It was Sunday and I was heading to the Emerald Isle to take in some art. Two of Ireland’s finest hotels, The Merrion in Dublin and County Laois’s Ballyfin, have come together to showcase their own collections of fine Irish art in a venture titled Inspiring Irish Art Weekend. I was hoping to be spoiled.
The Merrion was as glamorous and luxurious as expected from a five star hotel, yet I was somewhat surprised at just how comfortable and inviting a space it was. I was instantly struck by a stunning painting in the lobby by the artist Jack B Yeats, called The Old Grass Road. This painting is vivid and exciting, perhaps a little disturbing. It looked as though it should be hanging in a gallery, not a hotel lobby.
The rest of the collection did not disappoint. The variety in styles and artists at The Merrion gave me a feeling that only a personal collection can give. This is a representation of just one person's taste, pieced together for the simple reason that the owner likes them and wants to enjoy them. As a result there is a rather eclectic style to the work, with classical works such as "Wreck Ashore 1868" by the English artist James Francis Danby, a rather beautiful sunset view of the sea draped in English romanticism, to very contemporary pieces such as "Farm Buildings" by Stephen McKenna, whose simplistic and figurative nature to his paintings echo that of Edward Hopper.
My personal favourite is quite a dark piece called Man Writing, by Louis le Brocquy. One of Ireland's most internationally renowned contemporary artists, The Merrion collection contains three of his works. This painting in particular left me with a very haunting feeling, with its very plain and generic figures who inhabit a bleak and stark space filled with fierce shadows adding to an ominous mood. It is a stunning piece which will stick with me.
After the Art Tea which followed the tour, beautifully presented and simply delicious, my brief stay in Dublin ended with dinner at the Cellar Restaurant and a very good night's sleep, possibly helped by the excellent champagne on offer in the bar.
The sun was once again shining the next morning as we arrived at Ballyfin, just over an hour's drive from Dublin. The journey up the long driveway added to the anticipation and, on first view, the house didn't disappoint. Set in beautiful countryside and with a grand lake set just in front, you can even dress up as characters from Downton Abbey if that is what you so desire. I did not.
We were met at lunch by the renowned Irish art connoisseur William Laffan, who led the tour of the collection. Whilst there are numerous paintings, they aren't the dominating feature or even the main focus; each clock, ornate box, lamp and even the floor holds just as much importance as the fine art displayed on the walls. I found myself looking not at the paintings, but the individual artefacts and objects which decorate this beautiful house. I even developed an odd fascination with two antique boxes which once belonged to the Irish Parliament.
Whilst the items on display in the main area of the house have a classical and traditional feeling throughout, the more modern part of the house, which houses a gym, swimming pool and bar, contained the contemporary art collection. This separation of classical and contemporary fits very well in this space. The main house has a very distinct feeling to it which is aided by the timeless nature of the paintings and artefacts, any modern pieces would simply look out of place.
The highlight for me was yet another piece by the artist John Boyd, whose imaginative and theatrical paintings were also on display at The Merrion. His subjects are often painted in a rather sinister way, with unusual pointed masks with stern expressions redolent of Greek tragedy.
My room, elegantly titled The Butler Room, was far grander than its name suggests, boasting a four-poster bed and the largest bath tub I have ever attempted to use. Waking up on my final morning in this beautiful room was possibly the nicest moment of my trip, which certainly made packing to go back home much harder than it should have been.