The Origin and Development of the Drogheda Municipal Art Gallery
“It was very interesting to see that at a time when the world, following a dreadful war, was crushed under a spirit of despair and defeat, they should have an indication in Drogheda of the spirit which they sought in their civilisation - that there was something in the mind which could not be killed”.[i] (General Richard Mulcahy, Minister for Education, 1948)
The Drogheda Collection was founded by the artist Bea Orpen and her husband, C.E.F. (Terry) Trench in June, 1946.[ii] At their request, the Drogheda Corporation appointed a Municipal Art Gallery and Museum Committee, which during the following thirty-five years collected over sixty works of art.[iii] These were acquired mainly through donation either by the artists themselves or by other benefactors. As is the case with most of the other Irish municipal art collections, a substantial proportion of these donations came from charitable bodies such as the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland and the Thomas Haverty Trust.
Whilst the Drogheda collection offers a fine representative survey of early to mid-twentieth century Irish art, it also has a distinctive local flavour, gained both from the presence of works by contemporary Drogheda artists such as Nano Reid, Bea Orpen and Simon Coleman, and by paintings of local scenes. These latter include a number of eighteenth and nineteenth century landscape paintings, notably by Gabriele Ricciardelli and Anderson Paisley, some of which had originally been in the possession of Drogheda Corporation.[iv]
According to Terry Trench, the intention in founding the Art Gallery had been "to provide a public amenity for the growing number of people interested in the visual arts” in Drogheda at this time.[v] Since the late nineteen-thirties, municipal art collections had been successfully established in a number of other provincial cities, notably Limerick, Waterford and Kilkenny, and developments in Drogheda were to offer further evidence of this trend.
The idea of establishing a permanent art collection seems to have been sparked by the visit to Drogheda of a travelling art exhibition, organised by the Department of Education in 1945.[vi] Sixty one Irish artists had lent work to it, including such important figures as Sir John Lavery, Patrick Tuohy and Walter Osborne, and the catalogue drew the attention of Drogheda visitors to the fact that local artists, Simon Coleman, Bea Orpen and Nano Reid were also represented.[vii]
Terry Trench recalls that it was at the opening of this exhibition, that he and Bea Orpen first put forward the idea of Drogheda having its own Gallery. "We were able to say that we had promises of pictures as gifts or on loan and of some small monetary subscriptions, and we appealed for further support on these lines.”[viii] It was not until almost a year later however, in May,1946, that Trench felt he had evidence of sufficient support to write to the Corporation asking them to appoint a Municipal Art Gallery and Museum Committee.[ix] They agreed to do so, and the first meeting of the new committee was held on the 19th. of June, 1946, in the Court House, Drogheda. The then current Mayor, Alderman F. Dennis, was elected Chairman, CEF Trench, Secretary and P.J. Carr, Town Clerk, Curator of the proposed Art Gallery and Museum.
One of the Committee’s first recommendations was that the Corporation provide suitable permanent accomodation for the Art Gallery, suggesting a part of the Mayorality House.[x] Instead however, the burgeoning collection was located in the Drogheda Public Library in Fair Street. The space allocated was the front room of the Library, and efforts were made to convert it into an appropriate exhibition space, with neutrally painted grey walls, a picture rail and fluorescent lighting.
There was a clear intention on the part of the founders to incorporate a museum into the development, and Trench's initial proposal to the Corporation had referred to a "Municipal Art Gallery and Museum."[xi] Although the latter never materialised, the conception itself is significant in revealing the broader cultural aspirations of the proposers. At this time the nineteenth century ideal of a symbiotic relationship between art gallery and museum was still very much in evidence, as indeed was the further connection of both with the library.
At a meeting, held in July, 1947, the Secretary reported that six pictures had been received as either gifts or loans. These were as follows: a Portrait of Jack B. Yeats by Clare Marsh, Two Girls on a Moonlit Shore by George Russell, The Church of Heaven & Earth by Bernard M. Tumulty, Bothar i nGlean na Smol by Maurice MacGonigal, The Old Culvert by J. Crampton Walker and A March Snowfall by Helen Colville. The Tumulty and the MacGonigal were loans which were subsequently returned,[xii] but the other four remained and were the earliest works to be acquired for the new collection.
In April of the following year, a subscription was made to the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland (FNCI) - a worthwhile investment in view of the fact that the Friends were an important potential source of loan acquisitions at that time. It was also intended that new works should be bought, as soon as sufficient subscriptions had been collected, and with this in mind an appeal was made "to a select list of people." Someone suggested that a list of sponsors’ names should be published in the local press, which would give them the prestige of association with the gallery, and also indicate to the public at large, the high degree of the support for the project. The appeal proved successful, and provided assets of £112.[xiii]
By July, 1948, the Gallery had received a further seven pictures, on loan from members of the Committee and others. They were a portrait entitled Freda by Nano Reid, landscapes by Charles Lamb, Paul Henry, Tom Nisbet and Pat Griffith and still-lives by Marshall Hutson and Kathleen Fox.[xiv] It was now felt that with the iminent possibility of yet more additions, a sufficient corpus of works could soon be assembled, to enable the Committee to proceed with the official launch of the Gallery. A date of September 16th, 1948 was set for the official opening, and it was agreed that General Richard Mulcahy, then Minister for Education, should be invited to perform the ceremony.[xv]
By August, the collection had received a further ten works including examples by both Nathaniel and Evie Hone, James Humbert Craig, Beatrice Glenavy and Grace Henry.[xvi] These brought the present total up to twenty-three, and the Committee decided to bolster up the Collection by holding a loan exhibition of works by Irish artists to coincide with the official opening.[xvii] This loan exhibition could run for two months after the opening, followed by a further exhibition of works from the permanent collection. The staging of such temporary exhibitions, to complement those of the permanent collection became an important aspect of the Gallery's future policy.[xviii]
At a meeting held in September of that year, the Secretary reported that Frances Kelly, wife the diplomat F. H. Boland and an artist contemporary of Bea Orpen in the RHA School, had assembled a number of pictures by Irish artists from private collections in Dublin. The best of these works were to be hung for the Official Opening, and the final selection and arrangement was to be determined jointly by the Art Gallery Committee and a number of 'outside' experts. These were the artist Nano Reid, R.R. Figgis representing the FNCI and the prominent art historian and critic James White.[xix] They finally settled on twenty-seven paintings, including works by Reid and Kelly themselves, and other local artists: Bea Orpen and Simon Coleman. A catalogue was produced for the occassion, with a forward by James White in which he suggested that the acquisition of a municipal art gallery was an indication of Drogheda's increasing prosperity and sophistication.
