Celtic Arts Revival
Resurgence of Irish Art in the UK During the Nineteenth Century

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The Meeting on the Turret Stairs,
Frederick William Burton (1864)

For facts about the evolution of
metalwork, sculpture, ceramics
and illuminated manuscripts, see:
Celtic Art, Early Style
Celtic Coins Art
Celtic Art, Wadalgesheim Style
Celtic Art, Late European Style
Celtic Art in Britain and Ireland
Celtic Style Christian Art

Celtic Arts Revival Movement (19th Century)

After the golden era of Irish monastic art was ended by the advent of the Vikings, Celtic culture gradually degraded, surviving only in parts of Scotland and Ireland until the nineteenth century, when there was an upsurge in the discovery, practice and understanding of Celtic art. This mini-renaissance spanned literature and antiquities as well as fine arts (painting, sculpture), applied arts and crafts. A sort of mini-renaissance in the history of Irish art, it appeared across Ireland - coinciding with the discovery of ancient metalwork like the Petrie Crown and the Tara Brooch - Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales and Cornwall, although our focus will be on the Celtic Revival in Irish visual art.

What Caused the Irish Celtic Revival?

This renewed interest in traditional Celtic art-forms coincided with at least four related events or issues.

First, there was the growing Irish nationalism of the nineteenth century, reflecting centuries of resentment at the suppression of Irish culture. Reviving it became a form of political expression, the spirit of rebellion being maintained through the celebration of Ireland's historic past, its myths, legends and folklore.

Portrait of WB Yeats, by His Father
John Butler Yeats.

The Tara Brooch (c.700 CE).
Discovered outside Bettystown, near
Laytown, County Meath, in 1850.

For the history & development
of the iconography, zoomorphic
patterns and decorative art motifs
employed by the ancient Celts,
in metalwork, ceramics and other
artworks please see:
Celtic Designs
Celtic Interlace
Celtic Spirals
Celtic Knots
Celtic Crosses

For facts about the craftsmanship,
artistry and artisanship for which
the ancient Celts were famous, see:
Celtic Weapons Art
Celtic Jewellery Art
Celtic Sculpture.

Second, the 1830s saw the beginning of the Irish antiquarian movement, led by individuals like George Petrie, the Irish antiquary, archaeologist and topical watercolourist of the nineteenth century. Petrie was responsible for the Royal Irish Academy's acquisition of many historical Irish manuscripts, Hiberno-Saxon Insular metalwork, and other Celtic artworks. Two of the National Museum of Ireland's most famous antiquities - the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice - were discovered in the mid-nineteenth century and subsequently copied in Celtic Revival jewellery art and metalwork. The antiquarian movement was followed by the Young Ireland movement.

The third factor which contributed to the growing interest in the culture of Ireland's ancient celts, was a literary movement led by WB Yeats which took place in the late ninteenth and early twentieth century. This triggered a new appreciation of traditional Irish literature and Irish poetry. Together with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn Yeats formed an Irish National Theatre (the Abbey Theatre) to promote Irish literature in English. Works included: The Playboy of the Western World (1907) by JM Synge, and The Plough and the Stars (1926) by Seán O'Casey. Other active members of the Celtic literary movement included: "AE" Russell, Percy French, Oliver St John Gogarty, Padraic Colum, and Edward Plunkett.

Fourthly, in the mid-nineteenth century, archeologists uncovered two dramatic hoards of Celtic artifacts and relics at Hallstatt (Austria) and La Tene (Switzerland). These discoveries stimulated an interest of European culture in general, and ancient Celtic culture in particular.

Revival in Irish Fine Arts

Even before the nineteenth century, Irish artists like James Barry featured scenes from Irish history in their paintings to foster a sense of Irish identity. The same was done by artists like George Petrie and Frederick William Burton, during the antiquarian period. See for instance Burton's painting of a Galway musician - "Paddy Coneely the Blind Piper".

The subsequent Young Ireland movement also tried to use contemporary Irish art to further its political agenda. For example, its newspaper, the Nation, listed a number of recommended historical subjects for Irish artists to incorporate into their canvases. This influenced several painters including: Joseph Patrick Haverty, Bernard Mulrenin, Joseph Peacock, Richard Rothwell and Henry McManus. Later in the century, this artistic portrayal of nationalist feeling in Ireland was continued by Irish painters such as William Mulready and Daniel Maclise, and Irish sculptors John Henry Foley, Christopher Moore and John Hogan. Despite this growing theme of nationalism in Irish fine art, the most notable result of the Revival movement in the visual arts of Ireland, was the establishment of the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art (1908), which greatly assisted the creation of a school of Irish painting.

In the 20th century, the Revival took a different turn. Fine art became less political, and like their counterparts in Europe, Irish artists started to focus more on the medium than the message. That said, Jack B Yeats was one of several painters who continued to evoke the real atmosphere and surroundings of Ireland in his paintings. Irish sculpture was simpler and more obviously nationalistic, after all there was no lack of native Irish heroes to commemorate.

Celtic Revival in Applied Arts

The Revivalist Movement had a more noticeable effect in on applied art, which included many Celtic design motifs including: geometric designs, interlaced birds, animals, whorls, knots and bosses, as well as emblems like the shamrock, the harp, and the round tower. Among schools and artists affected by Celtic Revivalism was the Glasgow School of Painting (1880-1915). Celtic-style jewellers and metalworkers in particular began imitating ancient pieces including: the Tara Brooch, the Knights of Templar Brooch, the Dublin University Brooch and the Clarendon Brooch.

Research Into Celtic Arts

The monumental work "The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland", published by twentieth century Scottish researchers J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson included a titanic amount of information on the knots, key patterns, spirals, animals and symbols found on the Celtic High Crosses and other ancient sites in Scotland. This led to further research by Scottish artist into the techniques and working methods of ancient artists, culminating in his book "Celtic Art: Methods of Construction" (1951).

Latterly, art historians and researchers such as Carl Nordenfalk and Mark Van Stone have identified the how Celtic scribes' actually engineered their knotwork and page layout, thus facilitating a new renaissance in this form of art.

• For information about the cultural history of Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of the Celtic Arts Revival Movement, see: Homepage.

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