Bruce Arnold

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

A Visit to Cork

The Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in Cork has become synonymous with Peter Murray, whose quiet deft direction of its affairs has transformed its collection and its activities. He has done this in an appropriately Cork fashion: that is to say, he has not revolutionised things there, but changed them in keeping with the basic style of the city, conservative, witty, self-confident and assured. It is other things besides; but since I first went there, in the summer of 1958 as a student from Trinity College I have always welcomed its unchanging comforts of familiar streets and buildings, of the lilting accent and the curious challenging look outsiders get, welcoming, but testing you as well with an unasked question – ‘Are you ready for Cork?’

I felt I was, half a century ago. I had friends there, to introduce me to the city, and I remember the impact the Crawford Art Gallery had on me, the strange high room full of sculptures near the entrance and the paintings, by Ronald Ossory Dunlop, for example, and the lovely Leo Whelans – The Kitchen Window, a masterpiece by the artist, The Fiddler, and The Lady in Black.

Here was a gallery that knew its own mind, a gallery blessed in its benefactors, a gallery I loved when I first visited it, all those years ago, partly because of a homely, welcoming and familiar atmosphere that mercifully has not changed over the years. It is to his credit that Peter Murray has carried out so much effective work over the years without impinging on the indefinable spirit of the place. It is expressed perhaps by the inscription about Crawford and Cork, on John Hogan’s fine 1844 full-length sculpture of William Crawford the Younger, which stands today in the gallery: ‘His heart throbbed for her prosperity’.

I hope that Cork is loved today in that way. It seemed so in the early days of my own visits there, staying with friends in Bandon, exploring West Cork, reading out loud from that comic masterpiece, Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. – the most vital book ever written about horses and hunting, and perhaps the funniest piece of Irish fiction as well – and then not returning often enough, or for long enough.

When I was last with Peter Murray – it was in Kinsale, not Cork – I remarked on the high quality of the collection, which he had played a huge part in expanding and enhancing, and said that in certain respects it had elements of the very best in Irish art. In some periods – notably the twentieth century – it was better than the National Gallery and shared with the Ulster Museum a clear and sensible judgement about the rich early development of native painting and sculpture about which the wider world cared not at all.

Peter was polite enough to show surprise at this observation, as though he had not thought of it himself long ago. He was adroitly encouraging me to sustain my praises for individual paintings, naturally including some of the fine English paintings, like the lovely Alfred Munnings, Cattle in Snow, or the Frank Bramley interior, Domino!

But it is the paintings of Daniel Maclise, possibly Cork’s greatest artist, and James Barry, another contender for that honour, that begin one on an exploration of why the Crawford family believed in art sufficiently to inspire in them the continuing development, first of the Crawford School of Art, then of the Crawford Art Gallery.
It is both an intriguing and an inspiring story, involving several generations with the single desire to enhance the life of the city where they saw art as an extension of business and commerce, their own business including a share in the profitable brewing firm of Beamish and Crawford.

Two names emerge from the history. One was James Brenan, for many years head of the art school. He was himself a painter; but he was a great teacher of art who went on from Cork to Dublin and the headship of the Municipal School of Art. He was there from 1889 and witnessed the arrival of the jaunty little thirteen-year old William Orpen, identifying in his draughtsmanship and abilities at painting a future genius.

The second is Joseph Stafford Gibson, whose name appears under so many wonderful paintings in the Crawford Art Gallery. He lived and died in Spain, but as painter and on occasional return visits to his native city, he spent time with James Brenan and was guided in his own art by the teacher’s gifted direction. He rewarded this by leaving the to city, ‘for the furthering of art in the city of his boyhood’ a handsome sum of money for 1919, around £17,000.

The management of that money and the paintings it was used for, is an exemplary example of committee work. Guided by many people, among them the energetic and gifted Daniel Corkery, good purchases were made and Gibson’s generosity is synonymous with the idea of the Crawford in Cork and that ‘homely, welcoming and familiar atmosphere’ that is the result of care, good management and love.

In recent times Cork has benefited from the transfer of the Great Southern Hotels collection of art which coincided with the elevation of the Crawford to the status of being the first National Cultural Institution to be located outside Dublin. It is one of the many achievements of Peter Murray’s time as director. It brought to the gallery a remarkably fine collection from the second half of the twentieth century by virtually all the leading artists of that period. This balanced the rich achievements of the Gibson Bequest in the first half of the century.

There have been many other kindnesses, the most recent being the gift of the Penros Collection to Cork. The Penrose family were involved in glass-making, in Waterford and Cork and developed property in both cities. The family estate, at Woodhill, in Montenotte, was known for its picture gallery by Daniel Maclise. The gift to the Crawford includes furniture and glass as well as paintings, with many Penrose portraits among them, by Martin Archer Shee, Pope-Stevens and Robert Hunter. The rooms in the gallery which house the Penrose collection have a distinctive and impressive impact.