War, politics, and the diaspora of Irish art and design

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts, Magazine

When The Magazine ANTIQUES started publication in January 1922, it coincided with the end of the War of Independence between Ireland and Great Britain and the beginning of a self-inflicted and even more brutal Civil War among opposing factions of the Irish Republican Army that would last until 1923.1 Although ANTIQUES ’s mandate was to whet its readership’s appetite for the past through the publication of articles on the decorative and fine arts, its authors frequently found they could not avoid alluding to the “Troubles” in Ireland, as they have euphemistically come to be called. In a popular monthly feature in the magazine called “Antiques Abroad,” the author, after commenting on the Baroness Burdett-Coutts sale in London in May 1922, went on to note: “we come to the little wee shamrock of Ireland, which country, at the present moment, is free, but not easy. Bands of marauders are turning families out of their homesteads. Most of the refugees come away with hand-grips carrying a spare suit of clothes and the family jewels, if jewels they have.”2

  • Fig. 1. View of Mount Kennedy, County Wicklow by William Ashford (1746–1824), c. 1785. Oil on canvas, 16 5/8 by 24 1/8 inches. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.


  • Fig. 2. Dish hand-decorated with a view of Mount Kennedy after the painting in Fig. 1, Derby Porcelain Factory, c. 1795. Porcelain; length 10 ¾, width 8 inches. The dish is from a dessert service decorated with Irish demesnes and landscape views.  Private collection.
  • Fig. 3. Hall bench by Zachariah Williams and Robert Gibton, Dublin, c. 1829–1842. Stamped “Williams and Gibton.” Mahogany; height 36 5/8, width 60 3/8, depth 19 1/2 inches. Williams and Gibton were in business under that name from 1829 to 1842. The cast-brass crest is unidentified. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, gift of the estate of W. Phelps Warren; photograph by Warren Jagger.
  • Fig. 5. Entrance hall of the apartment of Phelps Warren at 955 Lexington Avenue, New York, in a 1963 photograph by Taylor and Dull, showing the Williams and Gibton hall bench and pair of en suite side chairs. Courtesy of The Magazine ANTIQUES.
  • Fig. 6. Card table, Irish, c. 1740. Mahogany; height 30, width 35, depth 17 1/2 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Francis P. Garvan in memory of her husband.
  • Fig. 7. Decanter stand with reproduction glass decanters, Irish, c. 1760. Mahogany; height 22 1/2, width 28 1/2, depth 16 1/2 inches. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jerold D. Krouse.
  • Fig. 8. Portable harp made by its inventor John Egan (active c. 1803–1839), Dublin, after 1819. Maple and spruce painted green with gilt shamrock decoration; height 35 1/2, width 19 1/4, depth 8 3/4 inches. O’Brien Collection; photograph by Jamie Stukenberg.
  • Fig. 10. Desk-and-bookcase by John Kirkhoffer (active 1730s), 1732. Signed and dated “John Kirkhoffer fecit 1732” on the bottom of the lower right drawer. Walnut and oak light wood marquetry veneer, mirrors and brass hardware; height (overall) 85 1/2 inches, width 44 1/2, depth 22 inches. Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Robert Allerton.

In a subsequent article on nineteenth-century Belleek porcelain in the October 1922 issue of ANTIQUES, Eileen Buckley began by providing a geographical description of Belleek for the benefit of her readers less familiar with the country: “Belleek derives its name from the place where it is made, a small town in the northwestern part of Ireland, situated on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, not far from the Sea of Donegal,— today known not for its artistic creations, but as a fighting ground of Civil War.”3

In addition to “Antiques Abroad” another regular feature of The Magazine ANTIQUES at the time was “Auction Notes.” Here the displacement of people, and more particularly their possessions, can be judged by references to sales featuring antique Irish silver.4 Not since the Great Famine of the 1840s had Ireland witnessed such a disruption of its population, and now joined by the contents of their homes. The furnishings that survived the mayhem often ended up in the antiques emporiums along Dublin’s quays, before filling containers destined for East Coast ports where the antiques trade eventually oversaw their dispersal throughout America. Just as The Magazine ANTIQUES was cultivating a new generation of collectors, the availability of Ireland’s fine and decorative arts helped meet the increasing demand. In addition to the rise of professional antiques dealers in the early twentieth century, well-established city department stores such as Jordan Marsh in Boston, John Wanamaker in New York and Philadelphia, and Marshall Field and Company in Chicago also found the growing demand for antiques warranted their attention and so created departments devoted exclusively to their sale. In fact, the export of Irish antiques to America in the 1920s and 1930s proved to be so successful that the organizers of the current exhibition, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690-1840 at the Art Institute of Chicago, were able to build their exhibition almost entirely around loans from public and private collections on this side of the Atlantic, from Ottawa, Canada to San Antonio, Texas, and Honolulu, Hawaii, to Boston, Massachusetts.

