King & Queen, Trim, Co. Meath

The town of Trim in County Meath is home to the monumental work King and Queen by Drogheda born sculptor Ronan Halpin (b. 1958).[1]  The sculpture was commissioned by Meath County Council in the late 1989 / early 1990[2] as part of the government’s Percent for Art Scheme when the ring road around the town was being built.  The Percent for Art Scheme was first introduced in 1988 and provides 1% of the cost of any state or publicly funded project for the commissioning of a piece of art.  These projects can be for schools, roads, any type of publicly funded infrastructure.[3] This project was commissioned before the establishment of the Meath County Council Arts Office.  As a result, a copy of the original brief for the competition is not available[4], nor are the details of the other entries which were submitted, but the brief did specifically mention the location the sculpture would be placed and Halpin won with his design for King and Queen.[5]

Halpin had studied sculpture at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and graduated in 1982 with a BA degree in Sculpture[6].  He decided to continue with his formal education outside of Ireland and travelled to Connecticut in the United States, where he received a scholarship to attend Yale School of Art in New Haven[7].  The two years Halpin spent in Yale helped to shape the type of sculptor that he has become as he was introduced to materials such as cortan steel and bronze.  It was here that he also taught himself to weld.  Up to this point in his training he had been exploring mainly organic materials and painted sculpture[8].  A meeting with a famous sculptor was to change all that.  Yale ran a Visiting Artists Programme where well known artists would come to the college and talk to the students about their work and careers, and spend time one on one giving individual feedback and tutorials to the students in their work spaces.[9]  One of the visiting artists who had a profound effect on Halpin was the sculptor Richard Serra (b. 1938), an alumni of Yale himself[10], who Halpin sites as an influence.  Sera spoke with Halpin about pieces he was working on at the time which incorporated mainly organic materials such as potatoes[11].  Sera encouraged Halpin to work with metals and explore more abstract forms, something that he has continued to do throughout the rest of his career.

King & Queen shows this influence in their construction.  These figurative works are geometrically shaped personifications of a royal couple rather than literal traditional portraits.  The sculptures rise 6 metres into the air, and have an imposing presence on the side of a very busy ring road.  Made from fabricated corten steel, both figures are clad in architectural bronze, which has been layered on in individual sheets which are riveted in place.  The sheets were deliberately placed in this layered fashion to give the impression of armour.[12]

The king stands, with a traditional looking crown on top and holding his spear aloft to the right of the grouping.  This figure is triangular in shape and is deliberately smaller than the queen on the left.  This was a conscious decision by the artist, who wanted to demonstrate that while the King held the trappings of power – the crown and the spear, the real power was held by the female figure[13].  The regal queen is an elongated cone shape, topped with a crescent moon, a symbol traditionally associated with the female.  Both sculptures are mounted on stone bases which were specially built at the time of the sculptures installation by a local stone mason, while the sculptures themselves were installed by Cisco Engineering Ltd., a steel works company based in Drogheda, County Louth.  This company worked with Halpin in fabricating and installing the work.[14]  The sculptures are on a raised embankment set back from the main road, and are surrounded by hedges and trees which have become quite overgrown.

When the sculptures were originally put in place, there were no trees immediately behind them (see fig. 1) and there was a clear sightline from them through to the Yellow Steeple, a town landmark from the ruins of the old abbey which stands facing the 12th century Anglo-Norman castle on the opposite the bank of the river Boyne.  This location was a factor in Halpin’s choice of subject when he was designing the piece, as he knew exactly where the sculptures would be located from the brief he received.  The subject matter of a king and queen were chosen as they referenced the ancient royal heritage and archaeology of the county, which was the seat to the high kings of Ireland on the Hill of Tara, fifteen kilometres away.

Ireland’s ancient royal past was a subject that inspired other artists around that time also in their designs for public art works.  Michael Warren (b.1950) chose to represent this theme with the minimalist piece Thrones in County Carlow in 1986.  These two large white concrete forms, one slightly smaller than the other referenced the former seat of the South Leinster high kings in Dinn Righ.[15]  Halpin chose to show his royal couple in a more direct fashion which Judith Hill says

“Suggest the trappings associated with royalty (crowns, sceptres and thrones) – he has concentrated on the glamour and theatricality of royalty.”[16]

It is unfortunate that the trees around the sculpture have been allowed to become so overgrown as the works have become swamped by the tree branches.  When it was originally erected the views of the steeple and the towers of the castle helped anchor the king and queen of Trim to these landmarks.  With the tree branches now encroaching on the sculptures the details of the crowns and sceptre are lost.  These are not the only details which have been lost over time.  The sculptures have not been cared for well and there is some damage to the king’s sceptre, which is missing part of its bronze cladding and the some of the riveted plates near the top of the queen have also come away from their steel base.  The architectural bronze sheets have all weathered to a dull finish and from a distance it is now difficult to distinguish each sheet from one another.  There are currently no plans for the council to do any restoration to the sculptures.[17]

There was no public unveiling for the sculpture in 1992, and there was nothing written about the work in the local newspaper The Meath Chronicle, so it is impossible to gauge the reaction the piece received from the public at the time, however, there have been calls in recent years to cut back the trees surrounding the sculpture to once again show it off to its best advantage.[18]

King

King and Queen was the first major public work by Halpin and gave the artist more confidence to produce works on this large a scale[19].  He went on to work on a community art project in Drogheda at St. Oliver’s Community College with students from the school.  Together they came up with a piece which represented the history and archaeology of the area.  Called The Source, it is a collection of concrete cones embellished with Celtic designs and linked by a strip of metal which represents the nearby river Boyne.  He also went on to produce the collaborative work The Wounded King with New Zealand born artist Paki Smith (b. 1963).  This 6 metre tall, time based piece no longer exists, but it was displayed in Temple Bar in Dublin and outside the Municipal Gallery in Limerick in 1992,[20] and garnered much publicity for the two artists at the time.

