The Irish renaissance

The National Gallery of Ireland has undergone a radical facelift and expansion. Alan Murdoch discovers a new treasure-trove of gems

On Saturday the National Gallery of Ireland will re-open its doors after three months to reveal the first stage of a lavish refurbishment that will virtually double its size and put it in the big league of state galleries in Europe.

To say the gallery, opened in 1864, has had a renaissance of its own is no understatement. But in the late Eighties, with its leaking roof falling in and major works suffering damage, it was a depressing place. Slack security prompted one art-lover to purloin a small French oil and post it back to the gallery as a protest. With few touring exhibitions and a hotch-potch of discordant decor styles, the director of another state gallery called it "a national disgrace".

The renewal, and the relish with which the new management under Raymond Keaveney, director since 1989, have gone about it, followed a changed attitude by the Irish state to its cultural crown jewels. The controversial Charles Haughey, whose third period as Taoiseach from 1987 to 1992 saw numerous Mitterrand-style moves in publicly owned arts, was crucial, accommodating arguments that tourism and employment would benefit from heritage investment.

This judgement has since been vindicated with Dublin's National Gallery now achieving 1.1 million visitors annually, a figure comparing favourably, Keaveney points out, with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Uffizi in Florence.

After four years and IRpounds 9m (pounds 9.4m), a radical expansion and facelift has allowed the number of works on show to be doubled and every room to be refurbished. One might quibble with the odd choice among the 36 rooms, but the replacing of chilly backgrounds with more enticing colour schemes has been long overdue.

For years, ground-floor walls were, to put it politely, afflicted with a shrieking shade of green, recalling Billy Connolly jokes about gastric turmoil on the morning after the night before. Less strident backgrounds, from a gentle salmon-red to a faint blue, now allow restored Old Masters' rich hues to emerge unchallenged. The new North wing's smaller intimate spaces for English and "visiting artists" will be a pleasant surprise for those used to seeing works lost in vast prairie-like spaces.

The principal gallery staff - Keaveney, the assistant director, Andrew O'Connor, and senior conservator, Sergio Benedetti (the baroque Maigret who discovered the Dublin Caravaggio three years ago) - make up an energetic but informal group. Their decor choice was collaborative, "but the final decision was Sergio's," says Keaveney.

The project is immense, but it is subtlety, not scale, that makes it work. The delicacy of touch hits home in the way existing features, such as intricate carved-wood door-frames by Carlo Cambi of Siena, previously overshadowed, have been enhanced by new backgrounds to become handsome adornments against muted mushroom and pistachio shades.

A special multi-media viewing room with a rapid retrieval system will allow scholars and others easy access for the first time to items in storage from a total collection of 13,000 works.

The job began, however, with the basic fabric of the building: heating, lighting, ventilation have all been upgraded, with London Tube-sized lifts carrying 60, and wheelchair-friendly ramps aiding movement.

Another Irpounds 14m (pounds 14.6m) will complete the final stage, to be finished in the year 2000, when the gallery will have another 50,000 square feet on recently acquired adjacent land - 40 per cent more than at present.

A key feature there will be a gallery-within-a-gallery, the Jack B Yeats Museum, featuring works by the artist brother of the poet WB Yeats, including a major family bequest of sketchbooks, studio contents, a library and family memorabilia. "While the name is most associated abroad with the writer, the Yeats family were ironically more pre-occupied with the visual arts," Keaveney points out.

Other improvements include extra space for touring exhibitions, an auditorium and an expanded bookshop. To proceed, IRpounds 6m (pounds 6.2m) must be raised by the gallery itself this year, causing intermittent panic attacks for Keaveney. To encourage the generous and wealthy, Mr Haughey has come out of retirement to head an ambitious international fund-raising drive.

This headache is temporarily forgotten as Keaveney proudly shows off the pride of the collection. In upstairs glass-roofed rooms, which earlier escaped the green plague, lies the real wealth of the collection: a newly assembled treasure trove of baroque gems, many unseen in years. Extra space has allowed a wealth of fine but little-known Italian and Spanish works to be brought out from storage alongside recent purchases.

"We've made logical connections. It's not just one school in one room," explains Keaveney. "We decided to create special displays of an artist and his followers, for example with Caravaggio and Rembrandt." The effect is to develop what was once a discursive cruise through the centuries into an enlightening tour of developing European styles.

n The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, opens to the public on Saturday (00353 1661 5133)

n The final extract from Andrew Graham-Dixon's 'A History of British Art' will be published in the Independent next Tuesday

Ten to see at Ireland's National Gallery

This selection includes new acquisitions, and several paintings not seen in recent years.

1) Triple portrait by Santi di Tito. The only old master bought recently (1994) by the gallery. From the counter-Reformation movement in the late 16th century, its early realism is unnerving. "The artist was determined to simplify paintings so they could be understood by the majority of ordinary people," says Raymond Keaveney.

2) Newly-acquired arresting self-portrait by Leo Whelan (right) highlights the then new-found confidence among post-Independence artists such as Sean Keating, projecting distinctly Irish images.

3) Long absent from display, Sir Joshua Reynolds's garishly ugly faces in Parody of the School of Athens paves the way for James Gillray's Spitting Image era of caricature.

4) With serene but rueful gaze, Goya's actress friend Dona Antonia Zarate echoes the ambiguous smile of the Mona Lisa. The Goya is especially prized - missing for eight years after its 1986 theft from the Beit collection by the eccentric Dublin gangster Martin "The General" Cahill, it was hidden initially in an underground bunker in the Dublin mountains. It re-appeared in Istanbul, returning to the gallery a month after Cahill's assassination by the IRA in 1994. Remarkably, given this history, it is in superb condition.

5) Shepherd finding the Infant Cyrus by Castiglione (1616-1670) exemplifies the Italian classical technique on a giant scale in lighting, landscape and animated figures. Delicately brushed clothing anticipates later dreamy works of Alma-Tadema and Leighton.

6) Retrieved from storage, Scenes from the Life of St Augustine is a vivid technicolour strip-cartoon by the unnamed "Master of the Silver", packed with intriguing detail. Is the procession of priests at the bedside hoping for more than just blessings?

7) In Orazio Gentileschi's David and Goliath (right), a sweeping blade- wielding hand in the foreground confirms a master's technique. The violent movement bursts from the canvas as if caught by a photographer.

8) One of several Arab scenes, Gustave Guillaumet's Women in an Eastern Courtyard captures a relaxed warmth with a feeling for light and exotic colour.

9) Charles Emile Jacques' Shepherdess and Sheep with Dog Near Wood applies light on a flock of sheep in a boldly naturalistic pastoral scene.

10) The recently-acquired Jack B Yeats That Grand Conversation was under the Rose has a title drawn from a political ballad of the Napoleonic period. Its rose symbolism carries a distinct nationalistic message.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high