To better appreciate how Ireland’s art and antiques got dispersed in the wake of the Troubles, it is worth considering the movements of one exceptionally well-documented object, a hall bench. When it turned up about 1930 in an advertisement for Au Quatrième, the fourth floor antiques department at John Wanamaker in New York City, it was described as “one of an important set of ten mahogany hall seats from the collection of Major [Robert] Gunn Cunningham” (see Fig. 4).5 This provenance enabled it to be linked to a great country house, Mount Kennedy, built in the 1780s in County Wicklow after designs by the English architect James Wyatt.6 Mount Kennedy, still extant and well preserved, is represented in the Chicago exhibition by a view of the house executed shortly after its completion by William Ashford, one of Ireland’s foremost painters of country house demesnes (Fig. 1), as well as by a lozenge-shaped Derby porcelain dish based on the Ashford painting from a partial dessert service decorated with a variety of Irish topographical scenes from about 1795 (Fig. 2).7

Distinguished by its sweeping saber legs and scrolled arms, the hall bench relates to two other sets of hall seating furniture associated with houses where Wyatt worked, and suggests that this might not be a mere coincidence. The other houses are Dunsandle in County Galway for the Daly family, and Castle Coole in County Fermanagh for the first earl of Belmore.8 As the latter house is now a property of the National Trust in Northern Ireland, its beautifully preserved interiors still retain most of their original furniture, including the hall benches, one of which appears on the cover of Irish Furniture by Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin, and James Peill, published in 2007 by Yale University Press. As records for furniture from Castle Coole have also survived, this documentation reveals that the hall benches were supplied in 1797 by William Kidd of New Bond Street in London.9 Kidd may well turn out to be the maker for the Mount Kennedy and Dunsandle benches as well.

At the turn of the last century Mount Kennedy became the home of Charles Robert Hamilton and his four siblings, and it remained the Hamilton children’s home until after World War I. According to the wife of Charles Robert Hamilton in a letter accompanying her gift in 1990 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art of an Angelica Kauffmann portrait that formerly hung at Mount Kennedy, the next decade saw her husband’s ties to the house severed forever: “By 1920, Ireland was in revolt against England— thousands of young men had died in the war and in the rebellion, the family was broken up, Mt. Kennedy sold and all the lovely things were scattered—some to America.”10

In the following paragraph Mrs. Hamilton recounts how the Kauffman portrait and the hall benches from Mount Kennedy came into her husband’s possession thanks to the stream of Irish art and antiques then flowing into New York: “By 1930 Charles and I were married and living in New York. One day, strolling down Madison Avenue, Charley stopped and said, ‘There’s my Great-Uncle’. A red-coated soldier was in the window and sure enough it was the Angelica Kauffman [sic]. Charles bought it back and later recognized in another window the Chippendale benches that stood in the great hall of Mt. Kennedy. He could only afford two of the eight, but they have been with us ever since.”

Although Mrs. Hamilton failed to identify the sources of her husband’s purchases, the discovery of the Au Quatrième advertisement leaves little doubt where he bought the hall benches. By referring to them as “Chippendale” Mrs. Hamilton wished to associate them with eighteenth-century England’s best-known cabinetmaker in order to suggest the high quality of their construction and design. She also said her husband bought two out of a set of eight, instead of a set of ten as noted in the advertisement.