Halpin’s most recent exhibition of new work took place in 2012.  It featured a collection of expressive abstract and geometric shapes along with more figurative works based on horses and bulls which were all made from corten steel, bronze and marble.  The new works also call to mind the work of another artist which Halpin has sited has an inspiration,[21] American abstract sculptor David Smith (1906 – 1965)[22].  These smaller works also echo the formal qualities of Halpin’s next piece of public sculpture which is planned for installation at the end of 2014 in Westport Co. Mayo.  Called Sentinel, the work was selected by a panel of judges from thirty two submissions[23] to celebrate Westport’s victory in the Irish Times “Best Place to Live in Ireland” competition which was held in 2012.[24]  The six metre tall bronze sculpture will feature a winged figure on top of an elongated and stylised horse.  This figure is very different to the King and Queen in Trim and shows the development of Halpin’s work over the last two decades.

King and Queen is a work that is extremely engaging, and despite its now dishevelled appearance, it still strikes a commanding presence in a town steeped in history.  The work has a timeless quality that allows the viewer to engage with it on a number for levels; first and foremost, it is an attractive and interesting piece to look at, but it also acts as a visual cue for locals and visitors to the place to consider the town’s past glories as a seat of royal power.  Overall this piece of public art is successful as its inspiration is anchored in the town’s history and it feeds into the narrative of the place where it is displayed.  One hopes that it will someday soon be brought back to its former glory and that no further depreciation is allowed to continue.

 

Bibliography

Goodman, Conor. “Celebrations in Westport as ‘Irish Times’ Presents Best Place Awards.”  Irish Times, 8th September, 2012.

Halpin, Ronan. “America” in Circa, No. 27, Education Supplement Part 4: A Passage to America, Paris, Japan (Mar. – Apr., 1986), pp. 49-50.  Published by Circa Art Magazine, Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25557079.  Accessed Tuesday, 21st October, 2014.

Hill, Judith. Irish Public Sculpture, A History. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998.

Lane, Ann.  By the Way, A Selection of Public Art in Ireland.  Dublin: Wordwell Ltd., 2010.

O’Neill, Neil. “Controversy Surrounds Position of 50ft Westport Sculpture” Mayo News, Tuesday 21st May, 2013.

Reddy, Tom.  “Sculptors Carve Niche in Temple Bar”, Evening Herald, Wednesday, 8th July 1992.

Semin, Didier, Richard Serra Article: http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T077770?q=richard+serra&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit, accessed 20th November, 2014

Wilkin, Karen.  David Smith Biography, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T079293?q=David+Smith&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit, accessed 20th November, 2014.

Website: http://ronanhalpin.com, Accessed a number of times, the 20th November, 2014 was the last occasion.

Website: http://noelfrench.com, Accessed 2nd October, 2014.

Per Cent for Art Scheme Information: http://www.publicart.ie/main/commissioning/funding/per-cent-for-art/, accessed 18th November, 2014.

[1] Solomon Fine Art, The Carraholly Project Sculpture by Ronan Halpin Exhibition Catalogue, pg. 9.

[2] Interview with the artist, 25th October 2014.

[3] http://www.publicart.ie/main/commissioning/funding/per-cent-for-art/, accessed 18th November, 2014

[4] Email from Geradette Bailey, Meath County Council Arts Officer, 28th November, 2014.

[5] Interview with the artist, 25th October, 2014.

[6] Solomon Fine Art, The Carraholly Project Sculpture by Ronan Halpin Exhibition Catalogue, pg. 9.

[7] Halpin, Ronan. “America” in Circa, pg. 49.

[8] Interview with the artist, 25th October, 2014.

[9] Halpin, Ronan. “America” in Circa, pg. 49.

[10] Semin, Didier, Richard Serra Biography, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T077770?q=richard+serra&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit, accessed 20th November, 2014.

[11] Interview with the artist, 25th October, 2014.

[12] Interview with the artist, 25th October, 2014.

[13] Interview with the artist, 25th October, 2014.

[14] Interview with the artist, 25th October, 2014.

[15] Hill, Judith.  Irish Public Sculpture, A History, pg. 218.

[16] Hill, Judith.  Irish Public Sculpture, A History, pg. 218.

[17] Telephone interview, Noel French, Meath County Councillor, 11th October 2014.

[18] Telephone interview, Noel French, Meath County Councillor, 11th October, 2014.

[19] Interview with the artist, 25th October, 2014.

[20] Reddy, Tom.  “Sculptors Carve Niche in Temple Bar”, Evening Herald, Wednesday, 8th July 1992.

[21] Interview with the artist, 25th October, 2014.

[22] Wilkin, Karen.  David Smith Biography, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T079293?q=David+Smith&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit, accessed 20th November, 2014.

[23] O’Neill, Neil. “Controversy surrounds position of 50ft Westport sculpture” Mayo News, Tuesday 21st May, 2013.

[24] Goodman, Conor. “Celebrations in Westport as ‘Irish Times’ Presents Best Place Awards.” Irish Times, Sep 08, 2012. 

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