By Brian McAvera

In Art and Ulster 1, published in 1977, John Hewitt famously remarked that ‘of sculpture there was little to tell’. He was discussing Northern Ireland and his starting date was 1557, thus absolving himself from dealing, for example, with the White Island statues of the Iron Age Celts. However the comment points to a larger truth: with the exception of what we would nowadays call Public Art, be it carved high crosses, sculpture in churches, cathedrals, or memorials of one kind or another, there was relatively little sculpture produced by Irish artists in Ireland until the nineteenth century and even then most of the production could be categorized as skilful, academic and bland. It is in the first half of the twentieth century that a major, internationally recognized sculptor appears, in the shape of F.E. McWilliam (qv). It is telling that it was not until 2008 that the first major exhibition of his work in Ireland opened at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery in Banbridge, Co. Down, along with his reconstructed studio (containing 190 maquettes), which is located in a small sculpture garden [383] adjacent to the gallery, and which also contains ten of his sculptures, some of which are displayed in the garden.

383. View of the sculpture garden at the F. E. McWilliam Gallery and Studio. © Estate of F.E. McWilliam, courtesy of the F.E. McWilliam Gallery and Studio, Banbridge, Co. Down; courtesy of the Georgian Gallery, Donaghadee; © Jason Ellis.

However, from the 1960s onwards there were considerable developments in Irish sculpture. In Northern Ireland, where there was no infrastructure for sculpture – for example, there was and remains no professional foundry – the foundations were laid by two sculptors who were also university lecturers, Bob Sloan and Gordon Woods (qqv). In the Republic of Ireland, although there was much more of a sculptural tradition, it was really only with John Behan (qv) and the opening of Dublin Art Foundry, followed later by the even more influential Leo Higgins and Colm Brennan (qqv) at Cast Foundry [20] (see Cast 25, Solomon Gallery, Dublin, 2011), that the momentum started. A number of factors coalesced. The beginning of less expensive foreign travel from the late 1950s enabled generations of stu-dents to see work at first hand. The rapid developments in the economy, particularly later in the so-called Celtic Tiger years, fuelled a new class of collectors who had the money, and the desire for status, which brought about a sculpture boom. In the public sphere, the climate was slowly changing, in part because of the development of independent exhibition bodies (IELA in 1943; The Independents in 1960; and EVA in 1977), as well as major displays such as the Rosc exhibitions from 1967 onwards. Add to this the formation of Arts Councils north and south, the establishment of Aosdána, the student demands for change at NCAD, the Per Cent for Art scheme introduced in 1978, and the development of proactive policies towards art by local councils – to name but a few undercurrents – and it is clear that change was inevitable.

But the greatest single reorientation to the cartography of Irish sculpture was provided by the formation of both the AAI, a trade union which handled the practical concerns of artists and lobbied on their behalf, and the SSI (qv) – now Visual Artists Ireland – (building upon elements created by Independent Artists), which from 1980 onwards devised a wide-ranging programme of symposia and exchanges and so created a skills base in Ireland.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is not especially rich in agencies which collect art, never mind sculpture. The primary institutions are the Ulster Museum (now subsumed into The Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland or MAGNI, which incorporates Armagh County Museum and The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum), The Arts Council (ACNI, whose collection was being dispersed in the early years of the twenty-first century), the Department of Finance and Personnel (which since the 1990s has often collaborated with the OPW), along with sundry institutions such as Queen’s University, Belfast, UU, Belfast Harbour Commissioners’ Office, The Royal Ulster Academy Diploma Collection, and Down County Museum. In the late twentieth century there was a significant effort to incorporate art, includ- ing sculpture, into hospitals.

