'Made in Cork' art exhibition transformed into beautiful illustrated book

 

A new book captures the vibrant arts and crafts movement in Cork, which involved everyone from nuns and tradespeople to artists and the upper classes, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Last year’s Made in Cork exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery was a huge success, showcasing masterpieces from the arts and crafts movement in the city and county from 1880s to 1920s.

Curator Vera Ryan has now produced a beautifully illustrated book inspired by the exhibition, which also highlights how the Cork School of Art (later the Crawford) was a vibrant presence in the movement, and also in the life of the city and beyond, especially in Youghal, which was a hub of craftsmanship at the time.

Ryan says the reaction to the exhibition was a big factor in the production of the book, which is sponsored by the Friends of the Crawford Gallery.

“The Crawford had already hosted the Watson [Youghal stained glass makers] exhibition, and the number of people from Youghal who came in, it was fantastic,” says Ryan. “There was a very warm feeling about that idea of Youghal craft being recognised. A lot of the same people visited for the Made in Cork exhibition. There are a lot of memories still lingering and as a local history project, it was enormously successful.”

Ryan says the exhibition and the book are also important in facilitating a reassessment of the arts and crafts movement nationally.

“We don’t have enough emphasis on the arts and crafts movement in Ireland and that is partly because of the division between fine art and craft. We have this idea that artists like Jack Yeats, Seán Keating and Gerard Dillon, did all the great work of the period. But in fact there was a cross-gender and cross-art group of people in the arts and crafts movement who achieved an enormous amount.”

While the arts and crafts movement in Britain, synonymous with William Morris, is well-recognised, the work in Ireland has lacked attention in comparative terms.
According to Ryan, this was as much because of the relative harmony in which those involved worked.

“It was democratic and very much about cooperation. It was also about giving women a place — the number of arts and crafts practitioners who married female artists and encouraged them to continue working was quite high. It was very much a period where people felt they were doing their bit for their country because the arts and crafts movement led to employment. This economic consideration was quite a high-minded ideal when compared with modernism. It was addressed to the needs of the people and secondarily, the needs of the market. It didn’t have egos, people who are at the top of the tree. Even William Morris would have dirtied his hands, dyeing
fabrics and so on.”

RELIGIOUS DIVIDE

There was also a lot of cooperation across the religious divide in the arts and crafts movement. The production of Youghal lace was pioneered by nuns based in the town, who would have received guidance in design from James Brenan, head of the Cork School of Art from 1860-89.

“The nuns were brilliant at teaching the girls how to make lace but they weren’t as good at drawing and design. Brenan co-operated very well with the nuns, who were entrepreneurial women of high ability.”

Ryan says that while Cork has been given credit as home of the Honan Chapel, viewed as a jewel in the crown of the arts and crafts movement, in many other aspects its full contribution was not acknowledged because of the political and cultural climate of the time.

“With the establishment of the Free State, there was less fluidity, less confidence, more fear about creative co-operation, it would have appeared you were a West Brit or something, whereas you might have just been an ordinary Protestant craftsperson.

“That impacted in Cork particularly as it was a compact city and your neighbours were so close.”

One of the most interesting figures in the arts and crafts movement in Cork at the time was sculptor Joseph Higgins, whose brother Pat is the subject of a portrait bust in lime wood from 1916, which is featured in the book.

“Joseph Higgins doesn’t appear to have been involved politically himself but his brother Pat was involved in the IRA and the movement for independence. Their father had been arrested for Fenianism in 1866, nearly 20 years before Joseph was born.

“They had this nationalist tradition but Joseph was married to a Protestant girl whose father was English. He was in a complicated bind, not that different to that of Terence McSwiney, with whom he was friends.”

PROUD TRADITION

While eras in art are often delineated retrospectively, Ryan says those involved in the arts and crafts movement would have been well aware of its significance when they were producing work.

“The school of art here would pay for the carriage and entry fee of objects for selection to the arts and crafts movement exhibitions in Dublin. It was a great honour to be selected. Many of the men and women who had their work selected were from trading families in the city and they were very proud of this display of their work in Dublin. The school of art had day pupils and evening students. The evening students were usually of the artisan class who would come in to improve their drawing and modelling skills. Very often, the more privileged economic group would come during the day.”

While many of the objects of the arts and crafts movement were beyond the reach of ordinary workers, items such as silver teapots or sugar bowls would have been given as gifts among the artisan class, according to Ryan.

She believes that the work of Youghal Art Metal Workshop, which produced mirrors acquired by WB Yeats for the Abbey Theatre, is due a revival.

“We got quite a few inquiries from British auction houses and after the exhibition, I was told that prices had gone up. There are pieces still around.”

Ryan believes there is more to be discovered about the arts and crafts movement in Ireland. “This book furthers the story, it reflects on what is known but there is more to be told.”

  • Made in Cork: The Arts and Crafts Movement 1880s to 1920s by Vera Ryan is  available form the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, €15. crawfordartgallery.ie



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