Saturday, January 23, 2016

Gordon Brewster and the 1916 Rising

Gordon Brewster at his desk in Independent Newspapers
Courtesy of the Brewster family

This is the year where everyone drags up whatever connections they can muster to the 1916 Rising and exposes them to the light of day. I don't really have any such connections myself but I would like to avail of the opportunity to remember a forgotten artist who had.

Gordon Brewster vanished from the public consciousness after his sudden death in 1946. Perhaps the fact that his parents and two of his three brothers had died by then and his widow and children lived in England afterwards had something to do with his public oblivion.

And if he has been brought back into the spotlight more recently, through the acquisition by the National Library of Ireland of a collection of originals of some 500 of his cartoons, it is as a cartoonist rather than an artist that he is likely to be recognised.

But Brewster was primarily an artist. He had been trained in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now NCAD) and in 1916, aged 27, he had exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA).

List of Brewster's exhibits at Royal Hibernian Academy

In fact, he exhibited there in both 1916 and 1917 and his exhibits in both those years were connected with the Rising.

RHA on fire during 1916 Rising
Courtesy of Mick O'Dea, artist.

Unfortunately his 1916 exhibits were destroyed during the Rising as an unmanned rebel barricade close to the RHA premises was shelled by British Forces. In the course of this attack the RHA building, in Lower Abbey Street, was gutted and all 500 exhibits in the annual exhibition, along with much other precious material, were lost.

That was the end of Brewster's The Tavern Fire and The Wayfarer.

Former RHA building as it is today

Francis Johnston's elegant building is now minus its ground floor elegance and hosts a SPAR shop and some CIE offices.

Note on use of shrubbery for cover in
St. Stephen's Green during the Rising
Courtesy of Bureau of Military History

So what about Brewster's 1917 exhibit and its connection to the Rising which was well over by then?

This was a painting of a dead rebel whom he saw in St. Stephen's Green during Easter week.

While the trees and shrubbery in St Stephen's Green gave some initial cover to the rebels, this was devalued when British Forces opened up with machine guns from the Shelbourne Hotel and the rebels had to retreat to the College of Surgeons building. They left one of their dead behind. Brewster came across him and later did a painting of him.

The Dead Rebel was listed in the 1917 RHA exhibition at more than twice the price of his two earlier exhibits which suggests it was a larger canvas.

The Grove, Sutton, where The Dead Rebel hung 1920 - 1946

The Dead Rebel survived that year's exhibition and hung on the wall of his house in Sutton until his sudden death in 1946. I have not been able to trace it and the fear is that it was destroyed in the general clear out after his death.

So what of Brewster's other artistic output?

Irish Peasant Woman,
only known extant painting by Brewster
Courtesy of Dr Margarita Cappock, Hugh Lane Gallery.

At this remove, the only piece I could trace was this portrait of an Irish Peasant Woman which is stored in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Parnell Square.

This painting, along with his having exhibited two years running in the RHA, should copperfasten his reputation as an artist, but I suspect that, of necessity, it will be through his cartoons that his reputation will live on from this point.

I know that, for his descendants, he is primarily Gordon Brewster the artist, and clearly that will remain the case.

There is, however, nothing wrong with being remembered as a cartoonist when your cartoons are of such exceptional quality.

Courtesy of National Library of Ireland

You can read more about Gordon Brewster's life and his cartoons here.

I have also done a talk on him recently on his home ground on the Howth peninsula which was the subject of a dramatic report by O'Brien, here.

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