The opening of the first major Irish exhibition on Oscar Wilde was marked by a public interview with actor and writer Rupert Everett on Thursday October 12, 2017 in Trinity College Dublin. The highly personal exhibition in Trinity’s Long Room, featuring letters, photographs, theatre programmes, books and memorabilia, maps out the Anglo-Irish playwright’s meteoric rise to fame and also his dramatic fall from grace.
Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, Oscar Wilde is one of the best known Irish personalities of the 19th century and was one of the great writers of the Victorian era. Besides literary accomplishments, Wilde became a figure of some notoriety for his lifestyle and involvement in the ‘art for art’s sake’ aesthetic movement as well as the circumstances of his imprisonment and early death.
Now Trinity College Dublin is celebrating one of its most famous alumni with an exhibition entitled ‘From Decadence to Despair’ in Trinity’s Long Room and an accompanying online exhibition. The exhibition opening takes place four days before Oscar Wilde’s birthday on October 16th. To mark the occasion a public interview with actor, writer and long-time Oscar Wilde fan Rupert Everett was conducted by Carlo Gébler, Adjunct Professor in Creative Writing at Trinity’s Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing this evening in the Robert Emmet Theatre, Arts Building, Trinity at 6.30pm.
The 30 items in the ‘From Decadence to Despair’ exhibition are drawn from the Library’s Oscar Wilde Collection, which is the only Wilde archive held in a public institution in Ireland. It is unique in its focus on the playwright’s downfall and exile years. The collection was acquired by Trinity in 2011 from Julia Rosenthal, a rare book dealer and life-long collector of Wildeana based in London.
Commenting on the significance of the exhibition Librarian and College Archivist, Helen Shenton said: “The Oscar Wilde Collection held here at the Library of Trinity College Dublin comprises items of great symbolic significance for Wilde’s biography. All the great Wilde biographers have made extensive use of the archive. Now, with these new exhibitions, we are delighted to be able to bring this important collection to national and international audiences.”
Curator of the exhibition and Assistant Librarian at Trinity, Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin added: “Oscar Wilde’s life and work continues to captivate academics and the general public. Through this exhibition we hope to celebrate the extraordinary legacy of Oscar Wilde and to shed further light on his remarkable journey from his student days in Trinity right through to his downfall and the sad circumstances in which he found himself during those final years in exile.”
Funerals of patriots have often proved to be pivotal moments in Irish history. The funeral of Thomas Ashe (1885-1917) is a particularly poignant case. In life he was a popular and cultured school teacher, a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and leader of the 1916 Rising in Ashbourne, Co Meath. In death he came to epitomise the struggle and suffering of his generation for Ireland’s cause. He died aged 32 on 25 September 1917 in the Mater Hospital after incarceration in Mountjoy Prison, a hunger strike and botched force feeding. The tragic brutality of his death, coming after the protracted executions of the other 1916 leaders the year before, resulted in an upsurge of support for the republican movement.
The funeral on 30 September 1917 therefore presented an opportunity for a pageant of political propaganda along the lines of the funerals of O’Donovan Rossa and Parnell. It also provided a significant challenge for the Volunteers and other republican forces who had lost men and arms and were struggling for cohesive leadership. However, the opportunity was defiantly seized and a large funeral procession to Glasnevin cemetery was planned involving various republican forces along with the Dublin Fire Brigade and around 30,000 members of the public who had travelled from across Ireland to line the streets. City Hall was also seized from British forces for the lying in state. The graveside oration was delivered by the young Michael Collins who, after a volley of shots, took inspiration from Pearse’s oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa and proclaimed ‘Nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian’. A statement of intent for the years to follow.
One unlikely observer from the side-lines was Elsie Mahaffy, the daughter of Trinity College provost John Pentland Mahaffy, who kept a careful record of the 1916 Rising and aftermath, in a scrapbook which includes diary entries, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, photographs, postcards and other collected memorabilia.
