Tuesday 1 April 2014

Art in Dublin - The National Gallery of Ireland and Art Tea at the Merrion Hotel

There's a certain charm to simply wandering freely round a new locale and stumbling upon interesting hotspots, but there's also something to be said for tempering spontaneity with a dash of long-term planning. We enjoy a bit of structure to our holidays, which is why we map out certain must-visit places each trip - it gives us something definite to anticipate and organize the rest of the day around, so even if everything else is a bust, we still feel accomplished at the end. For our free afternoon in Dublin, the day's planned highlight was Art Tea at the Merrion Hotel, which M had found out about online (She's very resourceful). With the hotel so close to the National Gallery of Ireland, we decided to immerse ourselves in art beforehand, all the better to appreciate the tea to come. 

The National Gallery of Ireland was first opened to the public in 1864 with just 112 pictures on show. Thanks to donations, loans and further acquisitions, the collection has since grown to over 15000 works, while the building itself has been expanded. When we visited though, the historical wing of the museum was closed for refurbishment, with a number of paintings not on display. Still, it's really worth a visit. For one thing, there was free entry to all the permanent galleries and the audio guide was likewise gratis, with no charge to leave our shopping bags in the cloakroom as well. 

As she was handing me the audio guides, I asked the lady at the counter which paintings we definitely needed to see, and she laughed and said "All of them!" With so many wings undergoing works, there's mostly just the most modern addition to the building left open, and although the styles exhibited in the museum are fairly extensive, the collection isn't overwhelming, so covering everything is manageable. A new system is being rolled out where visitors can take pictures of works that aren't under copyright or deemed too sensitive, so I got snaps of some of my favourites. The first picture in the post for instance, is A View of Dublin from Chapelizod, an 18th century oil painting by William Ashford.  

A group of schoolchildren were being guided by one of the staff members round the same gallery we were going through, so M & I rather shamelessly listened in on their lesson on iconography and art history, which complemented what we were hearing on the audio guide. We attempted to stealthily blend in, but given that we weren't dressed in anything remotely approaching their uniform and were a fair sight older, that plan didn't quite work. So, we wound up... hovering. (As discreetly as we could, of course, somewhere off the side of the group.) The lesson covered a crash course on Saint symbolism and the inclusion of aspects of their martyrdom as identifying features, and we followed them as far as Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, where Christ's meekness and the artist's use of light was discussed. No pictures of it allowed, but you can see the very striking image here

Crowds make us antsy, so we found visiting the National Gallery on a Tuesday afternoon to be a perfectly pleasant experience. After the students moved on from the special gallery holding the Masterpieces from the museum's collection, we were left on our own to slowly peruse the rest of the paintings (Including this early Van Gogh piece - see his signature on the bottom left corner) to our hearts' content. 

Realism Van Gogh

One of the highlights of the collection is Burton's moving The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, but because of the need to preserve the watercolour's rich hues, the painting hides behind a black-out curtain, revealed to the public only at certain times each week. We hadn't visited during one of the correct hours, and had to settle for this blown up reproduction instead, printed on canvas and used to obscure some of the building restoration works being done. 

We stretched out the five minute walk between the National Gallery and the Merrion Hotel with a short sidetrack to a corner of Merrion Square Gardens to get a picture with the wickedly smirking statue of Oscar Wilde that looks across the road at the house he was born in. All day long I'd been planning to clamber up the rock and perch myself next to him like I'd seen someone do when we passed by on our bus tour in the morning. When we got there though, the place was completely overrun with glum-looking Portuguese schoolchildren who wouldn't move out of my way, so I had to let it go. (On a more practical level, I also realized that my my skirt and style of footwear wasn't exactly conducive to climbing either)

The Merrion is housed across four fully restored Georgian townhouses, and on the inside a number of flourishes have been maintained, including working wood fireplaces. The look of it was decidedly charming, but the overall effect of being seated directly in front of one was somewhat less so. It would have been perfect in winter, but when we visited, the weather was so nice out that even with random passers-by letting a bit of a draft in every time they opened the door to the garden, the three of us were slowly melting in front of the furnace. Maybe I'm secretly telekinetic, or maybe our combined misery was enough of a damper, but soon after, the newer logs fed into the pile didn't catch, bringing the temperature down to more comfortable levels. I exulted when I saw the last sparks stutter out. 

