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SCULPTURE SECRETS 7

A drift, the CIT Registrar's Prize 2019 Exhibition by Crawford College of Art & Design graduate Orla O'Byrne in the James Barry Exhibition Centre, CIT. Photo: Darragh Kane.

In this new 8-part series, we explore the stories of our Sculpture Galleries and uncover curious things that usually only curators get to see! Discover sculptors’ secrets and makers’ marks, focus on flashlines and fig leaves, and seek missing arms – and even extra feet – as Abbey Ellis traces the tales of our cast collection.

In the penultimate instalment of SCULPTURE SECRETS, we seek out artists both historic and contemporary who have been inspired by our cast collection.

Casting a Light

The historic importance of our Sculpture Galleries for Cork artists is undeniable. In the third part of this series – Mysterious Makers' Marks – we introduced you to artists James Butler Brenan and William Linneaus Casey who may have honed their artistic skills by drawing the casts. But even though the Cork School of Art is no longer based at Emmet Place, the collection has continued significance for artists working in Cork today.

One such artist is Orla O’Byrne. A recent graduate from CIT Crawford College of Art & Design, Orla lives and works in Cork. Her work has been shown throughout the city: notably as part of Confluence (30 January - 15 February 2020) at the Lavit Gallery, followed in close succession by A drift (2 - 20 March 2020), her first solo show at the James Barry Exhibition Centre, CIT.

The Canova Casts have been a consistent source of inspiration for Orla throughout her artistic training and continuing career. She has produced a number of striking chalk drawings of the casts of Venus of Melos, Laocoön and His Sons, and The Discus Thrower in our Sculpture Galleries.

As part of her A drift exhibition, Orla’s drawings were projected in sequence onto a monumental blackboard. In-keeping with the title of the exhibition, the drawings were atmospherically exhibited in a state of flux. Individual parts of each drawing were slowly revealed by the projection, gradually fading in and out of view before the whole was illuminated.

Orla describes these works as exploring “the process of discovery that happens when you're making drawings.” She reflects on a visit to Crawford Art Gallery where she took a series of photographs that inspired her work:

I went into the Sculpture Galleries on a Thursday night during the late opening and arranged with the curator to turn off the lights. Then I took a series of photographs. I'd stand under the Venus of Melos when it was completely pitch black and then shine a light onto her to illuminate just one little bit. Then I’d take a photo, adjust the light a bit and repeat the process. It was a very slow, very experimental thing. It took a few hours and it was really great.

Orla O'Byrne
Shot in the Dark (2019). © Orla O'Byrne.

By illuminating the casts in this way, Orla is preserving a historic tradition of exploring cast collections by torchlight that was popularised in the nineteenth century. After-dark visits to plaster collections were common at this time – the flickering light from the torches was thought to animate the casts’ crisp white surfaces.

This legacy of exploring collections in low light also lived on in our own Drawing by Candlelight events back in 2014. These creative sessions were inspired by the Irish Romantic artist Samuel Forde (1805-1828), one of the very first students of the Canova Casts! Forde, whose monumental Fall of the Rebel Angels (1828) is displayed in our Sculpture Galleries, was known to paint late into the evenings. It is even believed that he intended to subtitle one of his works – A Vision of Tragedy (1825), now in the V&A collection – 'Painted by Candlelight'. Just such a candlelit practice is preserved in another painting from the collection, Edward Sheil's Exclesior! (1857).

Considering the works of Samuel Forde and Orla O’Byrne side-by-side shows how the Canova Casts, and the artistic traditions associated with them, have truly transcended the generations, inspiring today’s artists just as much as those working in the distant nineteenth century.

As well as being central to her artistic practice, Orla views the casts as a focal point of life in Cork:

They've always just been in the background of my mind – I just have to describe them as peripheral to everybody's consciousness around here. Not just for me but for loads of people. When they opened the Recasting Canova exhibition, it was quite a splash! That blue colour was everywhere! You opened the newspaper and there was story after story about the casts, with the blue colour everywhere.

Orla O'Byrne
Recasting Canova in our Sculpture Galleries. Photo: Jed Niezgoda.

Fun at Home

What are your memories of the Canova Casts? Is there a standout visit to our Sculpture Galleries that you always reflect on? Were you particularly struck by one of the works on display? Or perhaps a cast has inspired you to sketch, model, or create a work of art?

We’re keen to collect your Sculpture Galleries stories, no matter how big or insignificant they may seem! Send your memories or photos to socialmedia@crawfordartgallery.ie

Next in the series: A Love Letter to the Canova Casts (25 September 2020)

Abbey Ellis is a PhD researcher at the University of Leicester and Ashmolean Museum, Oxford on an AHRC CDP placement at Crawford Art Gallery. Her research focuses on archaeological plaster casts, sculptural materials and making, and authenticity.

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Emmet Place, Cork, Ireland
T12 TNE6
Tel: 021 480 5042
info@crawfordartgallery.ie

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