Whilst holding firmly to her unionist point of view (describing his death as ‘suicide’, and the procession as being ‘attended by thousands of armed rebels’) Elsie was clearly mesmerised by the press coverage of Ashe’s death and funeral. The type and amount of material she collected on the funeral in particular displays an awareness of this as a key event in the evolution of contemporary Irish politics. The most remarkable items are three photographs of the cortege and procession, which indicate that Elsie was sufficiently fascinated to join the crowds herself and to take the images as the procession passed her. We would welcome any further information on the location or participants in any of these photos.
The scrapbook also includes newspaper clippings detailing the funeral arrangements and order of procession, as well as numerous clippings from after the event. In addition Mahaffy has also pasted in a memorial card and a copy of ‘Let me carry your cross for Ireland, Lord’ the poem written by Ashe in Lewes jail. She devotes a number of pages to a description of the circumstances of his death, the government reaction, his lying in state in City Hall, and the ‘huge funeral’.
Whilst captivated by the tragic story and unfolding public reaction, we cannot know if this had any effect on her politics. However, she may have held the same view as General Sir Bryan Mahon, then head of British forces in Ireland, who commented that republican forces were now ‘exhibiting discipline to a degree which is perhaps the most dangerous sign of the times.’
A fuller account of Elsie Mahaffy’s scrapbook, written by Lucy McDiarmid, can be found on the Library’s 1916 digital resource ‘Changed Utterly’. The scrapbook has been digitised in its entirety and is available on the Library’s Digital Collections site.
Frank Stephens (1884-1948) was born in prosperous middle-class Orwell Park, Rathgar, Dublin, eldest son to solicitor Henry (Harry) Francis Colcough Stephens and his wife Annie Isabella Synge, sister of the playwright John Millington Synge. Both the Stephens and Synge families lived side by side until shortly before J M Synge’s death in 1909, a proximity that had a profound effect on Frank’s life and interests. From the age of six Frank was being tutored by his famous Uncle John on a range of subjects, among them natural history, archaeology, folklore and music. It was in the last decade of the nineteenth century that the development of small hand-held cameras changed the nature of photography making it more accessible and affordable but also allowing photographers to move away from posed compositions to more candid and natural images. J M Synge and his nephew, Frank Stephens, embraced this new portable technology as a means of recording the people and places they loved in an intimate and uncontrived way.
Frank spent his working life in education, teaching history and Irish, but he also found time to lecture on local history, antiquities and European history for the County Dublin Libraries Committee and various local history societies, deploying his 2000+ lantern slide collection to illustrate his talks. These slides are now being cleaned and rehoused by Trinity College Library conservator Clodagh Neligan prior to digitization.
Frank was one of the photographers who volunteered for the Irish Folklore Commission in 1939 recording the historic landscape of Poulaphouca in Co Wicklow and its farming community before the area was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water to Dublin city. His talents as a photographer were uniquely suited to such a project as he had a keen eye for the intrinsic beauty and honesty of simple things. His photographs celebrate the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life: the homespun clothes of the Aran islanders, street traders selling their wares in Dublin, a woman and her spinning wheel in Co Wicklow, or a cottage interior in the west of Ireland.
An exhibition Frank Stephens – a life in photographs, co-curated by Felicity O’ Mahony (M&ARL) and Gillian Whelan (DRIS), will be on view in the Long Room, September 2017
Last year, the Preservation & Conservation department in conjunction with DRIS (Digital Resources & Imaging Service) of Trinity College Library was asked to survey a collection of the Dublin University Boat Club’s photographs and other documents that hung in the club’s boathouse in Islandbridge on the river Liffey. The collection – which spans the period 1841 to the present – includes 255 framed photographs of winning crews and notable club members, a racing programme, and 70 winnings sheets.
The collection represents a unique record of rowing in College since the middle of the nineteenth century, providing inspiration to countless Trinity rowers over the years. The Boat Club has been aware of the priceless nature of the collection and there has long been a desire to maintain and preserve it for future generations.
