over ‘delivering that volume’ included those who wrote much of it. Personally, I would argue that a crucial and very necessary editorial role was not clearly defined and that the shared editorial responsibilities between the advisory board and the editorial team who ‘took on the role’ of delivery was not the best way forward. In my considered judgment, based on reading the huge text and also based on having worked through the editing of two substantial volumes for Yale University Press, the job was not fulfilled properly.

Did it in fact take place at all? Such evidence as I have gathered so far is that it was not being done in many cases and that all was not going smoothly because it was not happening at all. This is what could be mistaken for ‘going well’.

This brings one to the possible weakness in the huge structure for writing, illustrating and designing the book. My understanding is that, though there would normally be strong editorial control from the centre, in a work of this kind the volume editors specifically requested the right to deal directly with Yale, without having to go through the editorial sub-committee, and this was approved by the executive committee, or the advisory board).

This meant that Catherine Marshall and Peter Murray, who themselves wrote many of the articles and recruited the other writers, were in editorial control of the work, editing themselves and their appointees, and taking responsibility for the whole job with Yale.

If this is the case – and the evidence strongly points in that direction – then there was a lack of proper independent editorial checking throughout
Volume V. It is my view that the whole text needs a thorough editorial check throughout, both of the writing and the factual scholarship. This view is reinforced by the fact that proofs were not returned to the copy editor or to anyone else. Only this would begin to rectify what I find to be haphazard and generally superficial control in terms of accuracy. This is reflected in many ways, including poor writing and duplication.

Did Yale have suspicions that all was not well? That is the big question. An even bigger question arises in respect of the qualification – not on paper but in knowledgeable authority – of those involved, both individuals and institutions.

One additionally has to ask, in respect of Yale University Press, were their editorial standards seriously prejudiced by the outline I give of at best confusion in carrying out basic editorial needs, at worst just failure to do so? My own experience of working with Yale (see below) suggests that their academic standards are slipping and if they are what does that mean for the thousands of third level institutions that are now churning out graduates in the English-speaking world? It seems appropriate also to ask: did Yale adopt a slipshod approach to
Volume V because it was about Ireland and not about, say, Italy?

I worked for and with Yale University Press on two major books, my biography of Mainie Jellett, which won an academic prize in the United States, and my biography of Jack Yeats. I found Yale on the whole scrupulous, but I did have to persuade them on the significance of Jellett’s life and work and the international respect for her achievement. Sadly, this respect has still not been as fully reflected in Ireland as it might have been. Though almost twenty-five years have passed since publication, her surname is still wrongly spelt in
Volume V. As for my biography of Jack Yeats this was commissioned by Michael Yeats on behalf of the Yeats family. It is not listed in the Volume V bibliography under my name as a publication. It is detailed in the tailpiece to the entry on Jack Yeats by Roisin Kennedy. Of the criticisms I have of this entry, one would be that the examination of Yeats’ work in oils is inadequate. The piece itself, possibly as a result of general favour being withdrawn from a major twentieth-century Irish artist, runs to just three columns, the same as Dorothy Cross and not much more space than is given to Robert Ballagh, who makes up for words with eight illustrations, more than any other living artist.

This raises another serious problem, about who was able to correct such imbalances and did they attempt to make such corrections? Irish art has limited international standing and there are few scholars who cover its study. Of the people directly responsible for the passage of the book through inception, writing, checking, editing, selecting images, proofreading and finalising the work, it is doubtful if the various sponsors – the Royal Irish Academy, Carmel Naughton, who generously financed a major part of the project, the Paul Mellon Foundation and Yale University Press in London – had more than a modest collective grasp on the magnitude of what they had undertaken, nor on how it was progressing.

Furthermore, this has to be taken in the context of many shifts and interruptions in the free and uncluttered movement forward of the vast undertaking. In my own case, on two occasions of publication with them, Yale did trust me. This they did in part because I kept in close touch and explained everything. I did the same when I introduced Peter Brooke to John Nicoll, head of Yale University Press at the time. Such co-operation led to Brooke’s excellent and authoritative book on Albert Gleizes. Robert Baldock is the present head of Yale in London. His editor in charge of this project was Sally Salvesen.

This particular background – which might be described as a broken chain of command – led to my first view of things being amiss. It got worse the more I investigated. Take, for example, the following:

One of the essays that intersperses the biographical pieces is entitled ‘History of Art: The Academic Discipline’. It is by Niamh O’ Sullivan. The essay is long with an uneven selection of chosen works, leaving out major academic studies, including my own substantial biographies of four artists who played a major part in Irish art, and my book,
A Concise History of Irish Art, published in 1969. The book is the only such work currently in print and the book has been in print, and regularly revised, over almost half a century.

