JOHN TAYLOR BEGAN WORKING AS A GALLERY ASSISTANT AT THE DAWSON GALLERY ON 9 MARCH 1964. HALF A CENTURY ON, HIS OWN GALLERY – TAYLOR GALLERIES – HAS JUST CELEBRATED ITS 35TH ANNIVERSARY. SABINA MACMAHON TALKS TO JOHN TAYLOR ABOUT HIS CAREER AND SOME OF THE CHANGES HE’S SEEN OVER THE PAST 50 YEARS.
Sabina MacMahon: How did you get your start at the Dawson Gallery?
John Taylor: It was accidental really – after finishing school I began working in Brown and Nolan’s, a shop on Dawson Street that mainly sold books. It had an art department in the basement that was staffed by Miss Leahy and Miss Moon. They were friendly with Leo Smith, who would occasionally come in to the shop to buy materials, and one day he happened to mention that he was looking for a new assistant in the Dawson Gallery. The ladies recommended me. After two interviews the job was mine – provided that I adhered to Leo’s proviso that I tidy myself up (I’d had no idea what to wear to a formal job interview) and report for duty in a suit.
I had little knowledge of visual art, let alone contemporary Irish art. There were few places you could see it when I was growing up, even if you wanted too. From its opening in 1944 until 1956, when the Ritchie Hendricks Gallery opened, the Dawson Gallery was really the only one in Dublin showing contemporary work – the only other place to see anything interesting would have been the Irish Exhibition of Living Art.
SMM: What was the Dawson Gallery like during your time there?
JT: Leo established the gallery at 4 Dawson Street in 1944 after leaving Waddington Galleries, where he had worked as gallery assistant. He wanted to show more work by Irish artists, so he took on people like Micheal Farrell, Brian Bourke, Seán McSweeney, Patrick Scott.
There were usually four people working in the gallery: Leo, his sister May Murnane, who did the bookkeeping, a secretary and myself. For most of my time there I dealt largely with framing orders. The gallery had a large framing workshop at the top of Anne’s Lane that completed orders for the public as well as framing for the gallery. The market for contemporary Irish art was only really starting to emerge in the mid 1960s, so the framing end of the business really sustained the gallery by providing it with a regular income. When I set up Taylor Galleries in 1978 I kept the workshop for several years for that reason; gallery sales didn’t really take off in a big way until the mid to late 1980s.
The gallery was very elegant. Patrick Scott had organised a very tasteful layout of the space for Leo, separating the office space and storage from the exhibition space with linen-covered screens.
Leo dominated the gallery. He was a great salesman, but often unorthodox. Sometimes someone would be giving out about a particular painting, something like a really minimal William Scott and he would say “Oh, no, you’re just not ready for that yet”. Bearing in mind that many of the gallery’s customers then were Anglo-Irish aristocrats with a certain sense of themselves, it was an ingenious, if extreme, kind of reverse psychology, because they would always buy a few other things instead, just to spite him.
Another tactic was his system of holding two openings for every show. The first, a champagne reception for serious buyers, complete with bar staff in dickie bows, took place on Tuesday evenings, while the second, for “second string” gallery patrons, was held on Wednesday afternoons. The people on the Wednesday list would be offended because they weren’t considered important enough to be on the first list, so they would try to get on it by buying something they thought Leo would approve of.
SMM: Did your experience of Leo Smith’s approach influence you much when you came to open your own gallery?
JT: In a way; inversley. By the time Leo died in 1977 I really felt that it was time to have something of my own. I wanted to show some artists that I really liked, like Charles Brady and Charles Tyrrell, and I wanted the new gallery to reflect my own personality – for it to be a calmer, more relaxed kind of place. Society in general had changed a lot by then too. Things were less formal and the contemporary art scene had opened up a bit more, we were operating in a less rarified atmosphere.
The Dawson Gallery artists had been incredibly supportive of me in the months following Leo’s death and so when I established Taylor Galleries at 6 Dawson Street all of them moved with me. Hopefully the fact that some of them – Brian Bourke, Seán McSweeney, Colin Harrison – are still with Taylor Galleries now is a testament to my belief in the benefits of building lasting relationships with artists and supporting them as best as I can.
A reciprocal kind of loyalty has really been at the heart of Taylor Galleries since the beginning and that, along with a strong emphasis on painting, certainly dates from my time with Leo Smith. In saying that though, it’s nice to see gallery artists evolving and trying different things. Artists like Cecily Brennan and Janet Mullarney have really opened our eyes to the potential of video and installation and it’s great to be able to accommodate that too.
SMM: Could you tell me more about the sales end of things?
JT: Well, during my time at the Dawson Gallery and up until the recent downturn we were very well supported by people buying for public and corporate collections. In the early days the Arts Council would have bought quite a lot and then later Bank of Ireland, AIB, Guinness Peat Aviation, the OPW, Central Bank, Córas Tráchtála, CIÉ, and major private collectors like Sir Basil Goulding and Gordon Lambert. The profile of private buyers changed a lot. In the 1970s and 80s ordinary working people, rather than business owners and those born with money, became more familiar with contemporary art through shows like ROSC and then became aware of contemporary Irish art. They developed an interest in it, saw something they liked and bought it. Several gallery artists, like Charles Brady and Brian Bourke, were very much in favour of their work being accessible to a wide range of people and priced it accordingly.
When I started there was little emphasis on buying purely for monetary investment – the investment was in the pleasure that looking at a painting or sculpture gave rather than its potential to increase in value. Since 2008 there has undoubtedly been a decrease in sales and this has affected privately-owned galleries as well as artists but recently we’ve noticed a little improvement. Luckily, since we left 6 Dawson Street for 34 Kildare Street in 1990 we’ve owned our own premises, so there’s no rent to pay, but things are definitely a lot harder for galleries now than they were. This has been compounded by a drop-off in support from the national press – fewer reviews and less coverage for spaces that aren’t publicly-funded. It’s a shame because we have always, both publicly through our exhibition programme and privately, done as much as we can to support our artists and their work, and to encourage people to engage with it by visiting the gallery even if they have no intention of buying.
SMM: Could you pick out a few stand-out shows from the course of your career and give an indication of what’s next for the gallery?
JT: Well from Dawson Street I always think of Brian King and Helen Comerford’s first exhibitions – really ambitious installations that were unlike anything else that was being shown in Dublin at the time – Brian Bourke’s Knock-a-Lough show in 1978, Anne Madden’s ‘Megalith’ paintings in 1980 and a great exhibition by Margaret Clarke. Before that at the Dawson Gallery we had a very successful exhibition of Louis le Brocquy’s ‘Aubusson’ tapestries. Later, at 34 Kildare Street, there were some lovely shows by James O’Connor, Charles Brady and at 16 Kildare Street a brilliant exhibition of very large paintings by Charles Tyrrell, Patrick Scott’s ‘Meditation Paintings’… It’s really hard to choose, there have been so many artists, so much good work.
Looking to the future we’re continuing to work with our gallery artists and introducing the work of younger invited artists through smaller one-person exhibitions and the ‘LACUNA’ series of group shows scheduled to run alongside the gallery’s main programme.
I’m using 2014 to see what needs to be done to ensure the future of the gallery, undertaking some not-so-exciting housekeeping chores like stocktaking and archiving, and planning ahead. The gallery has a genealogy that dates back to before I was born, and I want to it live on for many years to come.