Artistic License: Irish Painter-Etchers 1880 – 1930

“Making their Mark” at the NATIONAL GALLERY celebrates the work of Irish painter-etchers and engravers …

George Atkinson (1880-1941), Shannon Scheme No. 1: Keeper Mountain © Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Co-curated by Anne Hodge of the National Gallery of Ireland and Angela Griffith of Trinity College Dublin, the exhibition comprises 50 original prints featuring artists such as John Lavery, Edward Millington Synge, Estella Solomons and Myra Hughes. Angela Griffith and Anne Hodge tell us more about this collaborative, groundbreaking exhibition – a first in Ireland.

What inspired the etching revival?

AG: The Etching Revival began in France in the 1850s. Important French artists who created etchings included Manet, Degas, Pissarro, Mary Cassatt and Paul Gauguin. The medium grew in popularity in Britain from the 1860s – the most influential artist working there was American-born artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In the 19th century, print was generally used for reproductions of other artworks. This artist-led movement re-invented etching as an original art form to allow artists to give expression to their individual personality and experience. Irish artists began to explore etching in the 1880s. The Etching Revival encouraged artists to explore the creative possibilities of the medium and to make etchings that celebrated modern life.

Percy F. Gethin (1874–1916), ‘Musicians’ – Cellist and Harpist. © National Gallery of Ireland

Who are some of the influential artists included in the exhibition?

AG: We have included the work of British and international artists who inspired Irish artists in terms of style and subject matter. Whistler, who exhibited in Dublin in the 1880s, was the most important in terms of his experimental approach to etching. Other important figures like Alphonse Legros and Frank Short were teachers of etching in London and Irish artists including Sarah Cecilia Harrison were taught by them. FS Haden founded the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers in 1880 and a number of Irish artists were members including Myra Hughes, Edward Millington Synge (a cousin of the playwright John Millington Synge) and Francis S Walker. Paul Gauguin and Armand Séguin worked directly with Roderic O’Conor to create a series of incredibly inventive post-impressionist prints, some of which are on show in this exhibition.

Walter Sickert (1860–1942), Noctes Ambroisanae, c. 1908. © National Gallery of Ireland

The featured artworks have been supplied via loans from many different institutions …

AH: We have been fortunate that many public institutions both in Ireland and the UK have contributed generously to this ground-breaking exhibition. The British Museum, which has a very good collection of work by Irish Painter-Etchers, have loaned 13 works while the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow have loaned two beautiful etchings by Whistler. Closer to home, the Hugh Lane Gallery, Crawford Gallery, TCD and the National Library of Ireland all contributed material. Everyone was keen to help so that we could put together a really exciting show of work by brilliant Irish artists who otherwise may have been forgotten. For many artists it is the first time they have been displayed publicly in Ireland for almost 100 years.

Sarah Cecilia Harrison (1863–1941). Study of a Man’s Head, c. 1880. © Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane

Several female artists are represented …

AG: We are extremely proud to show the work of Myra K Hughes. Hughes was well recognised in Britain for her print work and she was one of a small number of women artists who became associates of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers in London. She was one of the first female artists to hold solo exhibitions – including in Dublin in 1910. Her work was reproduced in international art periodicals and she and others directly inspired a new generation of Irish artists including Estella Solomons. An impressive etched portrait by the artist Sarah Cecilia Harrison features in this show. Better known as a painter, this is the only known example of print-making in Ireland. She was also a collector of prints and donated her collection of work by leading British etchers to the Municipal Gallery of Art when it opened in Dublin in 1908.

One of Ireland’s most prolific etchers up until the foundation of the Graphic Studio Dublin in 1960 was Estella Solomons. Her etchings of Dublin provide us with a sensitive and distinctive vision of inner-city life in the first decades of the 20th century. She was the first artist to import her own private printing press and she worked out of a studio in Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street). Her commitment inspired friends such as Mary Duncan to make etchings.

Walter Sickert (1860–1942), La Gaité Montparnasse, c. 1919. © National Gallery of Ireland

What are your favourite etchings?

AG: Firstly, I must admit I admire every single work on show – they are very fine examples of the genre. But it is the ambition, drama and exceptional technique of George Atkinson that stands out for me. The images of the building of the hydro-electric station at Ardnacrusha in Limerick from the late 1920s are an arresting representation of the emerging modern Free State Ireland. Each composition is distinctive – yet they work as a set. Atkinson was a gifted artist, but his commitment to promoting the visual arts in Ireland and his duties as headmaster of what would become the National College of Art and Design means that, unfortunately, very few works by the artist are known or are held in national institutions. And regrettably, that is the case for the majority of the artists in this exhibition.

AH: My favourite work is a very dramatic colour etching by Edward Lawrenson called ‘Sognefjord’. It is so striking we used it as the cover image of the catalogue. Deep blue mountains tower above a fjord in Norway. You get a sense of the scale from the tiny little house which is picked out by golden sunlight. This print makes me want to go on holidays there! Lawrenson was always experimenting and had a mobile etching studio set up in the back of his car so that he could create prints while on the go.

George Atkinson (1880-1941), The Nun’s Garden, c.1910. © Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane

Need to Know: “Making their Mark: Irish Painter-Etchers 1880-1930,” is on at National Gallery of Ireland until June 23. Admission is free; www.nationalgallery.ie.

Penny McCormick

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