Apart from the impromptu sauna at the start, the rest of the Art Tea experience was thoroughly enjoyable. The Merrion Hotel has an extensive array of art adorning its walls, around the tea lounge and down its hallways, so having a themed afternoon tea experience based on this collection seems fairly inspired. The Art Tea consists of two courses - the traditional three-tiered stand of savoury sandwiches and pastries, followed by a dessert course inspired by three of their paintings. The kitchen dictates which three you get, and this rotates on a day to day basis, so there's a small element of surprise there.

Menu and painting cards aside, there's also a comprehensive catalogue of their key 18th and 19th century pieces provided as part of the afternoon tea experience. The write-ups included short artist biographies and clear pictures of all the images, including those that weren't being displayed within the lounge itself. With a nice, fresh cup of tea by my side, I sank further down into my squishy high backed seat and devoured the book cover to cover while we waited for the food to arrive. Bliss. 

Speaking of tea, they have a drink-all-you-want policy (My favourite kind.) I got to try a whole range of blends and tisanes, all served in this exquisite fine bone china. D tried to help me pour out a cup while our waitress Ciara was busy assisting another table, and after burning his hand on the almost ridiculously hot pot handle, marvelled at how effortless she'd made it look. Apparently it takes quite a bit of practice. 

Here is a pleasingly neat-looking tea-tier for one, because squishing three servings together just isn't the done thing. Everything always looks deceptively delicate, but after scarfing all the savoury sandwiches, I was pretty much done for. 

I would just like to take a while to expound on the gloriousness that was the layer of sweet pastries. In the centre was a fruit cake, something I normally shy away from. However, this had Guinness in it, so I felt morally obligated to give it a try. It was flavourful and not too crumbly, with a hint of malty savouriness. Next to it were two slices of Battenberg cake, but unlike the normal pink and pale yellow checks, these were inspired by the abstract oil painting closest to us, so we had one slice of dramatic red and blue squares, and one slice of yellow and blue layers, both of which were covered by an impressively even layer of marzipan. The cake had a great chewy texture and a hint of almonds in the sponge, which tasted divine. And oh, the scones! Warm all the way through even though I ate them last, fluffy but with a satisfyingly dense mouth-feel, and the perfect vehicle for the consumption of copious amounts of clotted cream. 

They'd given me the full serving of fresh clotted cream, and I did my best to make a dent into the jar. It was a rather successful enterprise. Still, all the cakes were so very filling, and even after a slow and steady attempt to eat most of it, we still had a lot of things left over. (We probably shouldn't have bothered with lunch) Ciara helped us pack what we couldn't finish into a bag, and gave us some time to sit down and digest before bringing out the art-inspired desserts. 

We used our time wisely to psyche our stomachs into making some room for the dessert course, and luckily, they were small portions of tastiness. We'd studied the paintings carefully - up close in the case of Path Moorea and Frying Pan, Funnel, Eggs & Lemons, both of which were in the same room as we were, and Futile Defense (Fabricated Evidence) on the picture card we'd been provided, which lent a great deal to our appreciation of the cakes. The vanilla biscuit with orange curd was a tad too dry and crumbly, but the other two were well-made, especially the Raspberry and Passion Fruit tart, which came with a delightfully wiggly layer of jelly. 

Here are the cakes with the works they're based on: Futile Defense by John Boyd had given rise to the tart, William Scott's Frying Pan had been re-imagined as a biscuit, and last but not least, the Chocolate Trinity was based on Pauline Bewick's Path Moorea. Art is enjoyable, but art you can eat is always better. 

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