Review: Irish Women Artists 1870-1970 at Adam’s Auctioneers, Dublin

 

The Summer Loan exhibition in Adam’s Auctioneers showcases a century of art by Irish women. Some of the names (Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet or Lily Yeats) may be familiar, but others are lesser known, such as Lady Glenavy, Elizabeth Rivers or Hilda Geralda Van Stockum. Featuring works in a variety of media — including paintings, prints, embroidery and sculpture — this exhibition shows the breadth of creativity of often under-appreciated Irish female artists. While women artists have frequently been omitted from the canon of art history, the impact they have had on the course of Irish art is undeniable. They have founded artistic ventures such as the Dublin Painters Society and the Irish Exhibition of Living Art and helped establish modern artistic styles in Ireland. The art shown is interesting and varied, and proves that these artists are worthy of more attention than they have traditionally received.

At the Irish Women Artists 1870-1970 exhibition in Adam's Auctioneers. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

At the Irish Women Artists 1870-1970 exhibition in Adam’s Auctioneers. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

Previously, in order for a woman to become an artist she would have to be from a wealthy background. Painting could be considered a genteel, ladylike occupation, provided she used suitable subjects. Watercolour would be considered an appropriate medium — fittingly delicate. Rose Barton and Helen Mabel Trevor are examples of female artists working at a time when watercolour painting was first receiving recognition. These works may seem conservative now, but at the time painting en plein air and using exotic settings was different. A professional female artist like Sarah Purser, however, was a real rarity, and she became the first full female member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1924. Not only was she a talented artist, but she was a powerful force in the Irish art world, founding such institutions as Irish stained glass corporation An Túr Gloine. One of Sarah Purser’s works, illustrated below, has been used for the exhibition poster.

Sarah Purser, A Visitor. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

Sarah Purser, A Visitor. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

This exhibition also features the work of pioneering Modernists such as Mainie Jellet, Evie Hone and Mary Swanzy. This trio helped to establish Cubist painting in a conservative Irish art world, and their work remains striking today. Works are also exhibited by Norah McGuinness and Nano Reid, who were chosen to represent Ireland in the Venice Biennale exhibition of 1950, the country’s first participation in this international show. McGuinness and Reid had both exhibited extensively in Ireland and abroad, but the choice of two female artists for Ireland’s introduction to the Venice Biennale was still a revolutionary move.

Mary Swanzy HRHA, Cubist Landscape. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

Mary Swanzy HRHA, Cubist Landscape. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

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Mary Swanzy HRHA, Eleanora’s House. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

Traditionally sculpture, being a more physical art form, has been an unusual one for women to work in. However, there have been notable Irish female sculptors, some of whom are represented in the exhibition. A small bronze sculpture by Imogen Stuart is on display. It depicts a group of children dancing; a public sculpture of the same grouping can be seen in Stillorgan. The sculptures on display are small, mostly in display cases along with books showing some of the illustrative work by female artists. In terms of prints, Elizabeth Rivers’ bold and striking work stands out. The fairy tale quality of Norah McGuinness’ illustrations and the satirical humour of Grace Gifford’s work show the variety of styles to be found in this field.

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Imogen Stuart RHA Stillorgan Children. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

The decorative arts have tended to be a female-dominated field, and have been given a lower status. While it has been dismissed, embroidery is a time-consuming art form, requiring great skill. Some of Lily Yeats’ work is on display including her striking night time scene, The GPO. These works are on a small scale, but are impressively precise.

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Lily Yeats, The GPO Needlework panel. Photos by Ethna O’Brien, Adam Auctioneers.

The works in more traditional styles are hung downstairs, with the upper gallery reserved for Modernist works. While the exhibition is rather cluttered, it offers an impressive selection of art. The fact that many of the works are on loan from private collections means this is a rare chance to see some excellent examples of works by Irish women artists. There will also be two films playing in the upstairs gallery, about Mainie Jellet and Estella Solomons. The exhibition will be on display in the Ava Gallery in Clandeboye, County Down from the 7 August to the 5 September.

Irish Women Artists 1870-1970 will run in Adam’s Auctioneers, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin until the 31  July.

 Review originally written tn2 Magazine.

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