Arts and Crafts Sculpture

By Nicola Gordon Bowe 

The Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland (ACSI) was founded in Dublin in 1894, six years after its English namesake, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (ACES), held its first exhibition in London. The progressive ideals championed by English Arts and Crafts architects, designers and artist-craftsmen in England mirrored the Utopian socialist writings and example of John Ruskin and William Morris and were emulated by the founders of the Irish society. The term ‘Arts and Crafts’ adopted in 1887 suggested the collaborative ideal of the combined arts, where the choice and use of materials were seen as integral to individual artistic expression and central to a challenging ideology advocating hand-crafted work, rather than mechanical mass reproduction, reformed design and an awareness of national heritage. Walter Crane, president of the English Society, avowed that ‘If there is no room or chance of recognition for really artistic power and feeling in design and craftsmanship – if Art is not recognized in the humblest object and material, and felt to be as valuable in its own way as the more highly rewarded pictorial skill – the arts cannot be in a sound condition’ (pp. 4–5). 

Susan Beattie has pointed out that, from its outset, the ACES provided a ‘platform from which sculptors could publicly declare their readiness and ability to adopt new roles’ (p. 56). These included strengthening the dialogue between architects and sculptors in both an industrial and a domestic context; airing the sculptor/carver/modeller issue so as to avoid the demoralized division of labour prevalent in commercial and industrial casting; giving expression to national life and its traditions; and expressing ‘workaday realism’ by representing daily life rather than idealized or historicist subjects, so as to ‘invest even the humblest toil with an honourableness that is not sufficiently recognized’ (National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry: Transactions 1891, p. 52, quoted in Beattie, p. 49). The two last proposals held the strongest appeal for Irish artist-craftsmen and women, who admired the evocative modelling of small-scale, symbolic, figurative bas-relief panels by the sculptors Harry Bates, George Frampton, Robert Anning Bell and Ellen Mary Rope, all exhibitors with ACES. Modelled and carved relief work was a major feature of its exhibitions between 1888 and 1906. These provided a sympathetic environment in which to show decorative, intimate work ‘where the boundaries between fine and applied art were deliberately obscured’ (Beattie, p. 191) and artist and craftsman were reunited in purpose and execution. 

The first exhibition of the ACSI, held in Dublin in 1895, included ‘Gesso, Stucco and Sgraffito Work … Metalwork … Stone and Marble Carving. Terra-Cotta …Wood-carving’ among its categories of ‘Contemporary Original Work in Decorative Design and Handicraft’. Crafts allied to architecture, such as stone and wood sculpture, wrought metalwork and plaster modelling were specially encouraged (JPACSI, 1, 1 (1896), 8). Among the 428 Irish exhibits shown were a number of unspecified carved panels and furniture, some from amateur woodcarving classes, a bronze panel by James Ward of Belfast, and Sweeping Girl, a plaster relief by Rosamond Praeger (qv). Praeger was to become Ireland’s first Arts and Crafts sculptor. She trained at the Government School of Art in Belfast, near her native Holywood, Co. Down, where she ‘cut her first piece of stone and carved her first piece of marble’ before embarking on her initial major carved work, Hope and Memory (early 1880s) for her father’s grave in the local Priory cemetery (Joseph McBrinn, Sophia Rosamond Praeger 1867–1954. Art, Literature, Science (Belfast, 2007), p.14). While studying at the Slade School of Art in London in 1888, Praeger met Ellen Mary Rope, who would greatly influence her work and introduce her to fellow women sculptors. Although Rope was not represented in the Loan col- lection of the ACES at the first ACSI exhibition, this exemplary show of the best of English Arts and Crafts work included The Goal and The Triumph, metal reliefs by Gilbert Bayes, Honeysuckle and Harvest, coloured plaster reliefs by Robert Anning Bell, medals by George Frampton, Mother and Child, and a decorative plaster relief by Mary Sargant-Florence. The lesson was: ‘a designer should always be able to execute the work for which he designs’ so as ‘to acquire that instinctive feeling for the qualities of his material which alone can give to his design the satisfying impression of inevitability, as though the thing grew so by an inner impulse’, resulting in ‘complete fitness’ and simple perfection in form and treatment (‘The Exhibits of the English Arts and Crafts Society at the Irish Arts and Crafts Exhibition’, JPACSI, 1, 1 (1896), 48). Furthermore, it was hoped Irish work would aspire towards a distinctive national character. 

