Letter from Kenneth Armitage to Joan Moore, Edgeworthstown, Co. Westmeath, 1941, Tate Archive

Letter from Kenneth Armitage to Joan Moore, Edgeworthstown, Co. Westmeath, 1941

Tate Britain is the National Gallery of British Art, with a remit to collect British works of art from around 1500 to the present. For most of that period, the island of Ireland was under British control; and since 1921, of course, Northern Ireland has continued as part of the United Kingdom. And let’s not forget the centuries-long pattern of emigration from Ireland and integration in Britain. Tate Archive offers proof of the long inter-relationship between Ireland, Irish art and Britain.

This blog will focus on some of the items that have been digitised as part of the Archives and Access project; a broader selection will be displayed at a Show and Tell in Tate Library and Archive Reading Rooms on 4 December.  Defining ‘Irish identity’ or ‘Irishness’ can be a vexed and tiresome business.  On 20 July 1903, Hugh Lane, putative founder of modern art in Ireland, wrote to leading portrait artist John Lavery, soliciting support for his planned municipal gallery in Dublin (archive no. TGA 7245/230).  Lane notes that many of the leading British artists of the day were in fact ‘quite Irish’. Lavery himself, for example, was born in Belfast, reared in Scotland, spent most of his working life in London with long periods in Dublin, travelled extensively, and died in Co. Kilkenny. This blog and accompanying Show and Tell will use Lane’s concept of ‘quite Irish’ – meaning Irish artists working abroad, or second generation Irish artists – to identify material relating to Ireland and Irish art held by Tate Archive.

In order to create his gallery, Lane needed the support of diverse social, cultural and political notables from Ireland, Britain and beyond.  The milieu that sustained Lane is preserved in one of the more unusual collections in Tate Archive.  Anita Bartle was an Irish journalist who wrote a column, This is my birthday,  for the Daily Chronicle.  On each day of the year a celebrity past or present would be commemorated by a series of quotes often humorously or ironically applied to the subject’s public persona. Two volumes of these columns were published in 1902, and Bartle used two copies as upscale visitors’ books; guests would mark their birthday with a signature, an inscription, a quotation, a bar of music or a picture.  Donors to and supporters of Lane’s gallery contribute to Bartle’s volumes, such as artist George Clausen, poet W.B. Yeats, and playwright George Bernard Shaw. Lane’s great friend, travelling companion, and distant cousin William Orpen, whom he would task to finish a series of images of famous Irishmen for the gallery, sketches a haunting self-portrait in pencil. Lane pops up in other collections held by Tate Archive, most notably the diary of Henry Scott Tuke (another donor to the Municipal Gallery), who records several dinners with Lane, including a tantalising ‘long talk with Hugh P. Lane on his Irish adventures’ in 1903. Tuke presented To the morning sun to Lane’s gallery.

The core of the Municipal Gallery came from the collection of late railway magnate James Staats Forbes. Staats makes several appearances in the letters of his nephew, painter Stanhope Alexander Forbes to his fiancée and future wife, the Canadian artist Elizabeth Armstrong. Forbes was a pioneer of open air painting in British art, applying the lessons he learnt in Paris and Brittany to the Cornish coast.  It is not always remembered, however, that he was born to a prominent Irish family and painted his first portraits in Dublin. His letters are among the joys of Tate Archive. A founder member of the New English Art Club, Forbes’ accounts of meetings and exhibitions are a major source for that pioneering movement in the history of modern art in the UK. He casts Walter Sickert and his ‘clique’ as villains of the piece, accusing them of imposing a ‘progressive’, formalist aesthetic at odds with the genteel academic naturalism of Forbes and his friends in the Newlyn School, who included fellow Irishman Norman Garstin. These friends are the subjects of many brilliant pen-portraits and set-pieces in the letters, and Forbes’ insatiable sociability finds him one night taking a carriage ride with Mr and Mrs Oscar Wilde.  Forbes’ funniest letters record a trip to Wales with his parents.  Here he portrays himself as a hapless sophisticate blundering about the Celtic landscape. On successive fishing trips he catches nothing, slips into the river, and attempts to rescue an apparently drowning dog who disdains his help. In one brilliant comic coup he writes to Elizabeth in the guise of Jacko, Forbes’ own beloved dog.

Read more here:: Cracked looking-glass of a servant: Ireland and ‘quite Irish’ art in Tate Archive