The Irish Revolutionary Period
The Decade of Centenaries commemorates one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in modern Irish history. Between 1912 and 1923, a series of pivotal events unfolded in Ireland, including revolution, civil war and the foundation of an independent state. Through a selection of historical archives and artworks from the National Gallery of Ireland collections, this exhibition highlights the diverse experiences of six Irish artists who contributed or bore witness to the social, cultural and political developments of the period: Grace Gifford, Sarah Cecilia Harrison, Aloysius O’Kelly, William Orpen, Sarah Purser and Jack B. Yeats. A variety of narratives emerge from the assembled sketchbooks, letters, drawings, memoirs, scrapbooks and ephemera, ranging from witty and irreverent to deeply poignant. These archival objects and drawings offer a fresh insight into the artists’ daily lives, working conditions, political interests, and their individual reactions to the extraordinary events of the time.
William Orpen (1878-1931) was a successful society painter who established a highly lucrative career in London. Born in Blackrock, county Dublin, Orpen maintained close connections with Ireland and taught at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he influenced many younger Irish artists. He was interested in Irish culture and politics and his illustrated letters and memoir Stories of Old Ireland and Myself (1924) express a sympathy for Irish nationalism that conflicted with his life in England.
Orpen was among the 200,000 Irishmen who enlisted in the British Army during World War I. In January 1917 he was appointed an official war artist. Stationed in France, he produced a large body of work depicting different aspects of the war and its impacts. His personal letters from this period were initially light-hearted, but as the war progressed his writing became increasingly sombre. Orpen’s war paintings proved extremely popular with the British public, and in 1918 he was knighted (KBE) for his wartime services.
Nothing but mud, water, crosses and broken tanks; miles and miles of it, horrible and terrible.Orpen in 'An Onlooker in France, 1917-1919', 1921
Sarah Cecilia Harrison
Sarah Cecilia Harrison (1863–1941) was a skilful painter whose portraits in particular were admired for their elegant realism and striking likeness to the sitter. She was also a social reformer who championed Home Rule and women’s suffrage, and tackled economic deprivation in Dublin. In 1912 she became the first woman elected to Dublin Corporation. As a city councillor she advocated for improved conditions for tenement dwellers; an inquiry into police brutality during the 1913 Lockout; and equal pay for female Corporation employees.
Harrison was a close friend of Irish art dealer and collector Hugh Lane. They corresponded regularly and Lane’s letters to the artist offer a remarkable insight into her social and political activism. He refers to Harrison’s unemployment initiatives as well as her relentless support for his campaign to establish a gallery of modern art in Dublin. Lane donated to her charitable projects, but preferred her to focus on advancing her painting career and his vision for a municipal art gallery. His letters reveal a deep respect for Harrison – whom he sometimes addressed as ‘St Cecilia’ – and their shared belief that art should be accessible for all.
The noblest, bravest and most accomplished woman in Ireland.The Irish Worker, 7 December 1912
Grace Gifford Plunkett
Grace Gifford Plunkett (1888–1955) was an Irish caricaturist, illustrator and political activist. Despite her unionist Protestant background, she became interested in Irish republican politics and began her career by contributing illustrations to nationalist and suffrage newspapers. She married 1916 revolutionary leader, Joseph Plunkett, in Kilmainham Gaol on the eve of his execution for his part in the Easter Rising. In 1917 she was elected to the Sinn Féin executive and used her artistic talents to promote Sinn Féin policies and election campaigns. Her anti-treaty activism during the Irish Civil War led to her arrest in 1923, and she was incarcerated for several months in Kilmainham Gaol by the Irish Free State.
Gifford’s witty, artful caricatures established her reputation as an imaginative and politically engaged artist. Her pen and ink portrayals are often characterised by an incisive humour, exuberant lines and physical distortions, demonstrating the influence of caricaturist Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) and illustrator Charles Keene (1823–1891). Friends, politicians and cultural leaders were all satirised by Gifford, including Eamon De Valera, Sir Edward Carson, Countess Markievicz, William Orpen and Arthur Darley.