The ACSI’s second exhibition in 1899 was smaller and more selective but, besides carved wooden furniture and terracotta panels, repoussé and embossed metalwork, the only sculptures to be found were gesso relief panels in the exemplary loan collection of English and Scottish Arts and Crafts. Influential among these were Rope’s Boy and DolphinGuardian AngelKneeling Angels and Jog On, a panel for a window-garden box exhibited by the Della Robbia Pottery, Conrad Dressler’s enamelled sculpture Woman bearing bundle of sticks, and Anning Bell’s Music panel. Clearly, sculptural work was perceived as much less of a priority by the Irish society than in England, so that its absence was not even referred to in its lecture and demonstration programme. This is surprising in view of the eminently includable work of two prize-winning sculptors trained in Dublin and at South Kensington (under Edouard Lanteri), who had both been elected RHA by 1901, having studied and worked abroad: John Hughes, Instructor in Modelling at the DMSA (later NCAD) 1894–1901, and his successor and exact contemporary, Oliver Sheppard (qqv). In 1898, the committee that had been formed to commemorate Charles Stewart Parnell on the centenary of the Irish Volunteer Rebellion had unjustifiably dismissed these young Irish sculptors in favour of the Irish-American Augustus Saint-Gaudens (qv) (Murphy, 2010, p. 211). The influential honorary secretary of the ACSI, T.W. Rolleston, made it clear that he considered painting and sculpture to be ‘high art’ with no ulterior purpose than to be beautiful and spiritually enriching, unlike skilfully made decorative arts objects where beauty and ornament were no less important than use and function. He particularly called for art training to improve drawing, technical and craft skills as well as intellectual and spiritual development, so as to ‘form an Irish school with marked national characteristics’ (T.W. Rolleston, ‘Art and Industry in Ireland’, JPACSI, 1, 3 (1901), 224–36). 

During this period, the art education system in Ireland was constructively revised under Horace Plunkett’s visionary Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, which also organized pioneering art industrial exhibitions in Glasgow (1901), Cork (1902) and St. Louis (1904). The ACSI’s much smaller, exclusively Irish, third exhibition in 1904 reflected the introduction to the DMSA of experienced, skilled teachers trained in England. Sheppard had been persuaded by his and Hughes’s DMSA contemporary W.B. Yeats to take over the modelling class on Hughes’s resignation, so as to strengthen the ‘artistic and literary [Gaelic] movement’ (John Turpin, The Life and Work of Oliver Sheppard (Dublin, 2000), p. 19). The School’s new, short-lived (English) headmaster, R.H.A.Willis (qv) (who exhibited at the ACSI show), was, like Sheppard, an ardent Gaelic Leaguer and evocative modeller of Irish subjects. Although Sheppard did not exhibit with the ACSI until 1910, he had already shown his plaster sculptures of Bard Oisin and Niamh (1895, HL), illustrating W.B. Yeats’s poem, and The Training of Cúchulainn (1897, NMI) at the RHA, his Genius of Celtic Art (1896) and Lia-Fáil (1897) statuettes and Fate of the Children of Lir (1901, NGI) narrative relief panel at the RA, and shown four works on Irish mythological themes at the 1902 Cork International Exhibition to celebrate his return to Ireland. Sheppard continued to make powerfully Symbolist sculpture, such as his iconic Inis Fáil (1901, HL) [280], shown in plaster at the RHA and 1906 Oireachtas Art Exhibition, and ‘small bas-relief portrait plaquettes which were a speciality of his’, closely allied to the medals which firmly place him in an Arts and Crafts context (ibid., p. 26). Hughes (who showed with the RHA, not the ACSI) had won the admiration of his contemporary George ‘AE’ Russell for the ‘Celtic spirit’ and superb technical accom- plishment of his Orpheus and Eurydice (1897–1903, HL) [156], his clay sketch of Cúchulainn (1898) and cast silver statuette Padraig as a shepherd-boy (1900) (A.E., ‘An Irish Sculptor – John Hughes, R.H.A.’, JPACSI, 1, 3 (1901), 243–48).

