On 3 February 1919, Joseph Stafford Gibson, a native of Kimurry in Co. Cork, died in Madrid, aged 82 years. Although from an old Munster family, Gibson had spent the best part of his life in Spain. He was an enthusiastic amateur artist and produced a considerable number of watercolours depicting Spnish landscapes and towns. On his occassional return visits to Cork, Gibson would seek advice and encouragement from James Brenan, headmaster at the School of Art. As a mark of gratitude for this help, Gibson bequeathed his coin collection, some pieces of Spanish ceramic and silverware, and most importantly, the sum of £14,790, to the School of Art, 'for the furthering of Art in the City of his boyhood'. To carry out the terms of the will, the 'Gibson Bequest Committee' was set up in 1922 with J.B. Giltinan as Secretary. (N.B.There are preserved in the Crawford Gallery today, minute books which detail some of the early meetings of the Gibson Bequest Committee, particularly for the years 1922 to 1926, and the following account is derived almost in its entirety from these handwritten records).
One of the first things the Gibson Bequest Committee had to consider was the display cabinet, which Joseph Stafford Gibson had requested be made, for the exhibition of his personal collection. At one of the initial meetngs of the Gibson Committee, held on Saturday 11 November 1922. Daniel Corkery suggested that two incriptions be placed in the cabinet, one in English and one in Irish, recording Joseph Stafford Gibson's generosity. This was agreed, and James Archer was requested to carry out the engraving of the inscriptions, whcih still grace the Gibson display cabinet today. The chairman undertook to consult Dr Westropp of the National Museum as to the display of the coins in the case. It was agreed to purchase an etching of The Cork Quays by Griffin, as old student of the School of Art, at a cost of £1. Is. 0d.
Another problem was how the bequest might be used to help students of the School of Art. It was decided to establish a travelling scholarship fund. The committee then discussed sending the first selected student, William Sheehan, to a 'continental art centre'. George Atkinson, principal of the Metropolitan School in Dublin, commented that Sheehan was 'the most talented young man in Ireland, with the exception of Keating'. It was decided to award Sheehan a scholarship for three months and send him to Paris. However, at the next meeting of the Gibson Committee, it was decided, 'for important reasons', that Sheehan should go to Madrid instead. Considerations other than artistic presumably dictated this change. Sheehan was to be given a subsistence allowance of £20 per month; he was to get third class travelling expense to Madrid - with saloon on steamers - and his tuition and canvases were to be paid for, 'such expenses to be properly voucheed'. The scholarship student would have to be given some of his expenses in advance, as it was considered that 'the Committee's Paying Order would hardly be accepted in Madrid'. Sheehan himself was then called before the Gibson Committee and given sage advice on how he was to make the most of this golden opportunity which was being afforded him. George Atkinson had undertaken to provide introduction for Sheehan in Madrid, in order that he could visit various painters' studios.
The Gibson Committee then considered the purchase of works for the Art Gallery. George Atkinson had provided them with a list of names of people who would make a good panel of consultants. These included the President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, the Director of the National Gallery of Ireland and the Headmaster of the Metropolitan School of Art. Atkinson put forward the office rather than the holder, for the sake continuity. These three would form the nucleus of a panel, the others to be appointed by the Committee, as required. Atkinson had also prepared a list of Irish artists, and 'starred' them in order of his opinion of their importance, but he added that if the Gibson Bequest Committee got 'a good Hone or Osbourne' for their impending purchase they would be doing well. The Bequest Committee did not like the idea of office holders being appointed, but as their own submitted list included Dermod O'Brien PRHA, Langton Douglas (Director of the National Gallery of Ireland) and George Atkinson himself, their objections were theorectical for the present. These three men were to act as expert consultants with Daniel Corkery and Hugh Charde, Second Master at the Crawford School of Art.
On Saturday 3 February, 1923, the purchase of paintings for the Art Gallery was discuused, but J.J. O'Connor said that he was awaiting a copy of the regulations governing the Chantrey Bequest at the Tate Gallery, so little could be done for the present. The disposition of the souvenirs, books and art collection of Gibson was discussed, an it was decided that his watercolours should be bound in leather folders, to be designed by 'Miss Scott' of the School of Art; his collcetion of engraings was also to go to the School, while his collection of drawings of butterflies could be used by the Design classes. Some of Gibson's books went to the School library, others were given to the 'free library'. His small vice was to be given to the enamelling class, and his telescope and opera glasses to the life drawing class, and his small hatchet to the School of Art attendant.
