Art and Architecture of Ireland: magnificent history of a magnificent history

Sally Salvesen–

Ten years ago I was in Dublin working with Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin on the second edition of their book Ireland’s Painters, when Robert Towers, Yale UP’s Irish representative, arranged a meeting with Nicola Figgis of University College Dublin and Brendan Rooney of the National Gallery of Ireland. They, with Rachel Moss and Paula Murphy, had begun to think of the possibility of updating or replacing Walter Strickland’s Dictionary of Irish Artists (1913) later revised by Theo Snoddy (1968). It was obvious that it would be a daunting task, if also important and exciting, and I heard no more of it for several years.

By 2007 Paula Murphy, also of UCD, an expert on sculpture and author of Nineteenth-century Sculpture in Ireland, enlisted physicist professor Jim Slevin, then President of the Royal Irish Academy, who secured support from the Naughton Foundation and the Irish Ministry of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Suddenly, under the direction of Carmel Naughton, two volumes (Painting and Sculpture) had become five (Medieval, Architecture and Twentieth Century were added); editors for all volumes were appointed; a project team was in place; and contributions were being commissioned. For publication, Yale UP was fortunate to be joined by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

A vast range of structures, themes, issues had to be teased out. Every volume had different requirements and the original notion of a dictionary was superseded by the concept of a survey of the Art and Architecture of Ireland in five volumes. It would still include numerous biographical entries, but they would be complemented by a wide range of thematic essays arranged in various groups. This ensured that the project would build on the recent work of other scholars, rather than repeat it.

The statistics are breathtaking: 274 authors contributed; 10 editors shaped the 5 volumes, under the guidance of a general editor and editorial boards; 2 million words were written, 3,000 images collected. And on the publishing side, 4 designers working to one brief; 3,000 pages including 2,900 images magnificently printed by Conti Tipocolor in Italy, and – finally! – 5 books weighing a total of 34 pounds. Midnight oil burnt: unquantifiable. There was much to celebrate.


At midday on a Sunday in November, more than 700 people gathered in the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor of Dublin’s official residence, to launch the series. Among the guests were the Irish prime minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny; Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys; trustees of the Naughton Foundation led by the remarkable Carmel Naughton; American ambassador Kevin O’Malley; many of the contributors, artists and architects featured in the Twentieth-Century volume; Mark Hallett, director of the Mellon Centre; and hundreds of supporters.

Some of the participants gathered on the lawn for a group photo, while a demonstration against the introduction of water rates at the entrance heightened the drama, ensuring a large police presence and headline reports in all media, as well as great news coverage of the project. The Irish Times is running a 2-year series on Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, drawing on the twentieth-century volume. Irish radio (RTÉ) is scheduling a 6-part series introducing the whole project and each individual volume, and there is more to come.

In the speeches, the sense that the books are a major cultural achievement for the whole island of Ireland was constantly reiterated. No other nation has produced such a comprehensive survey covering 1600 years of artistic endeavor both at home and internationally, exploring the impact of artists who came to Ireland from abroad, and Irish men and women who traveled across the world to work. The Taoiseach described the books as phenomenal gospels of Irish culture. Now it’s exciting to learn that scholars in Norway, drawing directly on the Irish example, are beginning to explore the possibility of a comparable project.

The next evening the whole event was repeated in the Edwardian marble splendor of Belfast City Hall. Again there were contributors and artists present, and 200 guests on this occasion. Instead of the Taoiseach, the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, made a speech full of passionate political rhetoric, celebrating creative endeavour in Northern Ireland and quoting both Paul Mellon and Seamus Heaney to make the connections between art and peace.


Sally Salvesen is an art & architecture editor at Yale University Press, London, and the publisher of the Pevsner Architectural Guides.


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