These distinctive saber-legged benches prominently displayed in the entrance halls of three houses associated with James Wyatt were soon being emulated by Irish cabinetmakers, and particularly Dublin’s John Mack, Zachariah Williams, and Robert Gibton. One example of the latter will speak for this form in the Chicago exhibition (Fig. 3). On loan from the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, it is stamped “Williams and Gibton,” indicating that it was made between 1829 and 1842 when that combination of names was used by the firm.11 It was first published in The Magazine ANTIQUES in 1963, where it appeared in “Living with antiques” at the New York apartment of Irish glass scholar Phelps Warren at 955 Lexington Avenue (see Fig. 5).12 On that occasion, Warren described the bench and a pair of en suite saber-legged side chairs as English Regency, circa 1810. Only after a visit from Desmond FitzGerald did the owner come to appreciate their Irish origins. Since Warren inherited them from an uncle who presumably bought them in New York in the 1920s, just as Charles Hamilton had at Au Quatrième, Warren’s New York apartment, like so many others, owed a debt to the Irish diaspora following the Troubles.

The Magazine ANTIQUES has from time to time used “Living with antiques” as a way to address Irish decorative arts, starting with the John D. Kernan Jr. residence called Plane Tree Cottage in March 1947, and most recently the Natchez, Mississippi, home of Betty Jo and Jerry Krouse in the January/February 2011 issue.13 Called Cottage Garden, the Krouse residence is largely furnished with Philadelphia Chippendale pieces, but also includes high style Irish examples from the same period. As Jerry Krouse noted, they provided him with “Philadelphia on the cheap.” There will be five pieces of mid-eighteenth-century Irish furniture in the Chicago exhibition courtesy of the Krouses, including a card table similar to the one illustrated here and a decanter stand (Figs. 6, 7).

The Magazine ANTIQUES may have been the first periodical to produce an issue on the arts of Georgian Ireland with their March 1950 issue, conveniently coinciding with Saint Patrick’s Day. Similarly, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design also opens on March 17 at the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition to their shared launching dates—albeit sixty-five years apart— they also have much else in common. Not surprisingly they both emphasize objects in American collections, starting with the March 1950 frontispiece showing a 1734 John Kelly harp from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the exhibition’s John Egan portable harp (Fig. 8).

The fact that a highly important Dublin delft plate—one of only two known emblazoned with the Sackville arms for Ireland’s lord lieutenant—appeared as an advertisement in the March 1950 ANTIQUES serves as a reminder that many important decorative and fine arts first made an appearance in that context (see Fig. 9).14 This is also true of a desk-and-bookcase advertised in the June 1956 issue by the Chicago dealer Dorothy G. Hale (see Fig. 10).15 Described as English, circa 1710, this highly idiosyncratic piece related to one in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, caught the eye of Chicago collector Robert Allerton, who purchased it for the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957. After much speculation over the years about its likely Irish origins, English furniture specialist Peter Holmes, with the author’s colleague Ghenete Zelleke, discovered that it had been signed and dated by its maker: “John Kirkhoffer fecit 1732.” As the work of a Dublin cabinetmaker probably born and trained in Germany, it has the distinction of being the earliest signed and dated piece of Irish furniture known. When the discovery of a signature and date came to the attention of Desmond FitzGerald and James Peill while they were in Chicago in 2007 to launch the publication of Irish Furniture, they lost no time in publishing it in ANTIQUES in the hopes of bringing other signed Irish furniture out of the woodwork.16 As Chicago’s desk-and-bookcase had its debut in ANTIQUES in 1956, it only seemed proper that its Rosetta Stone status should be revealed in the same publication fifty-nine years later.

In their introduction to Irish Furniture, FitzGerald and Peill put forth the idea that in spite of a plethora of scholarship on Georgian Ireland over the last sixty years, there needed to be an exhibition where seminal works such as the Kirkhoffer desk could be seen in like company. To a large degree the Chicago exhibition is a response to that challenge. In view of Desmond FitzGerald’s huge commitment to Georgian Ireland, initially through his work in the furniture and woodwork department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and then back in Ireland, and most recently as president of the Irish Georgian Society, it seemed fitting that Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 should be dedicated to his memory.

In the preparation of this article I wish to acknowledge the help of all members of the European Decorative Arts Department at the Art Institute of Chicago, and most especially our research intern, Lauren Cooney from the School of the Art Institute, and Veronika Lorenser, our departmental collection manager, for preparation of the manuscript, and Leslie Fitzpatrick, assistant research curator and exhibition coordinator. Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from March 17 to June 7.

CHRISTOPHER MONKHOUSE is the Eloise W. Martin Chair and
Curator of European Decorative Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago.


