The genius of Irish artisans spanning three centuries -- at once sprightly, refined and heroic -- highlights "Irish Decorative Arts from the National Museum of Ireland," on display at the Walters Art Gallery through Oct. 28.
The majority of the show's 82 pieces date from the 17th through the 19th centuries, a period in which Ireland's political fortunes waxed and waned as its government was gradually and implacably subsumed by the British crown. Nevertheless, Irish craftsmen of the era were at their zenith, producing many distinctive pieces of silver, ceramics, wooden furnishings, lace and glassware.
Distinctly Irish responses to international designing trends characterize many of the earliest objects. These are singularly ebullient. Silver pieces such as Caleb Webb's two-handed drinking cup (1680), for instance, feature a rococo patternmore florid and exuberant than comparable examples produced in England or on the continent.
By contrast, the early 19th century pieces tend toward more unadorned designs. Many were finely crafted articles designed for domestic use and later passed along as family heirlooms, such as a splendid satinwood book stand produced in 1800. In all cases, the elegant simplicity of these objects makes a strong visual impact. The many fine Waterford crystal pieces, dating from 1810-1820, are particularly exemplary.
Far and away the most impressive pieces in "Irish Decorative Arts" are the late-19th century silver and ceramic pieces. Interest in finely crafted art objects had begun to decline in the early part of the century, due to the shifting of Irish government from Dublin to London. However, the concomitant excavations of Celtic artifacts rejuvenated 19th cen
tury Irish artisans, who sparingly ornamented their work with the complex interlocking patterns of this ancient art.
The use of archaic Celtic designs evoke an archetypal mystery, notably in such pieces as a silver tea set produced by John Smith in 1874 and a brilliant red glazed earthenware bowl dating from 1883. More important, however, were the significance of these images to Ireland's cultural identity. Ultimately, the Celtic motifs helped artisans establish a distinctly national creative voice in Ireland, one that continues unabated in the face of the country's continuing political turmoil.