The earliest efforts to set up a public art collection in Ireland date to the late eighteenth century. The Duke of Rutland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1784–87, considered establishing a public gallery for the display of Old Master paintings but due to his premature death the project collapsed. The real catalyst that led to the foundation of the Gallery was the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853, financed by William Dargan, the Irish railway magnate and entrepreneur. This exhibition, housed in a huge temporary structure of glass pavilions erected on Leinster Lawn, where the Gallery now stands, included new inventions, machinery, fine art and antiquities. The fine art section, which comprised over 1,000 paintings and 400 sculptures on loan from collections in Ireland, Britain and Europe, took up about two thirds of the overall exhibition space.

This major exhibition of Irish industry, modelled on London’s hugely successful 1851 Great Exhibition, housed within the ‘Crystal Palace’, drew over one million visitors. On the strength of the great public interest it generated, the Irish Institution was founded, whose two-fold aim was to form the nucleus of a public art collection and to raise funds to build a gallery. On 10 August 1854, after much preparation and lobbying, ‘An Act to provide for the Establishment of a National Gallery of Paintings, Sculpture and Fine Arts…’ was passed into law.

When the Gallery opened in 1864, Italian paintings accounted for over half the works on show. However, the Gallery’s first two Directors, Mulvany and Doyle, can be credited with building up the overall number of Dutch and Flemish works. In time, the collection gradually became a comprehensive, well-balanced survey of European art. Throughout the Gallery’s history, gifts and bequests have played a pivotal role in enriching the collection. In 1897 Countess Milltown wrote to the Gallery’s third Director Sir Walter Armstrong offering the contents of her home Russborough, County Wicklow, in memory of her late husband the 6th Earl of Milltown, valued at £40,000 at the time. This gift consisted of approximately 223 pictures, 48 pieces of sculpture, 33 engravings, 528 pieces of silver, 200 pieces of furniture, a library of books and various miscellaneous objects. Additionally, the gift included a number of masterpieces by Pompeo Batoni, Giovanni Paolo Panini and Nicolas Poussin.

An important endowment came in 1900 with Henry Vaughan’s bequest of 31 watercolours by J.M.W. Turner. In order to protect the watercolours from the damaging effects of light, Vaughan stipulated that they should only be shown in the month of January, when the light was at its weakest, and that they be always shown free to the public. Holding to the conditions of the bequest, the Gallery’s annual display of Turner watercolours has become a much anticipated event in the cultural calendar.

In 1900 Margaret Stokes’s bequest of works on paper by George Petrie and Frederic William Burton included The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, dated 1864, today one of Ireland’s most popular pictures. In 1901, also under Armstrong’s directorship, Sir Henry Page Turner Barron bequeathed ten outstanding Dutch and Flemish pictures to the collection, including works by Salomon van Ruysdael, Nicolaes Berchem and Willem Claesz Heda. Sir Hugh Lane, the gifted connoisseur, art dealer and collector, is remembered as one of the Gallery’s most significant benefactors. During his 11-year association, first as a Board member from 1904, and later as Director from 1914–15, he endowed the collection with 24 paintings, including St Francis Receiving the Stigmata by El Greco. After his death, he bequeathed a further 43 pictures, including notable works by Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, Anthony van Dyck, William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough.

In 1919 Mrs Magdalene Hone generously bequeathed 211 paintings and 336 watercolours by her husband Nathaniel Hone to the collection. This was followed by the Edward Martyn Bequest of 1924, which included prized Impressionist works by Edgar Degas and Claude Monet. The Gallery’s only Monet painting, Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, dated 1874, was vandalised in 2012. Thanks to the generous support of BNP Paribas and the Paribas Foundation, the painting went through a painstaking 18-month research and conservation project and has now been put back on display. This process involved conservators meticulously mending the damaged canvas and piecing together hundreds of microscopic fragments of paint. In 1950 the writer George Bernard Shaw left one-third of the royalties accruing from his work to the Gallery, which he described as ‘that cherished asylum of my boyhood’. To date, 85 European and Irish works have been added to the collection through the Shaw Fund.

The Gallery’s holdings of French paintings grew throughout the 1970s. Availing of the Shaw Fund, works by Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Baron François Gérard and Simon Vouet were purchased. The French school was further enhanced in 1978 when 93 paintings, presented to the nation in 1950 by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, the Irish-American mining mogul, were formally transferred to the Gallery. This collection comprised superb examples from the French Realist and Orientalist traditions, with works by Thomas Couture, Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, James Jacques Tissot and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Chester Beatty also donated a world-class collection of Continental miniatures.

Over the years the National Portrait Collection has grown considerably through the acquisition of paintings, drawings, watercolours, sculpture and, more recently, photographs. These artworks depict distinguished Irish individuals who have contributed to the political, social and cultural life of the nation. Since 1998, supported by Irish Life & Permanent, the collection has been enhanced by a series of commissioned portraits of eminent figures from contemporary Irish life, drawn from such diverse fields as music, theatre, literature, sport and the public service. Well-known figures represented within this collection include Ireland’s former President Mary Robinson, singer-songwriter, activist and philanthropist Bono, and writer Maeve Binchy.

In its commitment to public access and engagement, the Gallery has developed a wealth of stimulating public programmes and research facilities. Housed within the Millennium Wing, and established in 2002, is the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art (CSIA). This wide-ranging collection includes a library of publications on Irish art, an illustrated and rare book collection, and an important collection of artists’ papers. Documenting Ireland’s rich artistic tradition, from early Celtic art to the present, it is an indispensable resource for those interested in Irish art. The CSIA forms part of the Gallery’s Research Services, which comprises the Fine Art Library and the NGI Archive collection, which holds the official records of the institution.

The Yeats Archive, another significant archive collection, was presented by Anne Yeats in 1996. This archive pertains to Jack B. Yeats and members of his extended family. It includes 205 sketchbooks charting over 50 years of Jack B. Yeats’s career, along with over 400 books from his personal library. The contents of this archive complement the works of the much-loved artist in the collection, which amount to 37 paintings and 97 works on paper.

Another research facility that provides public access to the largest part of the Gallery’s collection is the Prints and Drawings Study Room, open to researchers and general visitors by appointment. This extensive collection, comprising over 12,000 items, includes prints (engravings, etchings, mezzotints and lithographs), simple pencil sketches, preparatory studies for paintings, finished landscape watercolours, portraits in all media, and architectural and topographical drawings. Highlights include Old Master drawings from the Italian, French, Dutch and Flemish schools by such renowned artists as Francesco Primaticcio, Jean-Antoine Watteau and Jacob Jordaens.

The Gallery’s current Director Sean Rainbird, appointed in 2011, has focused his attention on actively engaging with new audiences and presenting the collection in new and innovative ways. Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2014, the Gallery implemented a varied programme of collaborative projects whereby contemporary Irish writers and artists were invited to respond to the collection. Continuing its engagement with the contemporary artistic community, the Gallery’s aim with the Hennessy Portrait Prize, a vibrant new venture launched in 2014, is to showcase and encourage interest in contemporary portraiture while raising the profile of the National Portrait Collection.

Text by Niamh MacNally