Friday, October 7, 2016

Book Review: Irish Art

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Irish Art


Author: Bruce Arnold


Date: 1969 (Ireland), 1989 (U.S.)

Publisher: Thames & Hudson (U.S.)

ISBN: none

Length: 176 pages plus index

Illustrations: many black-and-white photos, a few color

Quote: “There is a widely held fallacy that Ireland’s contribution to the art of the world has been almost exclusively in the realm of the written word. This book is an attempt to prove otherwise. For example, it is difficult to say which of the two Yeats brothers was the greater artist, Jack the painter, or William the poet.”

This introductory paragraph appears facing a painting by Jack Yeats, and…well, in a word: William. But most of the artists represented here, known and unknown, do seem to have been trying to achieve more than just distinguishing themselves by painting recognizable things in a sloppy fashion. There has never been anything “original” about daubing paint into a sloppy-looking picture, though it’s probably true that only certain well-connected persons, only at certain periods in history, have ever succeeded in getting their daubs hung up on walls. I did things similar to that Yeats painting with my watercolor box at age twelve but I think I had enough public spirit to burn all of them.

Any book that tries to summarize two thousand years’ worth of visual artwork in 176 pages is necessarily going to be somewhat breathless. This book is an overview. We whir rapidly past ancient stone and metal carvings, trace their influences on the masterpieces and the doodles with which Irish monks “illuminated” the religious texts they spent days copying, move on through architecture, and then suddenly we’re looking at drawings and paintings of then-living people. Irish Renaissance portraitists produced portraits very similar to those being painted in England and Europe at the same time.Realistic landscape paintings appear in the eighteenth century, along with paintings that illustrate stories.Toward the turn of the twentieth century the abstract designs and the merely sloppy or ugly paintings appear, as they did in art galleries around the world, and in 1969 this sort of thing was still taken seriously. Several paintings by Jack Yeats are included, most better than the messy-looking thing used in the introduction. The reader’s reward for persevering past the introduction is this proof that the other Yeats brother did have a real talent.

On reading this short book I’m inclined to observe that more, and more attractive, images of Irish or Celtic Art appear in the how-to books about Celtic crafts, like knitting and basketry. However, that’s one reader’s reaction. Arnold’s intention here is to present a very hasty overview, in an affordable, easily carried volume, of all the different types of visual art found in Ireland, with at least a few pictures for every possible reader to enjoy. At that I think he succeeds. There are enough different pictures in this book that every reader has to like some of them.


If more of the paintings were reproduced in color, and at least 8x10” instead of the 1x2” to which many of the black-and-white reproductions have been shrunk, this would have been a more inspiring book for art lovers and crafters to browse through. It would also, of course, have been a bulkier and more expensive one. You pay your money and take your choice, as they say. This is a book for tightwads.

It's a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here, for $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, we'll send $1 to Arnold or a charity of his choice. (To discourage spammers and hackers, those paying online need to e-mail Saloli the Message Squirrel, whose address shows at the bottom of the page, for the correct Paypal address. U.S. postal money orders can go directly to the post office box shown at the bottom of the page, and don't need to include a surcharge for online payment, since the post office will collect its own surcharge from you. Thus, for one copy you'd send a total of $11 via Paypal or a $10 money order; for six copies you'd send $36 via Paypal or a $35 money order. You could also order several different books in one package, as many as would fit; clicking on "A FAIR TRADE BOOK" at the bottom of this post will open a list of other Fair Trade Books you can buy here, but you're not limited to books I've reviewed--if Amazon sells it, we'll sell it.)