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WORK OF THE WEEK | 8 July 2019

CAG.311 William Magrath, Tara’s Halls, n.d., oil on canvas, 160.5 x 275 cm. Purchased, Mrs. A. McSwiney, 1920 (Gibson Bequest Fund).

For this WORK OF THE WEEK we take a closer look at a recently conserved masterpiece from the collection!

Tara’s Halls is a large oil painting by William Magrath (1838-1918), which for many years hung high up in the gallery’s lecture theatre. To make it ready for a new exhibition, it was taken down with the use of scaffolding and then, over several days in April 2019, conservator Corrie Tubman assessed and treated this historic work.

Through her investigation, we learned about the artist’s techniques as she found that Magrath had applied paint in a flat manner, sometimes very thinly. Some small repairs from previous conservation work were also noted. More significantly, however, was a darkened and yellowed varnish that had been unevenly applied across the painting's surface and obscured much of its detail.

To reverse this, Corrie carefully began her treatment by removing loose surface dust with a soft brush and vacuum. This was followed by removal of more ingrained dirt using a wet/dry method and cotton swab (pictured). Once the very thick dark-brown dirt layer (suggestive of nicotine!) was removed, some of the painting’s long-hidden details finally began to reveal themselves, including numerous background figures and an architectural space with medieval décor, which all serve to enrich Magrath’s original scene. The ornamental frame was also cleaned during this process.

This monumental canvas is inspired by Thomas Moore’s ballad “The Harp That Once through Tara’s Halls” (1807) – later mentioned in Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce – and meditates on national spirit (harp) and the loss of self-rule (kingship of Tara). It is notably one of the first acquisitions made with our Gibson Bequest Fund and, having been purchased in 1920, a deeply political one in the context of the Irish War of Independence (1919-21).

Tara’s Halls by William Magrath is featured in THE GIBSON BEQUEST 1919-2019: Selecting, Collecting & Philanthropy.

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