‘It took a century’: women artists and the RHA

‘It took a century’: women artists and the RHA Maeve McCarthy Portrait of Maeve Binchy (1940-2012), 2005

RHA exhibition at the National Gallery, Room 21 at the National Gallery until October 22. Curated by Kate McBride and others from both the RHA and the NGI.

The limited exhibition at the National Gallery is one of some special interest concerning the advancement of women artists in modern Ireland.

The Royal Irish Academy during the long 19th Century, though it accepted women artists as contributors to the Annual Summer show, did not have a class of women members. This changed but it has taken a full century since then for the election of a woman president. She is Abigail O’Brien who was elected in 2018.


One of her works is in fact a very striking feature of the show. It consists of the front image Perfection I and allied with Perfection II. The first shows the embroidery of an organic heart, then Perfection II shows the reverse, the chaos of threads. Together they go to creating the front image. It is a simile of art itself forming organic order out of seeming creative disorder.

In a way the whole show is a bit like an RHA summer show in miniature. Remember these are selling shows. One is not expected to love every item on display. Indeed at the summer shows the question people have to ask themselves is would I take it home?

On that basis some items stand out. One is undoubtedly Kitty Wilmer O’Brien’s Near Westport, County Mayo (1950s), an evocation of a much loved place that rivals those by greater hands. My companion thought however she would take home the sycamore seeds cases always much loved by children, a work in bronze and sandstone by Rachel Joynt entitled Whisper I and II, that is very evocative of life’s new beginnings.

Other pieces too are memorable for a variety of reasons. The portrait of cartoonist Tom Matthews by Una Sealy catches that ever-mobile man at a moment of forced rest.


I liked, too, the portrait by Norah McGuinness of playwright Denis Johnston. But of the portrait that most stands out, this has to be one by Maeve McCarthy of Maeve Binchy, a writer much loved in Ireland for both her books and for her personality, with her husband lurking in the background reading the paper.

Like the RHA Summer shows, it’s an exhibition of typical pieces, the usual manner and modes of the artist, rather than masterpieces. There are more than enough pieces created with humour for your children to enjoy too. Some will shock; some truly delight like the Mayo landscape. I would take that home any day.

In the Ely Place Gallery of the RHA the 193rd Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition runs until July 30.