#fridayfocus… Some thoughts on Harry Kernoff’s ‘From the Custom House Steps’, 1933.


On Monday next, this beautiful watercolour by Harry Kernoff RHA (1900 – 1974) will be auctioned at Whyte’s, Dublin. Seeing it in the catalogue and on their blog brought me back to when I was writing up my M.Phil thesis on the artist, and I used this image to bring my discussion of the artist’s life and work to a conclusion. As the painting encapsulates, for me anyway, so many disparate ideas and notions, I decided that it was worth briefly revisiting it as a blog post.


A preparatory sketch for this watercolour in the National Gallery of Ireland dates it to June, 1933, and (sometimes usually for Kernoff!) this date corresponds to that on the finished artwork. The composition takes in the view looking out across the river towards the south quays. The loop line bridge is just visible, with a train just peeping around the corner, heading north. On the far quays, figures continue with their working day; lifting sacks, moving barrels, working on buildings.The hustle and bustle contrasts with the more contemplative mood of the scene on the north quays. Two men survey the work opposite, echoing the artist’s gaze. The soft blues and greens of the painting support the contemplative view; the sun is gentle, and the shadows lengthen on the stone. 

This gentleness, I think, is what draws you into the composition, as well as what also suggests a broader reading of the artwork. The location reminds us that Dublin is a port city, and in 1933 the docks continued to play a role in the city’s economic life. The continuing work is a reminder of the many goods and things that the river brought in and out of the city, and the opportunities for employment it provided.

Moving from the contemplative to the conceptual then, I would suggest that we can see this small gem as being somehow symbolic of the artist’s position in Dublin. This is very much a working framework at the moment, but I think the way in which the artist was drawn to water, weather it’s the canal, the river or the sea, is very interesting. Born in London, to Russian immigrant parents, and moving to London with his family aged fourteen, Kernoff was in many ways an outsider in Dublin. Even at the end of his life, he spoke with a London twang, and appeared to be most ‘at home’ when engrossed in his work in his attic studio. For me, it is the artist’s depiction of fluid (literally), moving, border and boundary spaces (the canals were considered the city boundary, before the new suburbs came under the Corporation), or these ‘in-between’ spaces that reflect the artist’s personal journey to Dublin, and to the career and life he made there. 

I often wonder if, as he pondered and drew on the steps of the recently rebuilt Custom House, the artist was aware of the changes that were taking place across Europe and the wider world. The restoration and rebuilding of Dublin after the Rising, War of Independence and Civil War had recently been completed, but the world was reeling from the economic and social effects of economic collapse and depression. Earlier in 1933, Adolf Hitler had been elected Chancellor of Germany, the Enabling Act had been passed and Nazi control was solidifying. The artist had a strong interest in Russia, having visited the USSR in 1930, and was perhaps aware of current affairs there.

I would argue that instead of simplifying artworks such as this one down to pictures of ‘lost’, ‘old’ or ‘vanished’ Dublin, we should instead seek to further situate them into the lives of their creators, and the wider historical context that they were created in.A painting such as this was not created in a vacuum  nor should it be considered in just one particular way today.

Finally, and as my pockets are too empty and shallow, I hope this jewel of a painting is snapped up on Monday, and treasured by its new owner! 

Photo Credit: 

Harry Kernoff, From the Custom House Steps, from Whyte’s



#phdlife… Impressions and Ideas: April Conference Season!

April has been a busy month, with three conferences, an impending deadline for my Year Two confirmation review, and a push to get new primary source research completed on a new chapter that I’m working on. The three conferences that I attended were all quite different in their scope, reach and topics covered, but all were extremely interesting and showcased the wealth of research that is taking place at the current time. What follows is a very brief overview and some impressions of each event.

My first trip was to the Annual Conference of the Association of Art Historians (#AAH2013), held at the University of Reading, where I was presenting a paper in the Ceremonial and the City session. This event is probably the largest annual gathering of art historians across Britain and Ireland and I was really excited to take part. As my session was on the last day of the conference, I managed to fit in a trip to Windsor to view the State Apartments and a full day of sessions on the Friday.


