Waiting Rooms: Eithne Jordan’s Interior Spaces / by Eithne Jordan


Visitors to Eithne Jordan: Tableau at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane must first pass through the front hall of Charlemont House, the Gallery’s home on Parnell Square. Originally the imposing residence of Lord Charlemont, it became a public gallery in 1933 following a refurbishment for which the interior was ‘altered and reconstructed to the needs of its new intention’.1 It is what Mark Pimlott calls a ‘public interior’, specifically of the Palace type, which he describes as ‘a scaffold for representations’2 – retaining the capacity to impress while surviving social, political and economic changes. Today the front hall of Charlemont House retains its eighteenth-century features – plasterwork and fireplaces, alongside accumulations from subsequent centuries – a modern glass vestibule, signage of various forms, fire hydrants and benches. There are also artworks: Seamus Murphy’s oversized bust of Michael Collins (1949) is permanently ensconced between two windows, while other sculptures have found a temporary place to stand – at the time of writing Michael Warren’s After Image (1984) and Barry Flanagan’s Horse Mirrored: Sheep Boys: Cowgirls (1995). This is a space that people must pass through but one which is, I suspect, rarely contemplated, except by those sitting waiting for a gallery tour, for friends or for a bus departing from the square outside. 

Upstairs, for the duration of this exhibition, the visitors encounter the front hall once more – in Jordan’s painting, Foyer VI, which captures the view seen by those who glance left on entering the building. Rather than simply passing through or looking only at the artworks on display, the artist pauses and pays attention to the space. Yes, Michael Collins is present, as is After Image (partially obscured by a column), but Jordan also takes note of the daylight reflected on the window reveal and on the terrazzo floor, the polished brass fire surround standing out against the grey stone mantelpiece, the subtle undulations in the wall mouldings and the glow of the electric lights hanging from the ceiling. Such care and attention paid to the qualities of spaces is evident throughout the exhibition. In taking time to observe, the artist observes time itself – in the traces of use and habitation, in the evolution of built spaces and the imposition of new technologies, in the passing of one or another story and the expectation of events yet to unfold. 

Interplay between memory and experience is enacted throughout Jordan’s exhibition. While the title, Foyer VI, doesn’t give away its location, most visitors will experience a moment of recognition, having passed through the front hall not long before seeing the painting. Other locations remain anonymous; while Jordan depicts spaces throughout Europe and North America, the sources for the images are deliberately not identified. The paintings’ titles indicate generic functions rather than specific institutions with their particular contents and histories. Indeed, this is not a survey of architecture from the eighteenth century to today. These are not commissions, painted documents intended to sell, record, imagine or remember architectural achievement; neither are they backdrops to intimate scenes of daily life, formal portraits or conversation pieces. Rather, they are psychological studies of spaces, conveying moods and evoking memories. 

Nor are they depictions of the artist’s studio, that immediately accessible interior painted by Courbet, Whistler, Corot, Matisse and many others. As in Foyer VI, many of Jordan’s paintings do include artworks, but in rooms where art is displayed rather than created. In Dining Hall II and Function Room I the accumulated portraits of former distinguished associates of the institutions gaze down from on high. In Church II sculpted forms writhe in paint within the quietude of a gothic church. In Museum XV eerily illuminated busts populate the room, their supporting columns occupying the space where their bodies might be. Auguste Rodin understood this relationship between the sculpted bust, the plinth and the viewer, stipulating that certain of his busts should be placed on appropriate pedestals so that the head of the figure stands at the height it would in real life.3 Indeed, while there are human figures in certain paintings – in Café II or the Exhibition III – in Jordan’s interiors figurative artworks frequently stand in for human presence. In Anatomy Room III a painting on the rear wall provides a ghostly afterimage of the work of the medical students who might occupy that room. For now, though, the room is empty of action, but as with all of these paintings, the trace or promise of an event is evident; regardless of their stated purpose, these are all waiting rooms. 