The winning history of the club goes back to about 150 years ago when Trinity competed for the first time at the Henley Royal Regatta, and won the Visitors’ Challenge Cup with Charles Burton Barrington (on the left in the fig. 1), who contributed to the distinguished reputation that the club has held since.
Interestingly, for most of its history the Trinity Boat Club – like the rest of the university – was a purely male enterprise. The collection is a testimony to that fact, and records only one female rower, K.E. Rooney (1998).
Moreover, this collection represents a fascinating history of photographic portraiture. For instance, you will rarely find a protagonist looking at the lens of the camera in the earliest photographs (fig. 1). This would change over time and eventually subjects even began to smile. The age of selfies was still very far away however!
The background and the way people would pose in front of the camera also evolved. In the earliest photographs, the influence of art is apparent, with subjects posing in front of a beautiful plant wall, or next to elegant furniture in a luxurious interior (fig. 2). Nowadays, crews are photographed in a simple and more straight-forward way (fig. 3).
Just as the subject changes his pose through the ages, so too do the photographic techniques – from positives on paper to digital photography. The crews were photographed almost every year since 1863, so these photographs offer a unique record of the evolution of photographic techniques.
Before Photoshop or any other retouching computer programs, people were using collage or adding colour by hand on the photographs themselves. Going through the collection, we found that some heads were replaced by others, or that blue and black colours were added on the photograph itself to give further details to the rowers’ outfits (fig. 4).
These images and documents hung on the walls of the Boat House at Islandbridge for several decades. Unfortunately, years of display and fluctuating environmental conditions have had a detrimental effect on the photographs, making the need for conservation more urgent with each passing year.
The documents were housed in frames that had become quite acidic and did not effectively protect the document from the dust (fig. 5). The glass in some of the frames was broken, making consultation dangerous. Documents suffered from tears, losses, scratches, mould stains and cockling. Silver mirroring (when a silver metallic haze appears over the dark areas of some gelatine silver photographs) and fading was also apparent in the photographic material. Finally, most of the mountings were held together with a great deal of adhesive tape, which is notorious for causing damage.
The project started in July 2016 thanks to the financial support given by the TCD Association & Trust. The priority was to house the photographs and winning lists in suitable storage units. It was decided that the whole collection would stay in the College Archives and the Boat Club would receive surrogates framed in the original frames to be replaced on the walls of the Boat House at Islandbridge.
The original photographs and other documents were catalogued and each was assigned a unique archival reference.
Before digitisation, a long process of un-framing and mount removal, where necessary, began. Following that, dry-cleaning of the documents commenced. Dry-cleaning is essential in conservation not only for aesthetic reasons but also because dust and dirt can be damaging to paper and photographs in different ways. It can be abrasive, acidic, hygroscopic or degradative. Soft Japanese brushes were used to remove dust, and Smoke Sponges were used to remove the more ingrained dirt on the verso. A crepe rubber was used as well to remove synthetic glue from modern tapes.
Space and time were two main concerns. Because storage is an issue with regard to archives, we wanted the collection to take up as little space as possible. We removed damaged and detached mountings that did not show any information. Also, since there were more than 300 documents to house, we undertook repairs on the documents only when it was absolutely necessary for the preservation of the items. Each item was housed in Mylar® sleeves and archival boxes (figs. 6 & 7). The final stage of the process was the transfer of the original collection to the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library. There is takes its place among the many other student society and sports club records which may be consulted in the reading room there.
All the documents were digitally imaged and will be soon accessible on DRIS catalogue for all those wishing to dive in the history of the Boat Club, or indeed those interested in the history of photography.
We wish to gratefully acknowledge the financial support that has been given by the TCD Association and Trust.
Many thanks to Mark Pattison from the Boat Club for his knowledge and availability and to Lucilla Ronai, former conservation intern who had the courage and motivation to start the project.
Heritage Council Intern, Glucksman Conservation Department, the Library of Trinity College Dublin