Photograph of the Sculpture Hall looking towards the entrance, c.1890. Attributed to Robert French (1841-1917), Lawrence Collection, National Photographic Archive
When the Gallery opened to the public in 1864 the collection numbered approximately 100 works, including thirty nine ‘Roman pictures’ purchased thanks to a loan, offered in 1856, by Sir Maziere Brady, Lord Chancellor and an active Board member.
Thanks to a grant authorised by the Treasury in 1882, as a result of a personal appeal made by Lord Powerscourt, Doyle purchased five paintings including works by Poussin, Antonio Palma, and Giovanni Lo Spagna.
Doyle proposed using the space, to the rear of the Sculpture Hall, originally intended to house Marsh’s Library, for a National Historic and Portrait Gallery. Despite the lack of financial support from the Treasury, he proceeded with his plan and the National Portrait Gallery opened in 1884.
A collection of Greek and Roman antique sculpture casts, received from the British Museum in 1861, was displayed in the Sculpture Hall (today known as the Shaw Room) until the 1930s. The display of antique plaster casts was very common in museums and galleries in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, and the Gallery's collection included a cast of the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön.
Over the years, the collection has been displayed in many ways, reflecting the preferences of the Director, and the current fashion in museums. In 1929 Bodkin re-hung the collection, favouring a tiered hanging style because it allowed for more pictures to be hung, and highlighted the limited space of the Gallery. Bodkin was eager to extend the Gallery building to accommodate the growing collection. In the 1930s, Furlong re-hung the collection on the line- the first time the collection had been displayed in this was since the turn of the century.An Irish Times reporter noted, ‘in the rearranging, he had several objects to view; to have every picture on a level with the eye; and to have each picture isolated… Dr. Furlong told me that all the modern galleries are hung in that uncrowded way.’
The discovery of Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, in 1993 brought international attention to the Gallery. The painting, long believed to be lost or destroyed, was discovered in a Jesuit house of studies in Dublin. The painting remains in the Gallery on indefinite loan from the Jesuit Community in memory of the late Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson who originally presented the painting to the Jesuit Fathers. It was unveiled by Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011) in November 1993.
Sir Denis, one of the foremost scholars and collectors of seventeenth century Italian art, had a long and close association with the Gallery having donated a gift of eight outstanding seventeenth-century Baroque pictures. In 2010 he presented his entire personal library and archive to the Gallery. The collection reflects his extensive scholarly interests, the genesis and development of his collection, his campaigning for the arts and his family roots in Ireland.
Today, covering over seven centuries, it numbers over 15,000 paintings, works on paper, sculptures, objets d’art, silver and furniture. To date 45% of acquisitions to the collection has been due to the benevolence of private individuals, whose generosity has served to enrich our enjoyment and understanding of this unique collection.