Furniture, too, reminds us of human activity and use. The skirts covering the cocktail tables in Function Room I and II are even reminiscent of a clothed figure. Chairs, whose backs, seats and legs are attuned to the scale and mass of a human body, seemingly cling to the walls in an orderly fashion, arranged carefully and with intent. They await meeting attendees in Conference Room II. At times they are placed on display as in Exhibition I in which an armchair sits behind a velvet rope or in Museum XIV where they appear to create surrogate bodies for portrait heads hung above. In lieu of museum-goers upholstered sofas fill the atrium of Museum III, watched over by a gallery attendant. 

It is fitting that these places are presented as a stage for some activity. The exhibition title, Tableau, evokes the idea of a set. It stands as an abbreviated form of tableau vivant, a silent and motionless group of people arranged to represent a scene, such as those depicted in paintings. Tableaux vivants (or living statues when adopting the poses of statuary) were popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as parlour games.4 In these performances the human figure stands in for an artwork, while in Jordan’s paintings artworks stand in for human figures. 

A stage set not only includes the structures and props that enclose and decorate a space but also the lighting. Light, while necessary for reading and looking at artworks, can damage paper and textiles over time. Therefore the relationship to light – its power to illuminate and to slowly destroy – is at times carefully choreographed in museums.  Light is not just a practical consideration in buildings, but is also an idea loaded with connotations: wisdom, clarity, openness, revelation, inspiration or knowledge. Conversely, darkness or shadow might imply mystery, ignorance, malice or threat. Light, too, contributes to our perception of the passage of time – the movement of the sun across the sky and the relative orientation of a building allow us to recognise dusk, high noon or dawn, winter or summer, from the quality of light falling within a room. 

Illumination contributes much to the atmosphere of a room and one of the greatest accomplishments in these paintings is Jordan’s ability to convey how light behaves in certain spaces, given its shifting and diverse sources. Many of the rooms depicted would have originally been lit by daylight and candlelight, and have since witnessed the arrival of gas and subsequently electric lighting. The artist is particularly attentive to these latter forms of illumination and their distinctive colours and moods: the exit sign in Dining Hall II, the projection in Conference Room II (and its reflection on a glazed picture on the wall), the wall lights in Café II, the chandeliers adapted to take electric lights in Oriental Room II, the spotlights illuminating the plinths and busts in Museum XV and the illuminated ceiling panels in Exhibition III

While many of the rooms in Tableau appear to be various iterations of neo-classical design from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, the interiors in Exhibition III and Museum III are decisively modern, with sleek flat surfaces. Their apparent newness suggests purpose- built spaces rather than converted buildings. The paintings in Tableau feature both interiors that have retained a consistent use over their lifespan and those (such as Charlemont House) whose use has changed since construction. In both we see the evidence of the lives of the buildings over time and how rooms are tailored for everyday use: the addition of new light fittings, the neatly arranged chairs, a red fire extinguisher, a projector or tables dressed in preparation for an event. 

Regardless of use, age or geography, consistent throughout most of the interiors (and those few closely cropped exteriors) that have caught Jordan’s eye is the fact that they were built to impress. This power to impress remains even when their use shifts over time through
a process of democratisation – from private to public, from ‘prince’s palace’ to ‘people’s palace’. Mark Pimlott has articulated this change in the use of palaces from the domain of the aristocracy to that of the bourgeoisie and specifically their conversion to museums: 

As structures of power were modified, so were the artefacts that symbolised them. The palace did not disappear, but became adopted for different purposes and adapted to different uses: A relic of another time and idea of political structure, the palace came to be occupied by or reinvented by newly formed representational institutions that used the idea of it as a device to represent new orders and new ideas, effectively emptying it out and recasting its role. As the palace was assumed within new political orders in the service of a more broadly enfranchised society, its symbolism was used to represent that society and its member, their ambitions and their ideas.5

Despite these changes there is a continuity of the theme of the palace ‘through the borrowed idea of aura’.6 This aura retains the power to produce wonder, to impress upon the visitor the authority of the institution. Something of this aura is captured in Jordan’s paintings. 

