Furniture to Covet: Reconstructed Rooms: Four Centuries of Furnishings at the Museum of Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Dublin
If you have not paid a visit to any of the National Museum sites for a while, then why not get your New Year off to a flying cultural start with a look at what is on offer at Collins Barracks, which is home to a fine decorative arts collection. We went along to visit the new(ish) permanent display of period furniture and contemporary craftwork on the second floor. The galleries are a real treasure trove of arts and crafts and repay many times over the hours spent browsing.
The museum has recently altered the furniture galleries so that items are displayed in period appropriate settings to give a better idea of how pieces of furniture would have been used in their social context. For example, curators have arranged several pieces from the 19th century to create a music room as that was a very popular feature in wealthy houses at the time. In the first half of the century John Egan, based in Dublin was the leading Irish harp maker. He became well known for his invention of the ‘Royal Portable’ harp, which was very popular as a woman’s instrument due its smaller size.
Some of the room settings feature important Irish furniture designers, such as Brendan Dunne (1916 – 1995) or James Hicks (1866 -1936). I loved Hicks’s beautiful satinwood furniture with its intricate marquetry work, in particular an occasional table made in 1929. Not that anyone would, I imagine, dare to put a cup of coffee down on its glossy surface. One of Hicks’ pieces, a gorgeous display cabinet won a silver medal at the RDS Spring Show in 1934. His work had also been shown at the World Trade Fair in 1929 to much acclaim.
Another display featured bedroom furniture (1933) made of quilted maple veneer by the designer Frederick MacManus (1903 – 1985). This was the designer’s own bedroom suite, which he donated to the National Museum in 1984. The opulent looking furniture was made in 1933 to match a dressing table in the same material that he owned by English designer Betty Joel (which he also donated). It makes much more sense to see furniture displayed in this way, accessorised with ornaments and reproduction wall coverings, which gives a visitor a real feel for how people lived with the furniture.
There is much to look at here and some very impressive pieces of furniture. The displays are complimented by contemporary design pieces in the galleries. In 2003, an agreement was made between the National Museum and the Craft Council of Ireland to set up a joint purchase scheme to acquire works by Irish designers for the National Collection. An example of one of the newer acquisitions is Liz Nilsson’s Sub Rosa (2008) which was a previous exhibit at the Sculpture in Context exhibition at the National Botanical Gardens.
One piece that I would love to own is a resin block screen by Sasha Sykes that she made as a re-interpretation of the designer Eileen Grey’s block screens (her work may also be seen here). Each block of transparent resin contains natural materials collected from the countryside near Sykes’ Carlow home. The lower levels are quite densely packed with mosses, ferns etc, while the higher levels are more sparsely filled. This means that the screen can act as a divider yet the effect is more subtle than a solid wall. It is a beautiful creation and one that brings the natural world indoors.
There is plenty to enjoy at the museum and this is just a tip of the iceberg so make a resolution to get out and about and see what our museums have to offer us.