Portraits of great paintings: Irish authors take inspiration from the greats

Irish authors have taken pieces in the National Gallery as inspiration for prose and poetry, writes Peter Murray

Portraits of great paintings: Irish authors take inspiration from the greats

ASSEMBLING a group of writers and asking them to respond to works of art in a museum is akin to herding cats, as both are inclined to dart off in any direction.

So praise is due to Janet McLean, curator at the National Gallery of Ireland, for organising the book, Lines of Vision, in which 56 writers respond, in verse and prose, to their favourite works of art in the National Gallery.

How the writers chose their work of art is not detailed. Not one of them opted for a sculpture, which is odd, and only two selected prints. Many of the contributors, even the avowed atheists, chose religious works of art. John Deane’s response to Rembrandt’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a deeply religious meditation in verse, while John Montague’s beautiful, even ecstatic, poem from 1953, published here for the first time, illuminates El Greco’s St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata.

Leafing through the book, some characteristics emerge.

In many of the paintings, faces are averted, heads bent, or figures are depicted in silhouette, as if the writers are uncomfortable with direct eye contact.

This can be seen in William Mulready’s The Sonnet, chosen by Gerard Donovan, and in Velasquez’s The Kitchen Maid, the subject of a fine poem by Leanne O’Sullivan. An exception is Thomas MacCarthy’s choice of James Barry’s magnificent Self-Portrait as Timanthes, a portrait full of that bold, Hellenised Cork self-confidence that created such unease, even amongst those who most supported the rebellious artist.


McClean’s concept of what an art museum should be is refreshingly free from the claims of authority and purpose that drown out many quieter, and more reflective, voices in the art world.

She is happy for people to find peace and inspiration while surrounded by centuries-old works of art. She sees museums as a refuge from the madness of the outside world, as places for sensitive souls.

Drawn irresistibly to its theme of loyalty and betrayal, Banville claims the prize painting, Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, and, with customary adeptness, does it justice.

Frank McGuinness takes inspiration from A White Horse, after Gericault, while Colm Toibín charts the career of John B Yeats, providing insight into the emotional life hidden behind the impassive expression of his portrait of Rosa Butts.

Some of the writers describe the works of art in detail, revealing both its history and the reasons they were drawn to it; others barely acknowledge the painting, instead taking it as a starting point for a foray into the world of the creative imagination.

In the former category, over the course of seven stanzas, MacDara Woods describes Members of the Sheridan Family, by Edwin Landseer.

In the latter, Kevin Barry’s essay, written to accompany On the Devil’s Disc, a rarely-seen painting by Ernest Procter, is a text as dizzying as the painting itself.

Some writers include the painting in an unexpected narrative: Carlo Gébler takes Roderic O’Conor’s La Jeune Bretonne as the starting point for a vivid account of the pettiness of prison life.

Unsurprisingly, once some writers get going, they find it difficult to stop, and Paul Muldoon extracts no less than six pages of brilliant verse from Charles Emile Jacque’s unpromising image of free-range chickens pecking around a French farm.

Occasionally, and predictably, some works were too attractive and so chosen by two writers, with neither inclined to give way.

The artist Gerard Dillon’s painting, The Little Green Fields, not only inspired a poem by Michael Longley, but also an essay by Julie O’Callaghan.


This competition for artistic turf extended to the Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard, with Kerrie Hardie being joined by Jennifer Johnson at the same delightful lunch table depicted in Le Déjeuner, while Joseph Patrick Haverty’s 1841 portrait of a blind piper and a young girl, in an autumnal setting, inspired texts by both Bernard Farrell and Vincent Woods.

The poem by Woods, ‘The Piper in the Snow’, initially seems remote from the painting, but reveals itself as a meditation on emigration from Ireland in the 19th century, and so adds unexpected layers of meaning to this fine work of art.

Dillon is almost too popular an artist, with Eilís Ní Dhuibhne choosing the marvelous, and rarely seen, Nano’s Dream, while Paula Meehan composed three poems to accompany The Artist’s Studio.

Jack B. Yeats was also popular, with writers Dermot Bolger, Roddy Doyle, Moya Cannon, Martin Malone and Alan Glynn all happily opting for different works by this great painter. Theo Dorgan takes the opportunity, when describing Ernest Meissonier’s depiction of Napoleon’s generals on the eve of victory, Cavalry in the Snow: Moreau and Dessoles before Hohenlinden, to describe his own childhood forays into the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.


In similar vein, Sebastian Barry remembers early visits to the National Gallery in the company of his grandfather, the artist Matthew Barry. Evelyn Conlon breaks ranks, choosing not one, but two paintings as the inspiration for her account of dreams.

They are fine works, however: Sarah Purser’s A Lady Holding a Doll’s Rattle and Edwin Hayes’s An Emigrant Ship.

The Munich-born poet Eva Bourke, remarkably, writes about a portrait of her own ancestor, Anthony Hundertpfundt, who was director of the Bavarian mint in the late 16th century.

The text most closely linked to a work of art is perhaps Gerald Dawe’s ‘Paul Henry, Moonlight’, words that perfectly echoe this ethereal moonlit scene, which was painted by Henry in 1926.

There are some inconsistencies in the book, and occasionally it is a puzzle to work out which text relates to which painting.

Contemporary art makes a rare and surprising appearance, with Eoin McNamee writing on Alice Maher’s etching Magdalene, and Vona Groarke responding to After Giovanni di Paolo, a dry-point print made in a collaborative process by Patrick Graham and Carmel Benson.

No such volume would be complete without a contribution by Seamus Heaney, and so it is a delight to find his ‘Banks of a Canal’, a poetic response to a wonderful landscape by Gustave Caillebotte.

All in all, Lines of Vision, a beguiling, fascinating, illuminating and occasionally irritating volume, is a tribute to a curator with a vision and to a collection that, with the National Gallery’s main building re-opening soon after years of renovation, will be given the exposure that it richly deserves.

  • An exhibition of the works featured in Lines of Vision is on at the National Gallery, until April 12
  • Peter Murray is curator of the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork

Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art edited by Janet McLean is published by Thames & Hudson, €24.95  hardback,www.thamesandhudson.com. 

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