As the major institution in the field, the collection of MAGNI (The Catalogue: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture MAGNI, Belfast, 2000) is worth looking at in detail. The Ulster Museum has sixty-nine twentieth-century sculptures by Irish artists in its collection (twenty-three of which are by Sophia Rosamond Praeger (qv)), along with fifteen nineteenth-century sculptures. Armagh County Museum has another nine twentieth-century works, three of which are by Praeger; in theory the museum collects a representative range of Irish art, including sculpture, but in practice the sculpture collection is weak. It has no sculpture holdings before the nineteenth century, which is represented by John Henry Foley, Thomas Kirk (qqv) and Anne Marjorie Robinson with one sculpture apiece, Christopher Moore with two works, Samuel Ferris Lynn with five and Patrick McDowell with six, although it has nothing by Joseph Robinson Kirk, Peter Turnerelli, John Hogan or the Farrells (Terence and Sir Thomas) (qqv).

In the twentieth century, up to c. 1970, apart from five F.E. McWilliam works and the aforementioned twenty-three by Praeger, MAGNI has little of note. Noticeable by their absence are the three Irish-Americans (Andrew O’Connor, Jerome Connor and Augustus Saint-Gaudens) and almost every major ‘southerner’ whether male (Oliver Sheppard, Oisín Kelly, John Behan, Michael Bulfin, John Byrne) or female (Gerda Frömel, Alexandra Wejchert) (qqv).

However, in the period after 1970, the gaps appear to suggest that the museum has little interest in collecting Irish sculpture. There is no sculptural work by those Northerners who have established a platform outside Ireland (John Aiken (qv), Tom Bevan, Catherine Harper); by prominent Installation and Public Art sculptors such as Brian Connolly, Una Walker, Gordon Woods (qqv) and Winston Weir, or by seasoned professionals like Barry Callaghan, Alice Knox, Colin McGookin and Jasper McKinney. Bob Sloan, the first major sculptor to remain in Northern Ireland in the twentieth century, is represented by one small work, as are Eilís O’Connell, Deborah Brown and Alistair Wilson (qqv). More recent Northern sculptors who came to prominence in the late 1980s onwards, such as Philip Napier, John Kindness, Locky Morris, Eamonn O’Doherty (qqv), Mike Hogg, Chris Wilson, and Aisling O’Beirn, all of whom have exhibited internationally, have likewise been ignored.

When one compares the number of sculptors post 1970 who are included in public collections in the Republic – well over 200 – with the Ulster Museum’s count of fourteen, the lack of representation is marked. On a positive note, they do have two each by Brian King, Clifford Rainey, Michael Warren and Ian Stuart (qqv) and three by Philip Flanagan. They also have a number of international sculptors, being particularly strong in the decades of the 1960s and ’70s, including work by Caro, King, Flanagan and Noguchi, as well as strong pieces by Moore and Hepworth.

The Queen’s University Collection (Eileen Black (ed.), A Sesquicentennial: Art from the Queen’s University Collection, Queen’s University, Belfast, 1995) has eight sculptures, including individual works by F.E. McWilliam, Albert Power, Clifford Rainey and Mike Hogg, while the UU is scarcely more impressive with five sculptures listed in its catalogue (Art Works: 1987– 1994, Belfast, 1998).

Belfast Harbour Commissioners (Eileen Black (ed.), Paintings, Sculptures and Bronzes in the Collection of The Belfast Harbour Commissioners Belfast, 1983) has four nineteenth-century works including two by Samuel Ferris Lynn. In 2011 the Royal Ulster Academy Diploma Collection has seventeen sculptures, including two each by McWilliam, Praeger and Morris Harding (qv), one by Bob Sloan and one by Barry Orr – a rather limited representation for an organization with a 130-year history, though the same can be said for its equivalent in the south, the RHA – while Belfast City Hall has three, most of its sculpture being by non-Irish artists.

Outside of Belfast the picture is even more bleak. Fermanagh County Museum has five works, including three by Philip Flanagan, while Fermanagh County Council has three others, including a Gerard Cox (qv). Ballymena’s Braid Arts Centre County Museum (Eileen Black and M. Lesley Simpson (eds), Art of Down, Down County Museum, 2011) has six works, including two by McWilliam and two by Imogen Stuart (qv).