This was my first trip to Windsor, and it was a real treat to be shown around the apartments by Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. We also had time for a quick trip around St. George’s Chapel, and I was delighted to find another royal wedding enthusiast willing to re-live Charles and Camilla‘s big day!


On the Friday, I flitted between three sessions – ‘Curating the Book: Exhibiting Books, Archives and Manuscripts’, the student session which was looking at the theme of collaboration and another session on  ‘Image, Identity and Institutions: the male artist in nineteenth century Britain’. The last of these was particularly informative for my own research, and as such was a great way of moving on to the next stage of my work on Walter Osborne. A particular highlight was Robyne Erica Calvert’s paper titled ‘Manly Modes: Artistic Dress and the Styling of Masculine Identity’, which considered the artistic and healthy dress movements during the later half of the nineteenth century. I would highly recommend Calvert’s blog on artistic dress, and this version of her presentation she has put together on artistic dress and masculine identity.

Later that evening, a keynote by Okwui Enwezor brought us through an exciting range of twentieth century and contemporary African art, as well as offering some thoughts on the future of art history. As he spoke, I couldn’t help but notice similarities between the treatment of Irish and African art, especially the glorification of classical or early art as bring the pinnacle of that country’s artistic output. It’s talks like these that, for me anyway, show the value of placing art in a wide and global context.

Charles Russell, The O'Connell Centenary Celebrations, 1875

It was the final day of AAH  that was the big one for me. I presented in a great session, convened by Caroline Arscott (Courtauld Institute) and Pat Hardy (Museum of London) which was based around the depiction of ceremonies within the city space. The session included a great range of papers which (to use a bit of academic-speak) brought us on a spatial and temporal journey, from seventeenth century London, calling in at Dehli, Dublin, Paris, Le Mans and St Petersbourg. My paper was based on the painting above, Charles Russell’s The O’Connell Centenary Celebrations, which is part of the collection in the National Gallery of Ireland. This painting forms the basis for a chapter in my PhD research, so this was a great opportunity to discuss my current research. I got some great feedback, as well as lots of ideas to explore in the future, so overall I was delighted with the whole AAH experience.

Next up on the April conference agenda was the annual Artefact study day, run by the Irish Association of Art Historians. This study is a great opportunity to catch up with what graduate and postgraduate students are researching, and this year was no exception in presenting a wide range of quality research. Some highlights for me were Mark O’Brien’s paper on the DIY punk zine, and the appropriation of the zine aesthetic by major fashion companies and labels and Martina Hynan’s presentation on the anatomical Venus and it’s presentation in Victorian Dublin. These two (very different!) topics lie some way outside of my own research area (save for the Victorian Dublin bit!) and it was a real joy to listen to these research papers.

From the smorgasbord of Artefact, then, my last April conference jaunt was to Making 1916: The Material and Visual Culture of 1916 . Surely a landmark event in the scholarship of the topic, the programme for this event covered a huge range of topics. The different celebrations of 1916 anniversaries in years gone by, and what this might mean for 2016, was a recurring theme throughout the proceedings, with a keynote by Mary Daly detailing where, when and how the Rising has been commemorated. Papers looking directly at the response of artists to the Rising were naturally of particular interest to me, and a great overview was given by Roisin Kennedy, Catherine Marshall and Eimear O’Connor, covering both the immediate response to 1916, and the lasting effect through to the publication of works by Jack B Yeats in the Capuchinn Annual during the 25th anniversary. Correlations emerged with some of the papers presented at AAH; I was struck at how the emergence of Celtic dress and the way which it was used by those involved with the Rising was similar to the artistic and healthy dress movement; and at how the way in which public commemorations have remained relatively unchanged through the centuries. I have so many pages of notes from this conference that even a week later I’m still going through them and processing the many ideas contained there, so this may merit a more lengthy blog post!

