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Painting a City Full of Contrasts

Ireland's capital might be known for its literature, but the city's historic buildings, cobbled streets and deep artistic heritage make it a painter's paradise.

Cupping the coastline from Howth to Dalkey Island, Dublin Bay is characterised by charming coastal villages, magnificent castles, rocky cliffs and secret coves. At the heart of the stunning horseshoe inlet – and flanked by the distant Dublin mountains – sits Ireland's capital, Dublin, a city steeped in history, legend and myth.

Dublin has a special kind of energy and a not-too-serious sense of its own importance," says local artist Aidan Hickey. "For a thousand years, it's been a centre of trade. Of late, the city has become quite cosmopolitan, but Dubliners retain their distinct traditions and eccentricities."

Aidan is president of the Dublin Painting and Sketching Club – one of the oldest art groups in Ireland art groups in Ireland engaged in all forms of representational painting, and co-founded in 1874 by Dracula author Bram Stoker. Its 80-plus members are a mixture of professionals, semi-professionals and talented amateurs, and the club's annual exhibition is a highlight of the art calendar – second only to the yearly show of elite art institution the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), founded in 1821.

GPO Winter Light by Irish artist Patrick Cahill
GPO Winter Light by Patrick Cahill

When it comes to famous artists, Dublin lays claim to many, from figurative painter Francis Bacon to playwright Oscar Wilde, impressionist John Lavery (1856-1941) and famed portraitist William Oren (1878-1931). According to the National Gallery of Ireland, easel painting took off in the 17th century, when the first Duke of Ormonde invited artists to Ireland to paint portraits with the aim of founding a native school. With the establishment of the Royal Dublin Society in the 1740s, and burgeoning of a sophisticated clientele who desired portraits and landscapes to furnish their properties, a new wave of Dublin-based painters began to push forward the country's art.

Among the leading artists of this period were portrait painters James Latham (1696-1747), Stephen Slaughter (1697-1765) and Hugh Douglas Hamilton (1740-1808). Their work can be seen in the superb National Gallery, which holds the largest and most comprehensive collection of historic Irish art available anywhere. "It's been partly closed for renovation work for years, but it's reopening in June, which is exciting," says acrylic painter Bridget Flinn, who specialises in landscapes, still life and portraits.

So what of the art scene today? "There's a strong sense of community," says Bridget. "The city is quite small, so you get to know people quickly."

Wicklow-based artist Mary Duffy agrees. "It's open, friendly and there are lots of opportunities for people of all levels of interest in visual arts. For myself, I'm keen on painting outdoors and there are many plein air painting groups in Ireland."

She recommends registering with the Plein Eire group if you're in Dublin and enjoy painting outside. "The vibe among Plein Eire is really, really good and it's inclusive of all levels of painters," she says. "These Dublin-based artists organise paint-outs on the first Saturday of the month, weather permitting, plus many other events."

Mary works alone in her studio, but makes social visits to local studios and galleries on a monthly basis. "If you want to chat with painters of all kinds, from beginners to experiences artists selling their work, head to St. Stephen's Green to the People's Art exhibitions," she adds. Held regularly throughout the year, these weekend events see hundreds of artists showing thousands of paintings around the square.

For Dublin-born artist Patrick Cahill, the city offers limitless inspiration. He began his career as a graphic artist, but later moved into watercolour and oil. "There's a wealth of locations to sketch and paint," he says, highlighting the wild deer and deciduous trees in Phoenix Park, on the edge of the city, as a particular attraction for artists, as well as the beaches over at Dollymount Strand and Trinity College's majestic architecture.

He also advises taking in the "delightful towns and villages" along the Royal Canal. Maynooth – a short train ride out of the city – offers picturesque views, a 13th century castle and St Patrick's University, he says, which dates back to 1795. Patrick also recommends visiting the Kilcock Art Gallery in Kilcock Town.

However for architecture, there's plenty to see in the city itself: "Georgian Dublin, or what's left of it, provides many artistic opportunities," he says. "Derived from the Palladian style, the distinctive doorway is particularly attractive, and quite challenging to paint and draw. It's a favourite 'photo op' of visiting tourists."

One artist who knows Dublin's architecture well is Devon-based John Hoar. One of Britain's best known watercolourists, he explored the destruction of Dublin's "incomparable heritage" of Georgian buildings through two one-man exhibitions in the city in the 1970s.

"This was Dublin's glory – and there is still some left," he agrees. "One of my favourite views was of the wonderful St Catherine's Church, the scene of Robert Emmet's execution – in its dilapidated surroundings."

John, who last year represented British artists at the second Qingdao International Watercolour Salon in China, conducts painting courses twice a year in Ireland at Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara, and on occasion at Huntington Castle in County Carlow. "There are also some picturesque spots in and around Trinity College," John continues. "Dublin is full of contrasts," he reflects, "and this is what makes it such a draw for artists."

This article first appeared in Paint & Draw Magazine Issue 7.


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