‘History of Art: The Academic Discipline’ does include works that have little relationship to the period covered by
Volume V, which is meant to be about twentieth-century painting. There is a valuable passage about Francoise Henry, who cannot be in as an artist, but even this lacks a key investigation of her writing about art, its predisposition to focus on an enforced Irish identification for work that belongs essentially to the vast pan-European ethos of the Celtic culture, many centuries before the time of Volume V. This, incidentally, has long needed redress, though the standards of scholarship in respect of the Celtic era including Ireland are very high in the extensive literature covering Ireland in what is seen as its ‘Celtic Era’.

Riann Coulter, in her substantial essay on Mainie Jellett in
Volume V, writes of what she sees as ‘the beginning of Jellett’s return to figuration’. She relates this to the painting Homage to Fra Angelico. She notes press praise for this in Dublin at the time (1928), and concludes: ‘Through her return to figuration, her use of Christian iconography and her reference to art history, Jellett had created an image that was modern and expressed spirituality in terms comprehensible to the Irish public. Although Jellett continued to produce abstract work, her practice was becoming increasingly diverse.’

This is not, in my opinion, the case at all. It gives the impression that Mainie Jellett, while continuing to ‘produce abstract work’ was diversifying back into figurative or ‘figuration’, a word that is wrongly used here.

The truth is that
Homage to Fra Angelico was an exceptional work (I use the word in its strict dictionary meaning), the result of collaboration with Gleizes and possibly Robert Pouyaud. Gleizes had been commissioned to produce a painting for a church in France, in Serrieres, near Moly-Sabata, on the southern Rhone where Gleizes, Jellett, Hone, Robert Pouyaud and others worked together in an artists’ commune founded by Gleizes. Owing to its destination, the painting contained a religious scene – The Coronation of the Virgin – and could be described as an abstraction of the work of that name by Fra Angelico. The large work was enthusiastically welcomed by the local curé but then vetoed by his bishop. Mainie Jellett's version was as ambitious – and at 167.5 cm by 167.5 cm almost as large – as Gleizes's. This was the painting she brought back to Dublin and exhibited in 1928.

Of course, it would not have served its purpose if it had been a pure abstract painting. Even in today’s Catholic Church such an eventuality would be unlikely. The event, in my view wrongly, is used (with little supporting evidence) by Riann Coulter in order to pursue a line on Mainie Jellett that I find unjustified. She seeks to indicate a change in direction creating ‘an image that was modern and expressed spirituality in terms comprehensible to the Irish public.’ That concept, of creating something ‘comprehensible to the Irish public’ was entirely alien from Jellett’s mind as an artist and artistically undignified. Her spirituality was inherent in all her work and her friends knew it. As to ‘the Irish public', those in a position to see the painting and express opinions on it, the ones opposed to her existed as a tiny group of perverse critics, led as it happened, by a self-appointed prophet of the
avant garde, George Russell, who knew little about European art. Others, though they also were few, who did have some international understanding of art, supported the painter.

As to a change of direction, that is also hard to justify. Jellett and Gleizes never drew a rigid distinction between representational and non-representational painting. Their research was in a rhythmic movement in painting. This might or might not result in recognisable figurative work, but it was not the issue on which they spent years of their lives. If Jellett’s earlier paintings were entirely non-figurative it was because she was perfecting artistic means that she later used in paintings such as the glorious figurative abstract,
The Ninth Hour. She was continuing the same line of work. She was not diversifying her work in order to appeal to a particular Irish public. The record of Jellett’s work during the next fourteen years included the resolution and harmony of Christian and abstract art. The truthful account of this has been publicly on the record since 1991 when my book Mainie Jellett and the Modern Movement in Ireland was published.

Clearly, any editorial process, particularly by a scholar like Yvonne Scott who has an avowed interest in, and admiration for the work of Mainie Jellett should have corrected this and much else. It would not have been difficult to consult me. But I am now assured that no such editorial process existed. The same applies to Brian Kennedy, who had a similar role to her though subject to her authorisation and, it appears, that of the editors.