However, apart from the aforementioned F.E. McWilliam Gallery (which has 268 works), one particularly welcome development is the provision of art in all the major hospitals in Belfast and elsewhere in the North. Although much of the resulting art-work might more properly come under the heading of Craft & Design, there have been many innovative and intriguing projects from artists on both sides of the border. At the Royal Victoria Hospital, Eamonn O’Doherty, Janet Mullarney, Alice Maher and Betty Newman Maguire (qqv) have created striking works. In spaces as various as the City, Mater and Ulster Hospitals, sculptors as various as Philip Napier and Michael Warren, Maud Cotter (qqv) and Catherine Harper, as well as Ross Wilson, Barry Callaghan and Michael Hogg have all been employed. Publications include New Art at the RVH (Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, 2010) and A Cancer Centre Collection (Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, 2012). There is no equivalent of this kind of enlightened commissioning in hospitals in the Republic.

Republic of Ireland

Compared to the North, the Republic is rich in its collections. In Dublin, these include NGI, HL, IMMA, CIAS and OPW, as well as various smaller agencies such as Aer Rianta, UCD, TCD and the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Hall and Art Collection. The universities are not well endowed with Irish sculpture, although TCD does have some international works of note, especially Calder’s Cactus Provisoire and Pomodoro’s Sphere Within Sphere [384]; and, surprisingly, neither is the National Gallery of Ireland. An indication of the latter’s interest in this field can be gauged by comparing its Catalogue of the Sculptures 1975 (NGI, Dublin) with its acquisitions after the Illustrated Summary Catalogue of Prints and Sculpture (NGI, 1988). The 1975 catalogue listed sixteen eighteenth-century sculptures, fif- ty-four from the nineteenth century and thirty-four from the twentieth century. By 1988 the total rose from 104 to 151. Post 1988, the additional sculpture purchases numbered zero for the eighteenth century, three for the nineteenth century and sixteen for the twentieth. The majority of these were portrait busts of – theoretically at least – the great and the good. Best represented were Christopher Moore with nine, Jerome Connor with four, Albert Power with twelve, Oliver Sheppard with seven and Michael Stapleton (c. 1747–1801) with eight.

384. Arnaldo Pomodoro, Sphere within a Sphere, Trinity College Dublin. Reproduced with kind permission from the Board of Trinity College Dublin, courtesy of the Pomodoro Foundation (

Although the HL, like the National Gallery, has a substantial number of portrait busts, its range is much wider. It has one nineteenth-century sculpture by John Hogan, but ninety-four sculptures from the twentieth century, though these do include three by John Hughes (qv), twenty-two by Andrew O’Connor, eleven by Oliver Sheppard and three by Albert Power. However, although the collection is by no means representative, it does include a reasonable sprinkling of interesting sculptors with Edward Delaney and Dorothy Cross having three works apiece, and John Behan, Gerda Frömel, Oisín Kelly, Melanie le Brocquy, Patrick O’Reilly and Vivienne Roche (qqv) all with two apiece. They also have several international sculptors of consequence, in particular Ayrton and Epstein, Arman and Degas, Niki de Saint Phalle and Frink, all with one each, a Kienholz, and four Rodin, mainly portrait busts.

IMMA, which has 224 sculptures, of which 126 are Irish, has a more thorough collection, in relation to individual sculptors, than that of the HL. It is really a museum of modern art as opposed to a museum of Irish art but it does have eight, mainly installation works by James Coleman (qv see AAI v), six by both Cross and Frömel, five by Barrie Cooke and Michael Warren, and four by Deborah Brown, Edward Delaney, James McKenna, Janet Mullarney, Clifford Rainey (qqv) and Noel Sheridan. As this list indicates, the acquisition of sculpture, both national and international, relates more to donations and to those artists who have had exhibitions at the museum than to any coherent collecting policy. The same could be said for the National Gallery and the Hugh Lane.

The one remarkable exception to this is the OPW, which, both in the number of sculptures purchased, and of the documentation of same – together with a coherent purchasing strategy – is easily the most important collecting agency in Ireland. To date, it has produced four excellently detailed, illustrated catalogues of the collection and the statistics are striking: Art in State Buildings 1922–70 (OPW, 2000) catalogues thirty-two sculptural works; Art in State Buildings 1970–85 (OPW, 1998) twenty-nine; Art in State Buildings 1985–95 (OPW, 1997) twenty-seven; Art in State Buildings 1995–2005 (OPW, 2006) eighty- one; and between 2006 and early 2012 a further 119 sculptures have been acquired. The OPW has also produced catalogues for its annual collaborations with the North’s Department of Finance and Personnel such as Sculpture First (OPW, 2002).

