The beginnings of the Gallery

The Opening of the National Gallery of Ireland by the Lord Lieutenant, 7th Earl of Carlisle, 30 January 1864; Illustrated London News, 13 February 1864

The Opening of the National Gallery of Ireland by the Lord Lieutenant, 7th Earl of Carlisle, 30 January 1864, Illustrated London News, 13 February 1864

In Ireland the concept of a National Gallery had been discussed by the Society of Irish Artists as early as the 1760s and was later promoted by the Royal Hibernian Academy and Royal Irish Art Union; but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century, in the aftermath of the Great Famine, that the idea gained momentum.  

George Mulvany, an artist and the Gallery’s first Director, and others, believed that the fine arts had an important role to play in ‘national regeneration’.  It was William Dargan, however, who would provide the impetus needed to drive the eventual establishment of a National Gallery.  Inspired by the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851, Dargan believed that a similar celebration of industry and manufacturing in Ireland would be beneficial to his fellow countrymen and stimulate interest in the arts. Dargan approached the Royal Dublin Society and offered to underwrite, for £20,000 (£6 million today), the cost of holding an Irish exhibition in Dublin. 

Great Industrial Exhibition, Dublin 1853

Located on Leinster Lawn, the Great Industrial Exhibition opened in 1853 and, with over one million visitors, the attendance surpassed all expectations. The glass and iron edifice which housed the exhibition was located, in part, on the current site of the National Gallery. Its glass fronted façade spanned a length of 300 feet and was 100 feet in height, the exterior constructed in a series of ribbed decorative arches. John Benson’s grandiose design closely followed the design of the Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.

An immediate outcome of the 1853 exhibition was the formation of the Irish Institution, the primary objective of which was to promote the idea of a National Gallery. It organised art exhibitions to raise funds and encourage donations to the fledgling institution, and many of its members would be on the first Board of the new Gallery. 

Less than one year after the Great Industrial Exhibition, after extensive lobbying, ‘An Act to provide for the Establishment of a National Gallery of Paintings, Sculpture and Fine Arts …, in Dublin’ was passed into law on the 10 August 1854. Ten challenging years followed for the Gallery’s first Board members, a committed group of men who championed the establishment of the institution.   

The National Gallery of Ireland opened its doors to the public on the 30 January 1864. Ireland now had an Institution, which as the Freeman’s Journal observed at the time, would be ‘a great public school, in which not only native artists could study the works of great masters, but also a place where the public taste could be refined and educated, and the eye made familiar with the beauty of art.’ According to the Daily Express the ‘immense throng of ladies, noblemen and gentlemen’ who attended the opening stayed to ‘lounge through the galleries for some time admiring what they saw, and passing the highest eulogiums on both the galleries and the works which they contained’.