Meet the masterpieces

Up and down the island, Irish exhibition spaces house renowned international treasures that can be seen and admired far from the madding crowds of the major celebrity galleries

Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ provided by The National Gallery of Ireland
Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ provided by The National Gallery of Ireland

When it comes to visual arts, Ireland wears its wealth lightly: there are works on display that are internationally famous and, yet, thanks to a kind of national diffidence, you don’t have to queue for hours, pay through the nose OR battle through crowds to show your appreciation.

The beautiful sculpted garden
The beautiful sculpted garden

The Ulster Museum’s collection, for instance, houses beautiful British and Irish works from the 17th century to the present day. Reynolds and Gainsborough hang alongside Jack B Yeats and John Lavery; Modernist Mainie Jellett, who brought Cubism to Ireland, is side by side with contemporary artist Basil Blackshaw.

An incredible discovery

The island’s headliner, though, is probably Dublin’s long-lost Caravaggio work, The Taking of Christ, which had been hanging grubby and misattributed (“a silk purse pawned off as a sow’s ear”, according to the New York Times) in a seminary dining room.

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In 1990, the Jesuit owners sent the dingy canvas to be cleaned, whereupon a specialist spotted its true worth. The Taking of Christ now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, and what a picture it is!

The New York Times called it “gorgeous and stark”, and asks whether, with its “dramatic angled lighting and deeply shadowed backgrounds – did Caravaggio invent film noir?”

John Bailey, an American cinematographer, goes further. “His dramatic staging and compositional daring alone are enough to elevate his work into intense veneration by filmmakers. But it is the light that almost burns through the canvas.”

Ireland’s favourite painting?

Despite the adulation, The Taking of Christ only came second in a 2012 competition to find Ireland’s favourite painting. The winner? William Burton’s 1864 neo-Medievalist confection, Meeting on the Turret Stairs, which is also hanging in the National Gallery, although you’ll have to time your visit carefully to see both paintings – Burton’s watercolour is so fragile it is only displayed for three hours each week.

A master’s studio

Seeing where an artist works is intriguing. In Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, Francis Bacon’s studio has been meticulously reconstructed – a gargantuan task, given that the artist admitted, “I work much better in chaos”. Around 7,500 pieces – paintings, photographs, trousers, bottles, books and drawings – were shipped, along with the doors that he used as canvases, to the gallery. Curators then spent three years putting it all back together.

“The gallery itself is a must, as it offers a body of work that is nothing but top shelf,” says the Australian Sydneycool website. But Bacon’s studio is “the highlight”.

A sculptor’s tools

Another very different studio is re-created in Banbridge, County Down. Sculptor FE McWilliam, a friend of English sculptor Henry Moore, is best known for his surrealist renderings of the human body. The studio was brought over from London and rebuilt just as he left it, seen through glass walls that overlook a sculpture garden. The adjoining gallery and garden showcases his work, along with work by other artists.

As Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” And where better to appreciate this art than in spaces fully befitting of the artists’ masterpieces.

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