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THIS lucid book gazes anew upon the sweep of developments in the glories of Ireland’s art, and follows on from the authors’ The Painters of Ireland, published in 1978, and their Irish Portraits 1660-1860 (1969), and The Watercolours of Ireland (1994).

Much material has come to light since The Painters of Ireland, either canvases or artists’ documentation, so 60 years have been added at the start of the book, which now opens in 1600, and 20 years at its finish, with a small discussion on Modernism. In their introduction, Professor Crookshank and the Knight of Glin, Desmond FitzGerald, comment on Ireland’s growing prosperity, and the huge interest in collecting Irish paintings and other works of art, a phenomenon echoed in the salerooms and auction houses. The word Irish is the magic mantra; only some of it returns home.

Portraiture was the thing in the 17th century and grandees like the Ormondes and the O’Neills went abroad to offer their patronage to be painted by foreign artists. We have here a glorious Holbein of the ninth Earl of Ormonde and one of the tenth Earl by a Flemish artist, attributed to Steven van der Meulen. And so it went on. Ireland’s wealthy, mainly Protestant incomers paid Reynolds in London, or Batoni in Rome to portray them. The smart money was on fashionable foreign painters; Ireland’s own painters were ignored. So they went abroad too.

The recurrent theme of the emigré Irish artist is as well known now as it was then – Kenneth McConkey in his book A Free Spirit: Irish Art 1860-1960 comments: “Nationality was not simply cut from a familiar turf, it must be hailed by others on a foreign shore.” The authors comment interestingly and provocatively that today more artists “remain at home, but the most famous tend to make their names abroad”.

The chapter on Ireland’s Restoration period includes paintings by the first Irish-born painter, known for his ‘jammy reds’, Garret Morphy, (d.1716), whom the authors consider of the greatest significance in Irish painting, raising the quality of Irish art from provincial daubs to a level of professionalism. Portraits and subject paintings, genre, landscape and seascapes dominated the scene for many years, with landscapes emerging towards the mid-18th century, in many cases complementary to the family portraits – some painted by Thomas Philipps and George Moore and, in one lovely instance, Susannah Drury’s gouache East Prospect of the Giant’s Causeway, now in the Ulster Museum.

The story of the Dublin Society Schools is told. The Dublin Society was founded in 1731, its members all interested in the fine arts and in the founding of an academy. Mention is made, but unfortunately no pictures shown, of the work of Rosalba Carreira, the wondrous Venetian portrait pastellist, some of whose pictures hang in the Accademia in Venice and who, it is thought, worked in Ireland.

There is an important discussion on the influence of England and Continental Europe in the late 19th century, when Irish painting underwent a considerable change; here is the work of Nathaniel Hone, Walter Osborne, Joseph Mulachy Kavanagh, and the powerful, dramatic work of Harry Jones Thaddeus is shown in his oil An Irish Eviction, Co. Galway 1889. The influential Orpen is discussed in the chapter Orpen and his Shadow.

And then to Modernism and the end of British rule in Ireland. Enter some of the most powerfully evocative painters ever to come out of Ireland: Paul Henry and William Conor are just two, with Henry discovering Achill Island in 1910, there to paint the potato diggers and the fisherfolk, people whose harsh life hauntingly describes a vanished Ireland, but one that people want on their walls.

Major players in this scene were Louis Le Brocquy, (b.1916), and Jack Butler Yeats, who evolved through his work the very nature of Irishness and out of that a more comprehensive definition of Ireland. Yeats’ popularity is, to our authors, in “many cases, without deep understanding […], can only be attributed to his seductive colour. It has put him out of proportion in the roll call of Irish painters. Time alone will judge whether the public is right or wrong”. Rightly or wrongly, prices for Yeats’ pictures are stratospheric: in 1999 Wild Ones made £1.12m; Whistle of a jacket a cool million in 2001, and On the way to the sea £580,000 in 2002.

I disagree with the choice of Yeats’ pictures for inclusion here, but with little else in this conversationally elegant and important book – as much a study of Ireland’s complex history seen in context through the eyes of its painters. What we want and need now is a book on Ireland’s painters from 1940 to this very minute.