[O'Connell Street, DBC building shelled, Nelson's Pillar, men in foreground]

I can’t sign off though without mentioning Nicholas Allen’s keynote which wrapped up the conference. I had huge expectations, being quite a fan of Allen’s work, and it was a real treat to hear about his current research on Dublin during 1916 and the city’s relationship with the empire. Based on Allen’s current research, he opened by considering how the products of empire were present within the city and in people’s homes; for example, the ivory on piano keys, mahogany doors and teak tables. Allen also considered how present World War One was in the city, citing the munitions factories, and the wounded soldiers who traveled through the city on their way to convalescent homes around the country. For me, this offered a wider perspective on the conference proceedings, and as such was the perfect way to end the event. After two intense days of considering all things 1916; the people who took part, the objects left behind, and the political repercussions in Ireland, it was surely fitting to remember that the Easter Rising took place a moment of immense change in the wider world, and that this context is central to the history of the event and our understanding of it.

This has been a very brief and whistle stop tour through three conferences I attended in April. In between these events, I have been getting on with research on a new chapter which looks at Walter Osborne’s paintings of Dublin in the 1880s and 1890s. It has been really interesting to listen to the research of others, and I feel like my horizons have been significantly expanded by all of the papers that I have heard during the past month. I’m particularly excited now about getting on to my own research on Dublin during and after the 1916 Rising, and seeing how it links in with the many ideas presented at Object Matters. For now through I’m looking at more photography, more social history, and once again starting to look at this city in new and exciting ways.

Photo Credits and Sources: 

Photographs from Windsor, taken by the author.

Charles Russell, The O’Connell Centenary Celebrations, National Gallery of Ireland, http://bit.ly/111byH9

Teal Triggs, Fanzines, http://bit.ly/12vda6i

Making 1916 Poster, http://bit.ly/108mPiz

Photos of O’Connell Street in 1916, National Library of Ireland, http://bit.ly/ZZuvqx and http://bit.ly/ZZuyCC.

#fridayfocus… Irish Weather (2, Sunshine!)

A couple of weeks ago I posted about depictions of rain and bad weather in Irish art. This week however, things are looking up, as April sunshine is streaming through my window. It might be late, but at least it’s here. Walking around Dublin today, I noticed that the leaves have finally started to come out; people have ditched their heavy winter coats (although many scarves remain!) and… exams have started!

Walking through St Stephen’s Green, a couple of paintings came to mind. It is like a magnet for people when the some comes out, I even spotted someone with their sketch book out. Harry Kernoff was also fond of this spot, and completed several different depictions of the city centre park, such as the work below, Summer’s Day, St Stephen’s Green. 

Summer Day,Stephens Green039

Perhaps one of the best known depictions of Stephen’s Green however, is Walter Osborne’s In A Dublin Park: Light and Shade, a late nineteenth century canvas showing a group of people resting on a bench in the same park. While Kernoff and Osborne’s paintings are stylistically diverse, the each show the benefit of the Green as an oasis of nature in the middle of the city. While Kernoff’s figures hold newspapers, and wear bowler hats, Osborne’s figures are more redolent of the city’s working poor at the turn of the century. 

Walter Frederick Osborne, ‘In a Dublin park, light and shade’, c.1895To finish this St Stephen’s Green trio, the last painting I want to highlight here is Jack B. Yeats Stephen’s Green Closing Time, March 1950. While not a painting of sunshine per se, this evocative painting shows what happens a little after that, when the sun fades, evening comes, and it’s time to go home. These three paintings not only share their location, but also but the Stephen’s Green bench centre stage. The blue tones of Yeats’ painting seem to highlight the isolation of the two figures, and its not hard to draw a comparison with the tired mother figure in Osborne’s canvas.

Stephens Green Closing Time March 1950

My research is showing that these depictions of green and natural idylls were among the most popular Dublin scenes depicted by artist’s in the late nineteenth and through the twentieth century. While city life offers many benefits, it would seem that when the sun appears, everyone wants to get back to nature!