On May 5, 1923, it was reported that William Sheehan had set off for Spain, leaving Cork on April 4 and arriving in Madrid on May 10. Almost immediately, the young scholarship student was in debt, to the tune of 12 pesetas for a telegram to the Secretary of the Bequest Committee. He reported that he was studying at the Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. Sheehan received a weekly allowance of £6, or 150 pesetas. His hotel bill for the first nine days was 218 pesetas, which was more than his entire allowance for that period, but his transfering to a pension lowered that expense. Even after receiving a letter from a H.A.K. Boyd on Sheehan's behalf, saying that his allowance was insufficient, the Bequest Committee refused to raise it, although they did forward his £5 to cover his debts. By June 2, Senor Bley of the Academia had still not replied to a letter enquiring as to Sheehan's performance, but it was agreed nonetheless to extend his scholarhip beyond the probationary period. However, on June 15, a special meeting of the Bequest Committee was called, after reports that Sheehan had been using his letters of introduction to important people in Madrid (given him by Atkinson) to 'cadge for money, whilst under the influence of drink, on the ground that the Gibson Bequest Committee does not allow him sufficient to live on'. Councillor Ellis moved that 'in view of Mr. William Sheehan's failure to realise and make proper use of the opportunity which had been afforded him to ensure his artistic career', the scholarship should be terminated. The motion was unopposed.
Not long after, in unknown circumstances, William Sheehan died, and on October 20 1923, the Committee proposed a vote of sympathy to his relatives. A year later, in accordance with the terms of the Gibson Bequest, an exhibition of the paintings which Sheehan had executed while in Madrid was mounted in the Art Gallery, for fifteen days. The Bequest Committee decided not to press any claim of ownership of these works, but instead presented them to Sheehan's mother, with a request that she might consider presenting one (a painting from the nude) for inclusion in the Gibson collection.
The Bequest Committee turned their attention to the purchase of paintings for the Gallery. On December 1, 1923, Atkinson, Corkery and Charde recommended the purchase of In Capel Street by Jack B. Yeats, a Sketch in Oils by Daniel A. Vere Smith, and the modelled head An Stracaire Fir by Joseph Higgins. Atkinson had visited the studio of Jack B. Yeats himself, and recommended that the Committee purchase Off the Donegal Coast and a smaller canvas, A Quayside Worker.
All the above, with the exception of the last, were purchased by the Committee. Atkinson further recommemded Sean Keating's Men of the South as 'a good work; almost great work'; he was supported in this recommendation by Dermod O'Brien. Some weeks later, on December 15, the Committee agreed on a set of regulations governing the purchase of works for the Art Gallery.
As well as original works in oils, watercolours, pastels, ink, silverpoint and crayons, the Committee would consider sculptures (although only plaster works in exceptional circumstances) and prints (etchings, mezzotints, dry-points, woodcuts).The decorative arts were included in the list, with goldsmiths' and silversmiths' work being mentioned, as well as stained glass and woodcarving. Priority was given to the purchase of portraits with 'subject pictures', landscapes and sculpture following in sequence. The panel of Advisers were to decide on all purchases, and members of the panel were to travel to the 'Great Art Centres' to select works for the Cork Gallery.
Recommendations then flowed in from the panel of expert advisers, particlulary George Atkinson, who strongly commended Gerald Festus Kelly's portrait of Sasha Kropotkin, exhibited in Dublin in 1922. This was duly purchased, for 250. the same price that had been asked for Keating's Men of the South, and not far off what Jack B. Yeats was asking for Off the Donegal Coast. With these considerable sums being expended on works for the Cork Art Gallery, local interest was aroused and representations were made to the Gibson Request Committee that the work of local artists be purchased for the gallery, from the annual Munster Fine Arts Exhibition. However, the Bequest Committee resisted this appeal.