350. Mervyn Lawrence, Erina, 1904, bronze with inlaid enamelled decorative oval on plinth, private collection.

351. Beatrice Elvery, The Mother, Reproduced with kind permission from the Board of Trinity College Dublin. © Trinity College Library. 

In 1904, over 370 contemporary exhibits were set out for the first time in thirteen specific categories, one of which was mod- elling. A special section included work by artists not entirely res- ident in Ireland: the versatile Dublin-born Edinburgh craftswoman Phoebe Traquair, and the Irish Art Companions, whose cast plaster works included the Dublin-born Mervyn Lawrence’s (qv) Frampton-influenced coloured, inlaid bust of idealized heroine Erina (private collection) [350], and Lilla Vanston’s (qv) Erin Mourning for her Dead Heroes. In his report, Rolleston, although still critical in his search for ‘good art and good workmanship in Ireland’, acclaimed the work of ‘a genuine artist’, Traquair’s niece Beatrice Elvery (see ‘Glenavy, Beatrice’, AAI v), for her strong, simple, distinctively national designs. He illustrated her coloured plaster relief panel The Mother (1904, private collection) [351], depicting a pensive, young, haloed peasant woman snuggling her baby, and four terracotta figurine ‘sketches’ from her ten sculptural exhibits (Rolleston, ‘Art Work in Irish Exhibitions’, JPACSI, 1, 4 (1906), 282–85).

Elvery (1883–1970), the archetypal Arts and Crafts artist-craftswoman, had discovered her precocious vocation for modelling under Hughes, with whom she studied for eight years from 1896, ‘in complete devotion to a beloved master’. So impressed were collectors and judges alike at the ‘poetic abandon’ of the ‘beautiful modelling’ of her prize-winning student sculpted reliefs, figurines, portraits and genre scenes in gesso and terracotta that some were cast in silver, e.g. for West & Co. of Dublin, as trophies, or in bronze (Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘The Art of Beatrice Elvery, Lady Glenavy (1883–1970), IAR, 11, (1995), 170–71). Although her soulful symbolic composition Glendalough (1904, HL) remained uncast, her swirling angel lectern for Tullow Church, Dublin (1904) and Winged Victory (1908) for the Boer War Memorial, Kickham Barracks, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, executed for Irish Arts and Crafts architect Richard Caulfeild Orpen, were bronze-cast. Her dreamlike features were modelled in bas-relief by Hughes c. 1900 (ill. in Alan Denson, John Hughes Sculptor 1865–1941, A Documentary Biography, Kendal, 1969, fig. 53), and, allegorically, as Roisín Dubh by Sheppard on the white marble relief base of his Mangan memorial (1909, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin). Elvery emulated her admired masters by winning scholarships to South Kensington and to Paris, where Hughes tried to persuade her to join Rodin’s studio to learn stone-cutting. Through Lanteri in London, she also assimilated the influence of the French sculp- tor, Jules Dalou, transposing his workaday style into a beguilingly intimist Irish idiom. 

Another outstanding DMSA sculpture student Michael Shortall (qv) carved the ruggedly primitivist Hiberno- Romanesque revival corbels, nave capitals and baptismal font with scenes from the life of St Brendan directly out of stone (1902–06) in the interior of St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, Co. Galway [345]. Working under leading Irish Arts and Crafts architect William A. Scott, he also sculpted the Celto-Byzantine baldacchino of nearby Laban Church for the Revivalist Edward Martyn, and included local flora and fauna with legendary figures on his carved stone capitals at Scott’s nearby Spiddal House (c. 1904–06) for Lord Killanin. Robert Elliott, in his diatribe on ecclesiastical art in Catholic Ireland admired Shortall’s ‘excellent carving’, for example around Hughes’s Man of Sorrows (c. 1906), a ‘beautiful relief, probably the finest yet executed for any Irish church’ (Robert Elliott, Art and Ireland, Dublin, 1906, pp. xvi– xvii) bronze cast on the Cathedral’s high altar, the result of enlightened patronage. The extensive 1907 Irish International Exhibition (see ‘Great Exhibitions: Sculpture’) in Dublin included other exceptional Sheppard pupils – Albert Power (qv) (a Cúchulainn statuette, an RDS Taylor prizewinner) and William Pearse (qv) (Folklore, a statuette) in the Sculpture section of the Arts and Crafts Sub-Section, whereas Hughes, Lawrence and Sheppard were represented in the Irish Sculpture section. The large display of British Sculpture at this exhibition featured plaster, bronze and terracotta sculpture by major con- temporary figures, such as Alfred Drury, Hamo Thornycroft, Frampton, Bates, Bayes and Dressler, the last’s colourful Medmenham Pottery frieze illustrating Hygiene (1899–1901) [362] having created a stir on Edward Ould of Liverpool’s Sunlight Chambers on Dublin’s Essex Quay (Robert Prescott- Walker, ‘Conrad Dressler and the Medmenham Pottery’, Decorative Art Society 1850 to the Present, 18 (1994), 50–60; Seán Rothery, Ireland and the New Architecture, Dublin, 1991, pp. 26–29). 

