“Prelude Speaker: Contemporary Castletown”

Castletown House
Castletown House and Parklands
April 30, 2013–June 30, 2013

Marianne Keating, Famine Screen (detail), 2013, four-panel screen, unbleached cotton, each 68 x 25 1/2".

The exhibition “Prelude Speaker: Contemporary Castletown” investigates the Palladian mansion that serves as its site through the work of sixteen contemporary artists, including Sarah Browne, Patrick Jolley, Eoin McHugh and Paul Nugent. Ireland has a troubled relationship with its great houses of colonial rule. Some were burned out in the 1920s, while others sank into neglect. Castletown, the largest of these, was built in the eighteenth-century for William Connolly, speaker of the Irish parliament. Now in the care of the state, it fell into disrepair, and was more recently rescued by Desmond Guinness, of the brewing family.

Much of the work is site specific, and the best of the relatively low-key interventions pack a powerful punch that resonates with the accumulated histories of both the house and the nation. Marianne Keating’s Famine Screen, 2013, is in the manse’s Print Room, which also offers one of the finest examples of eighteenth-century print decoration (illustrations and prints, pasted directly onto the walls) to survive in Ireland. Keating has added another layer: a three-paneled dressing screen. Instead of images of happy peasants, shepherds, and comely maidens, popularized by toile de Jouy fabrics, Keating has retained the aesthetic but used nineteenth-century engravings of the evictions and starvation that resulted from the Irish Famine.

Maud Cotter’s More than one way out, 2009, may not have been created for the exhibition, but her Alice in Wonderland–esque tables, with their improbably long legs and eccentric surfaces, provide a commentary on the strangeness that passes for normal in the rest of the house: a bedroom that is also a public reception room, kitchens in a separate wing from the dining rooms, and the evident difference between the lives of the owners and their servants. This latter is hauntingly expressed in Daphne Wright’s Sons, 2012, a pair of Jesmonite casts of the artist’s own children. Sited in the old dairy, in the cellars, the piece underlines the ineluctable legacy of birth that sent some children on the path to positions of power, and others to inevitable servitude, all those years ago.

Gemma Tipton