1 For a detailed discussion see: Terence A. M. Dooley, The Decline of the Big House in Ireland, A Study of Irish Landed Families, 1860–1960 (Wolfhound Press, Dublin, 2001), pp. 171–207. 2 Autolycos, “Antiques Abroad,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 2, no. 1 (July 1922), p. 32. 3 Eileen Buckley, “An Appreciation of Belleek, ibid., no. 4 (October 1922), p. 165. 4 See “Auction Notes,” ibid., vol. 1, no. 4 (April 1922), p. 184, where an “Important Collection of Early English and Irish Silver” was selling at New York’s Anderson Galleries on April 7 and 8. Also see ibid., vol. 4, no. 6 (December 1923), p. 297, where “Irish and English silver, glass and furniture” were selling at Anderson Galleries on December 7 and 8. 5 Au Quatrième advertised in Good Furniture and Arts and Decoration, so this unidentified advertisement from the files of silver specialist Thomas Sinsteden could come from either of those publications. The antiques department at John Wanamaker in New York had been founded by Nancy McClelland in 1913 and run after her departure in 1922 by decorator Ruby Ross Wood. McClelland is currently being researched for a book by Pauline C. Metcalf and Jennifer Carlquist who have kindly helped with this endnote. 6 For James Wyatt’s work at Mount Kennedy see John Martin Robinson, James Wyatt, Architect to George III (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2012), pp. 106–108, 342. 7 The Ashford view of Mount Kennedy appeared in Thomas Milton, A Collection of Select Views from the Different Seats of the Nobility and Gentry in the Kingdom of Ireland, engraved by Thomas Milton from original drawings by the best artists, which doubtless served as the direct source for the decoration of the Derby porcelain dish. A similar dish with identical decoration, except that the blue border is sepia, suggests that Derby made more than one service on the theme of Irish demesnes and landscape views. 8 For James Wyatt’s work at Dunsandle and Castle Coole, see Robinson, James Wyatt, Architect to George III, pp. 327, 330. The Dunsandle hall benches moved in 1931 with Denis Daly from his County Galway residence to Russborough in County Wicklow, where they are shown in the entrance hall in Sean O’Reilly, Irish Houses and Gardens: From the Archives of Country Life (Aurum, London, 1998), pp. 88–89. 9 In recent correspondence with the author, Irish furniture historian Angela Alexander noted that she found a reference to the London cabinetmaker William Kidd supplying the Castle Coole hall chairs in 1797. In Pat Kirkham’s extended entry on the firm of Kennett and Kidd, she notes that in 1803 William Kidd “supplied a large amount of furniture to Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh, for the 1st Earl Belmore” (Pat Kirkham, “Kennett and Kidd,” in Dictionary of English Furniture Makers, 1660– 1840, ed. Geoffrey Beard and Christopher Gilbert [Furniture History Society/ W. S. Maney and Son, 1986], pp. 506–507). It should be noted that in the most recent Castle Coole guidebook the hall chairs are misleadingly described as the work of “Kidd of Dublin” (Oliver Garnett, Castle Coole [National Trust, 2008], p. 9). 10 The letter from Mrs. Charles Robert Hamilton is in the curatorial files at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 11 Angela Alexander, “A Firm of Dublin Cabinet-Makers: Mack, Williams and Gibton,” Irish Arts Review, Yearbook, 1995, pp 142–148. 12 Phelps Warren, “Living with antiques: A New York apartment,” The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 83, no. 3 (March 1963) pp. 326–329. 13 John D. Kernan Jr., “Living with antiques: Plane Tree Cottage,” ibid., vol. 51. no. 3 (March 1947) pp. 189–191; and Ralph Harvard, “Living with antiques: Mississippi rococo,” ibid., vol. 178, no. 1 (January/February 2011) pp. 164–175. 14 It is illustrated in the Ginsburg and Levy advertisement (p. 171) but discussed— surely by prior arrangmenet— in M.S.D. Westropp’s “Irish Pottery” in the March 1950 issue of The Magazine ANTIQUES, p. 204. 15 The Magazine ANTIQUES, vol. 69, no. 6 (June 1956), p. 489. 16 Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin, and James Peill, “Newly discovered signature on a piece of Irish furniture,” ibid., vol. 174, no. 4 (October 2008), pp. 140–145.