The ACSI’s exhibitions in 1910, 1917, 1921, culminating in 1925, included small sculpture sections featuring Praeger, Sheppard and Power. Praeger, who had exhibited her St Brigid of Kildare Della Robbia pottery figurine with the 1904 Belfast Art Society (where she continued to exhibit sculpture, medals, plaster relief panels and portraits until 1929), showed seven plaster relief panels, including Looking West (1910, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum), a ‘Fairy’ wall fountain and a horse-trough design in 1910; The Reel and Faith Healing (in terracotta) in 1917; and two plaster models for stone war memorial figures in 1921. Sheppard exhibited two Lanteri-inspired bronze-cast, mechanically reduced bas-relief portrait medals for TCD in 1910, a bronzed plaster Deluge, another medal and its larger plaster model in 1917 (Turpin, 2000, pp. 182–83), and a carved marble panel in 1925. Power exhibited a decorative plaster medallion, A Youth statuette and a marble relief at the 1910 

ACSI exhibition but, like Sheppard, otherwise favoured showing with the RHA. In 1922, Sheppard’s evocative medal, struck in silver and bronze, depicting the legendary Queen Tailte (private collection) [352] was awarded to prizewinners at the extensive Aonach Tailteann Fair held in Dublin to celebrate the new Irish Free State, at whose associated art exhibition he, Praeger, Power and Vanston exhibited prize-winning sculpture independently. Power’s commanding statuette An Bainriogan Tailte (private collection) was made as a trophy for the ensuing 1924 Aonach Tailteann, where Joseph Higgins (qv) was a prizewinner. Trained by M.J. McNamara at Cork’s Crawford School of Art in an Arts and Crafts/French Realist idiom, Higgins had exhibited carved wood nature studies with the ACSI at the 1907 international exhibition and the society exhibition in 1910. In 1921 he showed a marble Madonna and Child bas-relief and, at the 1922 Aonach, a child’s portrait sculpted in limewood and a set of carved domestic animals. None of Higgins’s work was cast in bronze during his lifetime (Orla Murphy (ed.), Joseph Higgins – Sculptor and Painter, Cork, 2005). Higgins’s symbolist bas-relief plaques evoking Pádraig Pearse (1918) and Beethoven recall the portrait panels of William Morris (1900) and Walt Whitman (c. 1905, NGI) sculpted by Irish-American Jerome Connor (qv). 

352. Oliver Sheppard, An Banríoghan Tailte, obverse, 1922, prize medal struck in silver and bronze. Photograph Oliver Sheppard Collection, National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL), Dublin.

Although carved considerably later, the relief panels in stone by Gabriel Hayes (qv) [139] in 1942 for the façade of the Department of Industry and Commerce’s headquarters in Kildare Street, Dublin, and by P.O. Reeves (1870–1967) in 1953 for the Nugent Memorial in the Church of Ireland, Lough Sheelin, Co. Westmeath, are nonetheless clearly in an Arts and Crafts idiom (Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘Percy Oswald Reeves (1870–1967), metalworker and enamelllist, forgotten master of the Arts and Crafts Movement’, Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present, 18 (1994), fig. 15).

SELECTED READING Walter Crane, ‘Of the Revival of Design and Handicraft’, Arts and Crafts Essays by Members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, London, 1893; Susan Beattie, The New Sculpture, London, 1983; Nicola Gordon Bowe and Elizabeth Cumming, The Arts and Crafts Movements in Dublin and Edinburgh, Dublin, 1998. 

The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.