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The Greening of the BAC
In surveying Irish painting, the Center for British Art departs from its mandate—and confronts a thorny bit of British history.

As the home of the most comprehensive collection of British paintings, prints, drawings, and artifacts outside Great Britain, Yale’s Center for British Art has since its founding, in 1977, provided a window on 500 years of British history. But this fall, the Center makes an unprecedented leap across the Irish Sea, devoting its third-floor galleries to an exhibition of Irish paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries.

If visitors expect the BAC to tactfully avoid politics in such an exhibit, they are in for a surprise as soon as they step off the elevator. At the entrance to the show, BAC director Patrick McCaughey has placed a rare copy of a proclamation of Irish independence from the Easter Uprising of 1916. The document serves as a kind of manifesto for the show, which argues that Ireland’s paintings must be seen through the lens of the nation’s history, and particularly its long struggle with the British.

The exhibition, titled “Irish Paintings from the Collection of Brian P. Burns,” is a much-expanded version of a show that originated at Boston College last year and has since traveled to Dublin. The paintings were assembled over a 25-year period by Irish-American businessman and art collector Brian P. Burns. McCaughey selected an additional 21 paintings from Burns’s collection to complement the 49 in the original show and introduced a survey of Irish books and manuscripts that help place the paintings in context.

McCaughey, who came to the BAC from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, was born in Belfast, and he brings to the exhibit a deeply personal view of Irish history and art. “England’s history is inextricable from Ireland's,” he says. “The shameful part of English history is the heroic part of Irish history, and this opposition has produced great literature and a great art.”

The exhibit has been hung as a narrative of the development of Ireland’s national identity. The first room offers the stark contrasts of British rule in the 19th century: An 1845 painting of a lavish party of Anglo-Irish aristocrats faces an image of a poor tenant farmer across the room, while documents about the potato famine are displayed in a case between them. Later rooms show the evolution of Irish painting as a response to national circumstance. A number of Irish painters decamped to Europe in the late 19th century, exchanging influences with masters there; others found success in Britain.

Gradually, the paintings begin to show signs of an Irish cultural confidence, represented in portraits, interiors, and especially in landscapes. “You begin to see these rural landscapes that are intended to represent the 'true Ireland': untouched by the impact of the British,” says McCaughey. The climax of the show is a room housing 12 paintings by Jack B. Yeats, Ireland’s greatest painter and the brother of William Butler Yeats. In this artist’s work, McCaughey sees a cultural triumph for Ireland in the way the works transcend politics. “Yeats’s paintings have no particular text, just the lore and life of Ireland.”

For the printed matter the BAC added to the show, Curator of Rare Books and Archives Elisabeth Fairman turned to the Center’s own collections, to Sterling and Beinecke Libraries, and to Boston College’s John J. Burns Library. The material includes a commemorative newspaper edition marking the death of revolutionary leader Michael Collins and manuscripts from William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and others. Artifacts such as period cartoons from Punch illustrate the British reaction to the potato famine.

To generate interest in this unorthodox undertaking for the Center, McCaughey has turned the Center into a virtual Irish cultural center, at least for the fall. Related programs include films, lectures, readings, and even step dancing. (To a degree, the promotion reflects the director’s hope that the show’s momentum will carry the BAC’s loyalists through the year-long closing that will begin in January to allow for replacement of the Center’s roof.)

Devoting such attention to the Irish struggle for independence from the very people whose culture the Center most celebrates is a bold move, particularly in light of the life-long enthusiasm for all things British shown by Paul Mellon '29, the Center’s founder and principal benefactor. McCaughey says he has spoken to Mellon about the exhibition, and reports that “he thought it was a great idea. But remember, his grandfather, Thomas Mellon, came here from Ireland.”  the end


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