Portraits of Irish Writers in Boston

Laurence Stearne's Portrait of Ballagh

By Tara Dougherty, Music Editor
October / November 2010

Over the past several centuries, a number of Irish artists have produced compelling portraits of Irish writers in painting, sculpture and photography, and now for the first time, those collected works are on view in the United States.

Entitled “Literary Lives: Portraits from the Crawford Art Gallery and Abbey Theatre, Ireland,” the exhibition is comprised of 49 works and runs through December 5, 2010, at Boston College’s McMullen Museum.

Peter Murray, director of the Crawford Gallery, Cork, and co-curator, explains that the show has a dual purpose:

“The works of art in this exhibition celebrate literary achievements, but they also celebrate the talents of Irish visual artists. The painters, photographers, and sculptors who created these portraits give an insight both into the writer’s world and also into the way in which they were seen by those around them.”

Murray goes on to explain that in many  cases the subject and the artist knew each other and that “often the portraits are an expression of respect.

“Jonathan Swift is depicted by his friend Francis Bindon, while over two centuries later, the poet Micheal O’Siadhail is painted by his friend Michael O’Deal. Patrick Hennessy’s portrait of Elizabeth Bowen is clearly a celebration of the writer’s home and heritage, while Norah McGuinness’ image of Frank O’Connor is an intimate portrayal of one of Cork’s greatest writers.”

In addition to the visuals provided entirely by Irish artists, the exhibit also includes a range of books, manuscripts, letters and illustrations from Boston College’s John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, which add to the experience. Prof. Marjorie Howe of BC’s Irish Studies program explains that the artifacts from the Burns Library “examine how different objects embody aspects of a literary life.”

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