This wonderful watercolour by James Mahony is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, and for me, was the star piece of the Dubliners exhibition last year. Bequeathed to the NGI in 1854 by Capt. G.A Taylor, it is an important record of the city in the immediate post-famine era, and has a special relationship with the foundation of the gallery itself.
St George’s Church, seen here in a nineteenth century engraving, was designed by Francis Johnston, and its soaring spire was a landmark feature of the North inner city. From this vantage point, Mahony encompasses the city, out to the Dublin mountains, with Dublin Port and the Irish sea to the left-hand side of the canvas. The Georgian squares and buildings of the city are visible; Mountjoy Sqaure can be seen in the left-hand foreground, and the Rotunda Hospital and Gardens to the right. Just off-centre on the right hand side, Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) stretches down to the river. In the centre of the boulevard, Nelson’s Pillar rises above the street, and keen eyes will spot that Carlisle Bridge (O’Connell Bridge) is in its original form, with a pronounced hump. It was widened and flattened in 1880, when the O’Connell Monument was also unveiled.
On the NGI website you can see more detailed pictures of Mahony’s panorama, and I now want to draw your attention to this one in particular.In the foreground of the detail, the Custom House shines out in all its Portland stone glory, flanked by ships on the river. Moving back into the painting, a much larger and tree-filled College Park can been seen, and then, glinting in the background, the glass structure designed by John Benson for the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853. To to the left hand side of the building, the Rutland Fountain on Merrion Square can just be made out.
The Irish Industrial Exhibition in 1853 was modeled on the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851, and sought to both show off the industries and manufactures of Ireland, as well as stimulate the Irish economy. The Exhibition was visited by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family, and Mahony was on hand to record the occasion as seen in these works, also in the NGI collection. William Dargan had been a powerful force in organising the Exhibition, underwriting the expense of the whole venture. The success of the Exhibition led to efforts to establish a permanent public art collection in Ireland, leading to the founding of the NGI by an Act of Parliament in 1854 (you can read a more thorough history of the institution here).
As well as browsing through examples of Irish poplin and linen and other manufactures, visitors to the exhibition could also make use of a viewing platform on top of the central dome, taking in the panorama of the city spreading out beneath them. Looking north from this perch, they might have been able to catch a glimpse of the spire of St George’s Church, bringing Mahony’s artistic gaze full circle. It’s just a pity that none of them thought to paint it.
Further Reading: Nancy Netzer, ‘Picturing an Exhibition: James Mahony’s Watercolours of the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853′, in Visualizing Ireland: National Identity and the Pictorial Tradition, ed. Adele M. Dalsimer, Winchester MA: Faber and Faber, 1993, 89-98.; Stephanie Rains, Commodity Culture and Social Class in Dublin, 1850-1916, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010.; Catherine de Courcy, The Foundation of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 1985.