Washington, D.C. – The government shutdown of United States government institutions, including museums, during the end of last year and start of 2019, encouraged me to find the best art then available for free, public viewing in Washington, D.C. Ministerial visits at the Irish embassy prevented me from seeing the collection during February, but Ms. Siobhan Miley kindly arranged a visit in early March. It was worth the wait.
The Embassy of Ireland’s site was purchased by Henrietta Halliday in 1906, with the mansion built by architect William Penn Cresson between 1908 and 1909. The semi-detached limestone building at 2234 Massachusetts Avenue NW, at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Sheridan Circle, was purchased by the government of Ireland in 1949. From my first visit at Passport DC, an annual tour, open to the public, of EU embassies during a May weekend, and other embassies from around the world during the following Saturday, I could hardly wait to stand before its monumental paintings again. Designed around a central stair hall, it drew me from the beautifully decorated first floor to equally impressive upstairs rooms.
Greeted in the front hall by Hughie O’Donoghue’s “Crucifixion Study I,” from his series on the passion of Christ, this abstract, dark work, backgrounded by a blue sky and a warm, painted by one of Ireland’s leading contemporary painters begged me to enter a museum-like space. Most of the work, chosen from the collections of Ireland’s museums, including the National Gallery and available to embassies worldwide, refers to Ireland. At the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C., that collection included portraits such as that of Irish Chief Justice Charles Kendal Bushe, who served from 1822-1841, by Martin Cregan, President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, elected in 1832.
The great tradition of Irish landscape painting was well represented by “A View from Lough Gill,” by Percy Francis Gethin, a Sligo painter and etcher who exhibited at the New English Art Club and the New York gallery, Colnaghi & Obach. The three- foot tall “Replica Statue of Abraham Lincoln” which served as a maquette for St. Gaudens’ larger statue in Lincoln Park, Chicago, was gifted by famous Irish tenor, Count John McCormack, on the bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 2009. Oscar Wilde, Ireland’s national treasure, is depicted in a bronze bust by Dublin sculptor Melanie Le Brocquy, HRHA, which, cast in 1994-5, won the Royal Hibernian Academy’s highest award for bronze casting in 1995. This bronze casting resembles the many statues of this famous Irish playwright found in parks and museums throughout Dublin.
Quite enthralled with the collection at the embassy, I was invited by cultural representative Siobhan Miley to a tour of the collection at the Residence, with His Excellency, Ambassador Dan Mulhall, which I enthusiastically accepted.
In the Residence’s drawing room, I enjoyed reading the titles of Ambassador Mulhall’s personal collection of books brought from his former posts in India, Malaysia, Vienna, Brussels, Edinburgh, Germany and London. Widely diverse, representing histories of Ireland, other nations, literary and philosophical works, cookbooks, music and art books, it underscored the reputation of Irish dramatists, writers, philosophers and historians. I asked Ambassador Mulhall whether he believed people were not as aware of the strength of the visual arts in Ireland because the literary tradition is so strong, and he heartily agreed. Furthermore, he informed me that Ireland has a strong representation of classical music composers as well as folk musicians and composers. He proved to be quite a cultural ambassador.
Showing me his personally chosen art, available on lend from museums in Ireland, he declared “A Portuguese Lady,” by Sir William Orpen, involved in the Celtic revival in Ireland, and an official painter of World War I one of the favorites. Dublin born painter, Nathaniel Hone II, the most significant Irish landscape artist of the 19th century, is represented at the Residence by “Pastures of Malahide,” “Rough Ground Below a Cornfield,” “A Landscape, Trees and a River,” and as evidence of his travel, perhaps on the popular 19th century rite of passage, the Grand Tour, “A View of the Doge’s Palace and the Church of the Salute.” Work linking Ireland and the U.S. is shown in Dublin born painter and stained-glass artist Evie Hone’s “Study for Stained Glass Window,” a study for the Irish window in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Similarly, Gilbert Charles Stewart’s portrait by Captain John Shaw, shows a New York merchant, who, in the late 18th century, became one of the first Irish-born to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.
My favorite painting was “I Have Trodden the Winepress Alone,” by Mainie Jellet, an abstract painter and champion of the modern movement in Ireland. This brightly colored painting, in reds, ultramarine blues, green and white, seems an amalgam of blood shed in the red waves in the sea, the desperate expressions of the women, the white cottages lining the hills, the crenelations of a castle and the sea that carried emigrants from Ireland during the first half of the 20th century when Mainie Jellet painted. “Swim in Dingle,” by Pauline Bewick, with the redheaded figure’s face showing above the waves, recalls the Irish tradition of the Silky, who must go back to the sea after days on land.
If you can, see the work and the Embassy building during Passport DC, with E.U. open houses including Ireland’s on Saturday, May 11. It won’t disappoint.
(For more information on Passport DC’s Around the World Embassy Tour, scheduled for May 1-31 in Washington, D.C., visit the Cultural Tourism DC website at culturaltourismdc.org. The Embassy of Ireland is located at 2234 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.; contact information can be found at https://www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/usa, And be sure to check out Nancy Nesvet’s guided tour of Washington, D.C.’s international embassy galleries in our March/April 2019 13th anniversary issue. A preview and details on how and where to get your copy can be found at artscopemagazine.com.)
This article has been edited upon the request of the Embassy of Ireland to remove the option of calling to schedule a tour. Due to an overwhelming volume of requests, the Embassy of Ireland cannot currently continue to offer this scheduling option.