Could you send me a pair of roller skates – isn’t that a staggering request – But we aren’t confined to cells all day & sometimes it’s too wet to exercise.Gifford in a letter to William Orpen, written from Kilmainham gaol in 1923
Sarah Purser (1848–1943) was a successful portrait painter and an influential figure in the Irish cultural movement known as the Celtic Revival. In 1903, she established An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass), a studio that provided churches in Ireland with high-quality Irish stained glass, while offering artists access to training and steady commissions. Inspired by early-Irish metalwork and illumination, An Túr Gloine produced artworks imbued with the contemporary spirit of romantic nationalism and Irish cultural revivalism.
An Túr Gloine was organised on a co-operative basis, with a shared workshop, kiln and materials. Women such as Wilhelmina Geddes, Ethel Rhind, Catherine O’Brien and Beatrice Elvery were crucial to the artistic achievements of the studio. However, it was Purser’s business acumen, financial support and social connections that ensured the success of the enterprise, particularly in securing prestigious commissions in the United States of America, India, New Zealand and Singapore. The success of An Túr Gloine advanced the international reputation of Irish cultural nationalism, with stained glass emerging as the foremost achievement of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement.
A woman of great business capacity as well as an artist.Edward Martyn quoted in 'Edward Martyn and the Irish Revival' by Denis Gwynn, 1930
Jack B. Yeats
Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957) was a painter and illustrator whose images of a heroic Irish people progressed the visual representation of life in Ireland during the revolutionary period. Although he rarely articulated his political views, Yeats was intensely patriotic and keenly interested in Irish politics. He attended meetings of the Gaelic League, believed in the nationalist cause and made a personal effort to learn the Irish language. At the Irish Race Congress in Paris (1922), Yeats envisioned a patriotic role for the artist in a rare lecture entitled ‘The Future of Painting in Ireland’.
In his paintings of political subjects, such as Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory (1915) and Communicating with Prisoners (c. 1924), Yeats emphasised human interest and poetic detail over any overt expressions of nationalism. His sketchbooks, however, offer further insight into his nationalist sympathies, with rough sketches documenting the civil unrest and political tension of the period alongside his more familiar subjects. In his direct observations of historic events, Yeats captured not only some of the major developments and protagonists of the revolutionary era, but also the everyday reactions of ordinary citizens living in extraordinary times.
Painting is the freest of the Arts. The artist must himself be free and his country must be free.Jack B. Yeats' speech at the Irish Race Congress in Paris, 1922
Aloysius O’Kelly (1853–1936) was an illustrator and painter from a politically active and artistic family. In the 1880s, the Illustrated London News commissioned him to produce a series of drawings documenting the Irish Land War, a campaign to secure rights for tenant farmers. The dignity and agency of O’Kelly’s Irish protagonists was unusual for the nineteenth century British press and his work highlighted the plight of Ireland’s rural poor. His large oil Mass in a Connemara Cabin (1884), gave visual expression to the cultural, spiritual and social values of an emerging national identity.
O’Kelly lived primarily in Brittany and New York City during the Irish revolutionary period. In 1926, he returned to Ireland with the intention of creating a series of paintings focusing on Irish subjects. His letters to his nephew James Herbert provide a first-hand account of life in the newly independent Free State of Ireland. His observations of ruined public, military and residential buildings convey the aftermath of the Irish Civil War and the War of Independence. His accounts of rising fuel prices and costly housing also reveal the challenging economic conditions of the period.
I can imagine that life would be very agreeable in this country for those who are well housed and have plenty of money.O’Kelly in a letter to James Herbert, 24th November 1926
Visit the Exhibition in Room 11
Roller Skates & Ruins is on view in Room 11 at the National Gallery of Ireland from 15 October 2022 to 17 September 2023. The exhibition is supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media under the Decade of Centenaries Programme 2012-2023.
Admission is free – no booking required.
Curators: Andrea Lydon, Marie Lynch, Donal Maguire