Pimlott’s identification of the palace as an idea as well as a structure is pertinent to The Hugh Lane. The building that houses Jordan’s exhibition was erected by James Caulfeild, the first Earl of Charlemont, to the design of William Chambers. The street on which it sits was actually known as Palace Row, because of the grandeur of Charlemont House and the terraces that flank it, as Alderman Tom Kelly outlined in his history of the gallery: 

Houses began to be built by the wealthy classes who could afford to display both money and taste on their embellishment. Probably in imitation of London’s fashion, the word ‘Row’ was used; ... when the north side of the Square was formed ‘Pallace Row’ [sic] came on the map because of the erection of Charlemont House. 7

The building was not only a residence but also a repository for Lord Charlemont’s collections (including works by Titian, Rembrandt and Hogarth) and an ornament for the city – a ‘statement of learning and culture’.8 The conversion to a gallery in the early 1930s therefore embodies a sense of continuity as well as democratic change. 

Charlemont House made a transition from aristocratic residence to Public Register Office to art gallery, taking on new interpretations in the process. However, not all palaces survive to be transformed. Ireland’s history and landscape are full of grand houses destroyed in times of war or neglect. The fabric of those buildings was unable to withstand the shifts in power relations; the symbolism of the past weighed too heavily to be reconfigured under the guise of a new ideology. Jordan has previously painted another of Dublin’s ‘palaces’, Aldborough House on Portland Row. Today Aldborough House stands derelict, still awaiting reinvention, evidenced in her painting, Mansion I, by the boarded-up windows and broken panes of glass. In Mansion I, now in the collection of The Hugh Lane, Jordan depicts the building amidst the monuments of later urban development. It is painted from the side, from the viewpoint of a passer-by, placing the artist, and by extension the viewer, in the street. Likewise, in the paintings in Tableau she is in the room, not set apart looking at or in, but enveloped by her surroundings. 

It is apt that Jordan’s paintings should find a temporary home in the reinvented Charlemont House, paintings that are not only images, but also objects in the world. To stand in front of them is to stand in relation to where the artist once stood to paint them. This awareness of occupying space is heightened in the exhibition, as the rooms are painted in vibrant colours with equally vibrant names: Dead Salmon, Eating Room Red, Nancy’s Blushes and Arsenic. The last is a version of pea green, a colour popular in the eighteenth century (and even specified by William Chambers for Lord Charlemont)9. However, the choice of colour is not an archaeological exercise with the intention of recreating a former age, but rather an exercise in exhibition-making, to create an effect, an aura, a feeling, a seemly setting for the paintings. In this sense it is analogous to the works themselves, which evoke a sense of place without being bound by topographical or historical description. Both the individual paintings and the scene set by the exhibition explore the psychology of interior architecture and the relationship of the human body to architectural forms. Jordan’s unique configuration of paint, light, space and colour helps us to see familiar buildings anew and remember spaces not yet visited.

1. The Irish Times, 19 June 1933, p.3. 

2. Mark Pimlott, The Public Interior as Idea and Project (Heijningen: Jap Sam Books, 2016), p.83. 

3. For example, in a letter to Hugh Lane, 6 August 1906, Rodin wrote that he would send the bust of George Wyndham and specified that it was necessary for the effect of the sculpture that it should be placed on pedestal of one metre35 cm; National Library of Ireland, Ms 35,823/2. When George Bernard Shaw donated his bust by Rodin in November 1908 it was reported that, until it is placed on a pedestal ‘to bring the head to the height of its original when standing, we shall not be able to realise the artist’s intention in this striking and interesting work’. ‘Municipal Art Gallery’, The Irish Times, 2 November, 1908, p.5. 

4. They were used to raise funds for charitable causes, such as Lady Lavery posing as the Virgin Mary in William Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting La Vierge Consolatrice (1877) to raise money for the Women’s United Services League in 1916. 

5. Pimlott, The Public Interior, pp. 71-2. 

6. ibid., p. 59. 

7. Alderman Thomas Kelly, ‘Pallace Row’, Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 4, No. 1 (September - November 1941), p. 1. 

8. John R. Redmill, ‘Lord Charlemont and his collections’, in Barbara Dawson (ed.), Hugh Lane: Founder of a Gallery of Modern Art for Ireland (London: Scala, 2008), p.84. 

9. See Arthur Gibney, The Building Site in Eighteenth- Century Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2017), p. 261. 

Published by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane on the occasion of the exhibition Eithne Jordan: Tableau ,2017