Another puzzling performance is to be found in one of the longest essays (eleven columns) in the book, by Luke Gibbons entitled ‘Identity in Irish Art: Modernism and the Politics of Form’. The puzzle of the title is compounded by quotations I find truly obscure. One is from Paul Muldoon, ‘For history’s a twisted root with art its small translucent fruit’ and another from W. B. Yeats: ‘In Ireland, where the tide of life is rising, we turn not to picture-making but to the imagination of personality – to drama, gesture.’ The truth is that Irish art had a consistent life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, side by side with humorous Irish writing and that the late nineteenth-century literary movement was belated and not as described by W.B. Yeats. Out of this Gibbons creates a situation where poetic writers hold the stage and only later on do certain artists join them – much later on, since the people he names arrived on the scene well into the second half of the century. Invoking the name of W.B. Yeats but ignoring the rest of his family – father, brother, sisters, all early creative artists – seems a bit careless.

It is harder to check illustrations, whether they are appropriately credited or indeed whether permissions were properly sought. Three paintings from my own collection are illustrated in the book, one of them twice (quite illogically). No permission was sought for their appearance; whether checks were made on copyright or intellectual rights is not indicated.

If Volume V of the Yale project had been edited correctly, all entries would have gone through the process described by Andrew Carpenter and not through the hands of the Advisory Board who, according to Yvonne Scott, were there to approve, either in general terms or in response to queries, the Volume’s contents. Perhaps unusually, in a book of this kind, the writing involved substantially the two editors, Catherine Marshall and Peter Murray, as well as their appointed or chosen fellow contributors. It is always poor practice for writers to edit their own work.

Whether the advisory board was up to the job is another question, but their active presence within the editorial structure was in theory a wise provision generally, even more so in the cases I outline or refer to, since the chairperson of the advisory board, whose members were there supposedly to approve the contents, is head of a university visual arts department. She is also an enthusiast for Mainie Jellett’s work, much mentioned through
Volume V. She says she was not asked for an opinion on that artist or on any other artist of direct interest to myself.

This is key to what I see as a failure to connect the many strands that were put in place in order to produce a seamless and majestic work. Had due editing been done by people who knew what they were about individual writers would not have been laid open to advderse criticism of their scholarship. In all work of this kind, factual accuracy is vital. In effect, ‘the team of editors’, or ‘wider team’ as it is also expressed let down the contributors, the sponsors, and of course themselves. In fact their lack of care let down the whole project to a degree that I would regard as unfortunate.

Had I been asked by Riann Coulter, for example, I would have made the point I have made above. Hers was the deliberate and unfounded attempt to dramatise a supposed movement away from Abstract Cubism, on a faulty argument, rather than the continuity of Jellett’s development and a broadening of the scope of the abstraction to which she dedicated all her life.

The example I give here (and it is my conclusion) is taken from my own particular area of expertise. Unfortunately, I found similar additional weaknesses and include some of them as further examples in the essay. They are to be found too easily scattered throughout
Volume V and I put the primary blame not on the individual authors but on what I see as the overall lack of editorial responsibility.

I end with a modest absurdity, the essay on William John Leech, by Peter Murray. It covers Leech’s life and work well and Peter Murray makes a point of the popularity of Leech paintings in public galleries. No one, however, who is interested in Leech can have forgotten the major occasion in the National Gallery of Ireland when The Goose Girl, for long regarded as by Leech and the favourite of all works owned by the gallery – therefore seen as Leech’s masterpiece – was unmasked as the work of an English painter, Stanley Royle. At the opening I found the remnants of Royle’s signature in the right-hand bottom corner of the canvas, pointing them out to a friend and inviting an RTE television cameraman who was present, to record this detail, which he did. Dominic Milmo-Penny, an authority on Royle’s paintings, later confirmed the error made by the Gallery, though the gallery knew in advance of the wrongful attribution. The embarrassment was huge, the controversy widely covered in the press and on radio and television, and it emerged that the person responsible for the exhibition, Denise Ferran, had been prevented by the National Gallery from additional researching into the work the attribution of which she also doubted.

And what record of these events did Peter Murray include in his fulsome Leech essay in
Volume V? No record at all. There is no mention of a discovery that had implications for the organiser of the exhibition, the staff of the National Gallery, for the public and for the way things are done in Ireland. There was no inclusion of the widely used ‘qqv’ to refer us to other controversies. Given the wide range of essay subjects, one on ‘Mistakes’ in Irish art in the volume would not have come amiss. There were many others in the twentieth century. Mention of them, perhaps not always necessary, might have made a more readable and entertaining book. Dublin Corporation’s behaviour, when Hugh Lane was trying to give major paintings to the city and get an art gallery started, is a suitable case for treatment. But such records are not part of ‘necessary truth’.

Published 14 February 2024

Bruce Arnold: Formerly chief critic of the Irish Independent and author of biographies of William Orpen, Mainie Jellett, Jack B. Yeats and Derek Hill.