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 those on Cork Street and Henrietta Street — that had fallen into disrepair and were destined for demolition.
“She felt the city was being developed very quickly,” says Kathryn Milligan, an art historian whose new book, Painting Dublin, examines the work of Mitchell and five other artists who brought Dublin’s streets and buildings to life through drawings and watercolours.
“The things she says about Dublin in the 60s really chime with what is happening now,” says Milligan.
Milligan, who studied art history at University College Dublin and then went on to do a PhD in Trinity College Dublin is set to launch her first book in December.
She wanted to explore the connections between Dublin’s visual art tradition and literary tradition and share the stories of the artists who painted the city in the late 19th and early 20th century.
When you become familiar with the visual artwork of Dublin and the artists who painted it, it gives you a fresh perspective on the city. “We walk in their footsteps every day,” she says.
The Old Magic of Dublin
“The old magic of Dublin lies primarily in its colour […] and it rests with us to do all we can to build for the delight of Dubliners to come,” said Flora Mitchell in an interview with the Irish Times on 4 September 1959.
Born in Nebraska in 1890, Mitchell and her family moved to Dublin after her father got a job with the Jameson distillery.
She started to sketch the destruction of prominent buildings during the 1916 Rising and Civil War, exhibited with the Dublin Sketching Club, and illustrated city guidebooks.
In 1930 she married William Jameson, a great-grandson of John Jameson, the founder of the Jameson whiskey distillery. Jameson was a sailor and after they were married they moved to the Isle of Wight.
Mitchell returned to Dublin after her husband’s death in 1939. In the late 1940s, she started to exhibit her artwork again.
She published her first and only book _Vanishing Dublin _in 1966, a collection of watercolour paintings of dilapidated historical buildings, together with descriptions of them and the city streets.
“The Irish House” on Wood Quay was among the well-known buildings that were destroyed shortly after she painted it.
Milligan couldn’t reproduce Mitchell’s paintings in the book though, she says because no one knows who owns the copyright.
“She had no children so it would have passed to nieces or nephews,” says Milligan, “Somewhere in the world there are descendants of hers who are the copyright holders.”
Luckily they were purchased by the National Gallery of Ireland in 1969, so people can still view them, she says.
What Was She Thinking?
Another woman artist featured in the book is Rose Barton, a watercolour painter whose work focused on Dublin in the late 19th century.
Barton was from a very upper-class family and often presented the city as foggy or misty, says Milligan.
She’s best known for a painting called “Going to the Levée At Dublin Castle” which shows wealthy people driving into Dublin Castle in their carriages for a big social event known as the Levée. In the picture, poorer people line up to watch the fanfare.
“We don’t know if she sees these class divides as a normal part of life or if she is deliberately commenting on them,” says Milligan.
There are no records of Barton’s own thoughts, she says. “It is a common problem in art history, that no one kept the personal letters and diaries of the female artists.”
Part of the Streetscape
The book is definitely a celebration of Dublin’s female artists, says Milligan. But it was painter Harry Kernoff that first grabbed her attention.
Kernoff’s family came from Belarus and he was born in London. He was set to follow in his father’s footsteps as a cabinet maker and had started training, says Milligan. But then he won the Taylor scholarship to go to Dublin Metropolitan School of Art.
“He was involved in left-wing political circles and often painted working-class life in the city,” she says.
His paintings of the docks, the shipyards and the lanes around factories are fairly well-known, she says. Along with his paintings yards and lanes, Kernoff is known for his series on Dublin pubs, like his 1941 piece entitled “Davy Byrne’s Pub”.
Kernoff is interesting because while he is painting Dublin, he is also part of that same Dublin. “He is living there, he is working there. It is offering him the subject for his work, but people also see him as part of the streetscape,” says Milligan.
“Harry had a real sense of humour, he was very funny,” says his niece Kate Kernoff, by phone from London.
He was a kindly and sensitive man, she says, quite shy but still, he was popular.
She remembers visiting Dublin as a 12-year-old child in around 1958, and Harry took her out one afternoon. “Almost every half a street, he would stop and talk to someone,” she says.
She remembers his humility too. When she pointed out his paintings on display he was almost shy about it, she says.
Harry loved going to pubs and had lots of friends in them, she says. But he wasn’t able to hold a lot of drink.
His friends would tell him to follow the tram tracks in order to make his way home at the end of the night, she says.
Milligan says that the launch of her book, Painting Dublin, in December could have been considerably more fun if only the pubs were open.
“One of the things I had always joked about that when the book came out we would do a Kernoff pub crawl,” she says. “Bring the book and have a drink in each pub.”
During the First World War, drawing the city was only allowed with a special permit
from the Dublin Metropolitan Police, says Milligan.
“Perhaps in case you drew something that was of use to the enemy,” she says.
Estella Solomons was a member of Cumann na mBan, who hid people on the run in her studio in Pearse Street, says Milligan. But she got in trouble with the police for drawings.
Solomons had permission to sketch in parks like Phoenix Park and the Botanic Gardens, but not on the city streets. “They are telling her she can paint flowers or trees, but whatshe wants to do is show the city,” says Milligan.
She was caught sketching on Wellington Quay and received an angry letter from the police for sketching without a permit. “It’s a little reminder of what is going on outside of the artist’s lives,” she says. “They are living in wartime.”
Jack B Yeats might have had a permit because he was always sketching in pencil, says Milligan.
Yeats could dip back into those memories 20 or 30 years later and work them into a painting, she says. “He is taking snapshots constantly,” says Milligan. Like the way people take photos today.
He loved drawing city life. “What interests him is the mix of people that live there, the characters that live there, but advertising as well,” says Milligan.
Yeats collected promotional material, ballad sheets (which he bought from travelling singers), tickets, theatre programmes and newspaper clippings, she says.
In “The Fish Market” Walter Osborne depicts a fishmonger on Patrick Street. But behind the fishmonger is a small group of people gathered around an organ grinder.
That sparked Milligan’s interest. “What is the story with organ grinders? Where did they come from?”
She found out that in the 19th century a lot of Italian people lived on Chancery Lane, near Patrick Street and several were organ grinders, she says.
There was more movement of people and more inward migration into Ireland then people tend to think, says Milligan.
“Dublin has always had this flux of people, we tend to focus more on those who leave than those who come here,” she says.
Milligan says that the artists are all from different backgrounds, religion, social classes. What connects them is that they are painting the same city.
That is a reminder that even back then, the city was diverse. “There isn’t just one Dublin experience,” she says.
Painting Dublin is out on 6 December and is available to pre-order now from Manchester University Press.