At the opening ceremony, General Mulcahy spoke in inspirational terms suggesting that the move to found an art gallery in the city was by no means an isolated event. It was, he said, a further indication of the growing enthusiasm for art in the country as a whole. He noted that Limerick, Waterford and Clonmel also now possessed their own municipal art galleries.[xx] Mulcahy then suggested that the Governers of the National Gallery were interested and supportive of developments in Drogheda, and would be prepared to loan art-works to the city, from the National Galleries over-crowded store-rooms.[xxi] He also reminded the Committee that both the Thomas Haverty Trust and the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland would also be glad to lend pictures. Finally Mulcahy presented the Gallery with a photographic copy of the freedom box and accompanying scroll presented by Drogheda Corporation to Henry Grattan in 1782, as an example of “what could be procured for the collection.”[xxii]
In the following years, the Drogheda Municipal Art Collection continued to grow from purchase and donations, receiving for example fourteen pictures from the executors of the late Dr. Richard Irvine Best in 1959.[xxiii] When the Committee met for the last time in October, 1962, Terry Trench suggested that perhaps they should now concentrate their attention on the display of the permanent collection in the Public Library Rooms. He later observed that, whilst hanging the Collection above the bookshelves of the Library was not the ideal location for it, "at least viewers are now able to see all the works adequately in a permanent display."[xxiv] No mean achievement at a time when most other municipal art collections resided mainly in store-rooms.
Sadly neither of the founders of the Collection have lived to see it given the current promince that it deserves it its exciting new location, but it is fitting that we should take this opportunity to pay tribute to their achievement.
Dr Peter Jordan (lecturer at the Waterford Institute of Technology)
[i] Drogheda Argus (DA), 25.9.48, p.2.
[ii] See introduction by C.E.F. Trench to the Catalogue of the Municipal Art Collection, Drogheda Corporation/Arts Council, 1995.
[iii] The 1995 catalogue lists 67 works.
[iv] A typescript history of the Municipal Art Collection by C.E.F. Trench, dated, 24.1.92, Gallery Archives (GA), notes that, "Five of the largest pictures were already in the possession of the corporation before we started our collection, but we got the Corporation to move them from comparative obscurity to the public accessibility of the library.
[v] Article by C.Trench, Drogheda Independent (DI), 15.7.94, p.12.
[vi] Ibid. In 1943, the Department of Education inaugurated a series of travelling art exhibitions to be held in Technical Schools throughout the country.
[ix] A letter to Trench from the Town Clerk, dated, 5.6.46, acknowledges receipt of his request and accedes to it (GA).
[x] Committee Minutes (CM), 19.6.46.
[xi] See letter to T. Trench from J. Carr, 5.6.46 (GA).
[xii] The McGonigal was on temporary loan from the Haverty Trust, and the Tumulty was lent by Mr. J.B. English of Drogheda.
[xiv] Only the Griffith remains in the collection, donated by the artist. Landscape by C. Lamb was lent by Mr. & Mrs. Trench, Flower Study by M. Hutson was lent by W.K. Allen, Roses & Chippendale by K. Fox was lent by Miss E.A. McGee, A Kerry Bog by P. Henry was lent by Miss M.A. Halligan and In Full Flight by T. Nisbett was lent by W.M. Glynn.
[xv] Minutes, 2.7.48 (GA).
[xvi] The full list were: Pilton, Galway, gouache by B. Orpen, lent by the artist; The Village of Carraroe, Co. Galway, gouache, by F. Kelly, lent by Leo Smith, Dawson Gallery; The Betrayal, stained-glass, by E. Hone, lent by Leo Smith; Glenveigh, Co. Donegal, oil painting by J. H. Craig RHA, pres. by Mrs. Craig; Bathing in the Dodder, water-colour by N. Reid, lent by the artist; The Squirrel's Breakfast, oil painting by G. Henry, lent by Mrs. Hal McDermot; Flowers, oil painting by G. Henry, lent by Mrs. H. McDermot; Romance, oil painting by Lady Glenavy, lent by the artist; Seascape, oil painting by N. Hone, lent by Leo Smith; Nessa at the Mirror, oil painting by F. Kelly, lent by the artist. Only the Craig and the Reid remain in the collection today.
[xviii] Catalogue of the Official Opening Exhibition, 1948. (GA).
[xix] Minutes, 10.9.48 (GA).
[xxi] Irish Press (IP), 18.9.48, p.6.
[xxii] Irish Independent (II), 11.9.48, p.5.
[xxiii] Minutes, 1.2.60 (GA), See 1995 Cat No.s 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 16, 19, 28, 31, 35, 60 and 64.
[xxiv] C.E.F. Trench in an interview with the author, 9th September 1994