While it is true that Northern Irish sculptors are little represented (as a general rule collections claiming to be ‘Irish’ are from the Republic of Ireland with only token obeisance to the North), the OPW is alone in collecting from a broad base, and in responding to the increasing number of sculptors generated by the activities of the Sculptors’ Society of Ireland. It is also unusual in its acquisition of work by young sculptors. While not entirely deficient in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sculpture, such as that of John Houghton (c. 1751) or of John Hogan, or sculpture from the first half of the twentieth century, such as the work of Jerome Connor, Séamus Murphy, Albert Power and Oliver Sheppard, the emphasis is squarely upon Irish sculpture from 1950 onwards. The majority of standard names occur, including John Behan, Edward Delaney, Oisín Kelly, Vivienne Roche and Michael Warren, but work by Jim Buckley, Cathy Carman, Martina Galvin, Joseph Sloan (qv) and Niall Walsh, among many others, also forms part of the collection. The OPW collaborates with its smaller sister organization in the North, the Department of Finance and Personnel. The CIAS, however, surprisingly, has only twenty-two sculptures, including two each by Michael Warren, Dorothy Cross and Brian King.

Dublin also possesses a series of small, often choice, collections such as that of Aer Rianta, which each year commissions an edition of seven to eight sculptures for the Business to Arts Awards, of which it retains one for itself. The collection (up to 2011) numbers 20 and usually concentrates on younger sculptors. Local councils often have some sculpture in their collec- tions. Dun Laoghaire–Rathdown, which in 2011 produced a fine catalogue of its collection edited by Caroline Stone, has four bronze busts by local artist Martin Dixon (1863–1938), as well as work by John Behan, Anna MacLeod and Edward Delaney.

Outside Dublin the major collection should be that of the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. The universities of Cork, Galway (which has sixteen works, including sculptures by Michael Warren, Brian King and John Behan) and Limerick (the university collection has work by forty-nine Irish sculptors) also have modest collections, as do smaller museums and galleries such as the Hunt Museum (one work only: a sheela-na-gig), the Model Niland in Sligo (which has thirteen, mainly on fixed-term loan, including four by Dorothy Cross and six by Marie Foley (qv)), the Municipal Gallery in Limerick, and numerous county councils, some of which, like Dundalk, Fingal and Meath, have produced catalogues of their holdings.

The Crawford, unconsciously echoing the National Gallery, has a disappointing collection of sculpture, with nothing from the eighteenth century, forty-two works from the nineteenth, and forty from the twentieth century. Their nineteenth-century holdings are dominated by twenty-five works of John Hogan, alongside five by Edward Ambrose, three by James Heffernan (qqv) and four by Richard Baxter (1824–96), while their twenti- eth-century collection is dominated by ten works of Séamus Murphy, three by John Behan and two apiece by Joseph Higgins, Marshall C. Hutson, Andrew O’Connor (qqv), Michael Murphy (1867–1938), Patrick J. O’Sullivan (b. 1940), Albert Power, Oliver Sheppard and Vivienne Roche. Surprising omissions, among artists of considerable reputation born or associated with Cork, are Jim Buckley, Maud Cotter and Marie Foley, who are not represented, despite the fact that many have worked at the National Sculpture Factory (qv).

In conclusion, one might note that, with the exception of the OPW and, to a limited extent the University of Limerick collection, Irish sculpture from the twentieth century onwards is not well represented in the country’s public collections. This even extends to the major banks, such as AIB and Bank of Ireland, whose collections totalled respectively 3,000 and 2,000 works in 2012. No figures are available for the percentage of sculpture acquired, but some idea can be gleaned from AIB’s two published catalogues (AIB Art; AIB Art 2) in which out of 208 works illustrated, thirty-eight were of sculpture. The only available catalogue for the Bank of Ireland collection suggests a much smaller figure.

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.