The Living Legacy of Irish Art from the Brian P. Burns Collection

By Peter Murray
Peter Murray is the former Director of the Crawford Gallery, Co. Cork, Ireland.

W ith its overarching themes of landscape and people, the Brian and Eileen Burns collection makes a wonderful contribution to appreciation and understanding of Irish art, and in so doing, adds to an awareness of Ireland as a nation with both a complex history and a culture that combines enterprise, humanity and vision.

Some have asked why Eileen and I have chosen this time to return a large group of paintings from our Irish art collection to the market. Many years ago, when I started collecting, I was advised by Desmond Fitzgerald, the 29th Knight of Glin; Desmond Guinness, and other art advisors in Ireland to remember that no matter how many paintings I might acquire, I was only a custodian of them during my lifetime. Now at 80-plus years old, and with a collection of more than 200 works, it seemed an appropriate time. Eileen and I share a sense of modest pride as custodians that we have made every effort to display Irish art to as many people as possible in the Irish diaspora.
Brian P. Burns

This chapter in the history of the Burns family begins in 1892, when John Burns emigrated from Sneem in County Kerry to the United States. His family prospered, and his grandson Brian has pursued a successful financial and legal career after graduating from Harvard Law School.

Together, over a period of some forty years, Brian and Eileen Burns have painstakingly assembled an outstanding collection of Irish art. The collection has become an invaluable resource for art historians, with works widely shown in at least ten major museum exhibitions, and seen and appreciated by a wide public both in Ireland and in the United States.

F. J. Davis’ St Patrick Hall’s, Dublin Castle . Estimate £200,000-300,000.

Brian’s father John was equally a patron of the arts, securing for Boston College a set of Flemish tapestries from William Randolph Hearst, and also presenting the College with Sean Keating’s painting, The Playboy of the Western World. The John J. Burns Library at Boston College is named in his honour, while the list of visiting scholars at that Library is a rollcall of Ireland’s finest, not least President Mary McAleese. In 2012, portraits of Irish Nobel Prize Winners for Literature, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney, sculpted by the artist Rowan Gillespie, were commissioned by Brian and Eileen for the Burns Library.

Rowan Gillespie working on the Irish Nobel Laureates for Literature at the John J. Burns Library, Boston College, commissioned by Brian P. Burns.
Rowan Gillespie working on the Irish Nobel Laureates for Literature at the John J. Burns Library, Boston College, commissioned by Brian P. Burns
(image courtesy Roger Kohn)

Through the leadership Brian has provided over the years in the American Ireland Fund, many worthwhile projects have been translated into reality for artists, social activists and charities throughout Ireland. Through his work with the Trinity Foundation, he has improved access to third level education, while his support for the Quinnipiac Great Hunger Museum in Connecticut has been crucial in establishing that fine new museum on a firm footing. Forty years ago, aware of the rich literary tradition of Ireland, Brian Burns set himself the challenge of discovering the equally rich - but far less better-known - visual arts heritage of his ancestral home country. He and Eileen have succeeded beyond measure in this ambition.

Roderic O’Conor, Romeo and Juliet . Estimate £300,000-500,000.

One of the delights of the Burns collection is that from the very outset, there is an emphasis, not only on great names in Irish art - such as Walter Osborne, Roderic O’Conor, Evie Hone and Jack Yeats - but also on many overlooked talents, among them William Sadler, James Hore, Maria Spilsbury Taylor and Kathleen Fox. This is a collection containing masterpieces, but one that also tells the story of Ireland with a candid eye. The story is of success and of endurance, often of people surviving in economic hardship, amidst landscapes of extraordinary beauty. Alongside the universal human emotions of hope and despair, joy and anguish, themes that can be discerned in these works of art include canny judgement and shrewd assessment, qualities even – or indeed especially – evident amongst the children and country people depicted by artists over the centuries.

William Sadler II, Donnybrook Fair . Estimate £70,000-100,000.

Above all, the Burns collection celebrates people, individuals and families, of all ages and from all walks of life. Walter Osborne’s oil painting of a mother and child at the breakfast table, resonates easily with George Russell’s Celtic Twilight, while there is passion in Roderic O’Conor’s Romeo and Juliet. William Orpen captures the innocence and wonder of childhood in his 1907 portrait of Annie Harmsworth, while in Charles Lamb’s Breton Woman Knitting there is a sense of domestic peace and tranquillity, as in Leo Whelan’s The Artist’s Niece Lena, Sewing; there is a sense of domestic peace and tranquillity. In a modern interpretation of the theme of families, The Settlers, Rowan Gillespie’s bronze sculpture of a couple standing side by side, stoic and enduring, is a work cast in the artist’s studio in Dublin, and resonates also with images of the American West.

Rowan Gillespie’s The Settlers in the hallway of the Burns family home. Image courtesy of Roger Kohn.

Many of the paintings in the Burns collection are down-to-earth, revealing aspects of everyday life in Ireland; some are deeply felt and spiritual, while others are responses to nature and scenes of natural beauty. Overall, the collection contains many treasures of Irish art that will be appreciated not only now, but in centuries to come.

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