A New Book Seems to be at Outdated Work and Sketches of a
Kathryn Milligan. Photo by Conor O’Leary.
In the 1960s, artist Flora Mitchell felt that Dublin was losing too much of its built heritage.
So she set out to draw the city’s beautiful Georgian buildings – including the buildings on Cork Street and Henrietta Street – that had fallen into disrepair and were about to be demolished.
“She felt like the city was developing very quickly,” says Kathryn Milligan, an art historian whose new book Painting Dublin examines the work of Mitchell and five other artists who bring Dublin’s streets and buildings to life through drawings and watercolors awakened.
“The things she said about Dublin in the 60s really coincide with what is happening now,” says Milligan.
Milligan, who studied art history at University College Dublin and then received her PhD from Trinity College Dublin, will publish her first book in December.
She wanted to explore the links between Dublin’s visual arts tradition and literary tradition, and share the stories of the artists who painted the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Getting acquainted with the visual artwork of Dublin and the artists who painted it will give you a new perspective on the city. “We follow in her footsteps every day,” she says.
The old magic of Dublin
“The old magic of Dublin is mainly in its color […] and it is up to us to do everything we can to build to the delight of the Dubliners to come, ”said Flora Mitchell in an interview with the Irish Times on September 4, 1959.
Mitchell and her family were born in Nebraska in 1890 and moved to Dublin after their father got a job at the Jameson Distillery.
She began sketching the destruction of prominent buildings during the uprising and civil war of 1916, exhibited at the Dublin Sketching Club, and illustrated city guides.
In 1930 she married William Jameson, a great-grandson of John Jameson, the founder of the Jameson whiskey distillery. Jameson was a seaman and after they were married they moved to the Isle of Wight.
Mitchell returned to Dublin after her husband’s death in 1939. She began exhibiting her artwork again in the late 1940s.
In 1966 she published her first and only book Vanishing Dublin, a collection of watercolor paintings of dilapidated historical buildings and descriptions of them and the streets of the city.
“The Irish House” on Wood Quay was one of the famous buildings that was destroyed shortly after being painted.
However, Milligan was unable to reproduce Mitchell’s painting in the book, she says, because no one knows who owns the copyright.
“She had no children, so it would have passed on to nieces or nephews,” says Milligan. “Somewhere in the world there are descendants of her who are the copyright owners.”
Fortunately, they were bought by the National Gallery of Ireland in 1969 so people can still see them, she says.
What did she think?
Another artist in the book is Rose Barton, a water color painter whose work focused on Dublin in the late 19th century.
Barton came from a very high class family and often presented the town as foggy or foggy, Milligan says.
She is best known for a painting entitled “On the Way to the Levée in Dublin Castle,” which shows wealthy people riding in their carriages to a major social event, the Levée, in Dublin Castle. In the picture, poor people line up to watch the fanfare.
“We don’t know if she views these class differences as a normal part of life or if she is deliberately commenting on them,” says Milligan.
There is no record of Barton’s own thoughts, she says. “It is a common problem in art history that nobody keeps the personal letters and diaries of the artists.”
Part of the road landscape
The book is definitely a celebration of women artists in Dublin, says Milligan. But it was the painter Harry Kernoff who first caught her attention.
Kernoff’s family came from Belarus and he was born in London. He was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps as a carpenter and had started his apprenticeship, says Milligan. Then he won the Taylor Scholarship to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art.
“He was involved in left-wing political circles and often painted the life of the working class in the city,” she says.
His pictures of the docks, shipyards and alleys around factories are pretty well known, she says. In addition to his paintings Yards und Gassen, Kernoff is known for his series about Dublin pubs, such as his 1941 piece entitled “Davy Byrne’s Pub”.
Kernoff is interesting because, while he is painting Dublin, he is also part of the same Dublin. “He lives there, he works there. It offers him the theme for his work, but people also see him as part of the street scene, ”says Milligan.
“Harry had a real sense of humor, he was very funny,” says his niece Kate Kernoff over the phone from London.
He was a kind and sensitive man, she says, quite shy, but still popular.
She recalls visiting Dublin as a 12 year old child around 1958 and Harry took her out one afternoon. “He stopped almost every halfway and spoke to someone,” she says.
She also remembers his humility. When she pointed out his exhibited pictures, he was almost shy, she says.
Harry liked going to pubs and had a lot of friends in them, she says. But he couldn’t drink much.
His friends would tell him to follow the tram tracks to get home at the end of the night, she says.
Milligan says the December launch of her book Painting Dublin could have been a lot more fun if only the pubs were open.
“One of the things I was always joking about when the book came out was that we did a Kernoff pub crawl,” she says. “Bring the book and have a drink in every pub.”
During the First World War, drawing of the city was only permitted with a special permit
from the Dublin Metropolitan Police, says Milligan.
“Maybe in case you drew something that was useful to the enemy,” she says.
Estella Solomons was a member of Cumann na mBan, who hid people on the run in her studio on Pearse Street, Milligan says. But she got in trouble with the police about drawings.
Solomons had permission to sketch in parks like Phoenix Park and the Botanical Gardens, but not on the city streets. “They tell her she can paint flowers or trees, but she just wants to show the city,” says Milligan.
She was caught sketching on Wellington Quay and received an angry letter from the police for sketching without permission. “It’s a little reminder of what’s going on outside of the artist’s life,” she says. “You live in wartime.”
Jack B Yeats may have had permission because he always drew in pencil, Milligan says.
Yeats could go back to those memories 20 or 30 years later and process them into a painting, she says. “He’s always taking snapshots,” says Milligan. Just like people take photos today.
He loved drawing city life. “What interests him is the mix of people who live there, the characters who live there, but also advertising,” says Milligan.
Yeats collected promotional materials, ballad sheets (bought from traveling singers), tickets, theater programs and newspaper clippings, she says.
In “The Fish Market”, Walter Osborne shows a fishmonger on Patrick Street. But behind the fishmonger, a small group of people gathers around an organ grinder.
That piqued Milligan’s interest. “What’s the story of organ mills? Where are you from?”
She found out that in the 19th century, many Italians lived on Chancery Lane near Patrick Street and some were organ mills, she says.
There has been more movement of people and more immigration to Ireland than people think, Milligan says.
“Dublin has always had such a flow of people. We focus more on those who leave than those who come here,” she says.
Milligan says the artists are all from different backgrounds, religions and social classes. What connects them is that they paint the same city.
This is a reminder that the city was diverse even then. “There isn’t just one Dublin experience,” she says.
Painting Dublin is out December 6th and is available for pre-order now from Manchester University Press.