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Art of Down: The Fine Art Collection of Down County Museum

Released: 28 November 2011

Publication of a catalogue by Eileen Black and M Lesley Simpson

On Monday 28 November, Down County Museum will launch a catalogue of its fine art collection. The Museum’s fine art catalogue has been built up over the past thirty years and now numbers a total of 307 pieces comprising oils, watercolours, prints and sculpture. It is now one of the finest art collections in a regional museum in Ireland and the catalogue has been written to highlight the diversity and importance of this.

The catalogue was researched and written by Dr Eileen Black, former curator of art at the Ulster Museum, and Lesley Simpson, Keeper of Collections at Down County Museum. It includes biographies of artists, details of each work and an extensive bibliography. Every piece is illustrated, with photographs taken by Allen Thompson, Peadar Curran and Bryan Rutledge.

The catalogue launch is accompanied by an exhibition of some of the most significant works in the collection. This is a celebration of thirty years of collecting, since the Museum service was first established in 1981. Acquired through gifts, bequests and purchases, the works relate in some way to County Down, whether landscapes, portraits or more abstract pieces. There are both historical and contemporary examples, from the late 18th century onwards.

As well as the importance of the works of art themselves, there are some fascinating stories associated with many of them. A painting by Patric Stevenson, showing the Cathedral and Southwell School, started its life owned by Mr and Mrs Clint, who lived in a house adjacent to the Museum. After Mr Clint’s death, Mrs Clint moved to England. The painting was sold at least twice before being purchased by the museum and returned to Downpatrick.

While undertaking research on a portrait of Ellen Constance, Countess of Kilmorey, signed simply AP, Dr Black discovered letters in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, which revealed who the artist was, an Austrian called Adolf Pirsch. She also discovered that the Countess had had a very colourful life; she had been the mistress of Prince Francis of Teck (a brother of the future Queen Mary). On his death, he left the Teck family jewels to the Countess.

Three of the Museum’s most significant paintings are of Edward Southwell and his first wife, Elizabeth, née Cromwell. The first of these to be purchased by the museum was one of Edward which came up for sale at an auction in England. One of the Museum’s contacts spotted it in a catalogue and the museum managed to acquire it. Listed at that time as School of Mytens, it is a very impressive portrait. Several years later, in 2000, the Museum was offered a second portrait of Edward and one of Elizabeth. Although these two were clearly intended as a pair the Museum did not have the funds to purchase both. The Art Fund and the Northern Ireland Museums Council assisted the purchase of the portrait of Lady Elizabeth while the Southwell Trust very kindly purchased the portrait of Edward, so that they could be kept and displayed together in Down County Museum.

Now, as a result of her research, Dr Black has attributed all three of these portraits to Sir Godfrey Kneller. Born in Germany, Kneller moved to London in 1676 and became the most renowned court and society portrait painter of his age. Discovering this enabled Down County Museum to raise grant aid so that the portrait of Edward could be purchased from the Southwell Trust.

The Museum is indebted to all those who helped to build up the collection, from local people and artists who gave works, to the many funders who assisted with grant aid. We are especially grateful to the Esmé Mitchell Trust, Friends of Down County Museum and the Northern Ireland Museums Council, who supported the catalogue publication.

The exhibition continues until Monday 19 December and the Art Catalogue will be on sale in the Museum shop from Monday 28 November. It costs only £10 and would make an ideal gift for all those with an interest in art.

For further details contact Lesley Simpson at Down County Museum, the Mall, Downpatrick, Co Down. BT30 6AH