Professor Thomas Patrick Bodkin, lawyer, art historian, art collector and curator, is born in Dublin on July 21, 1887. He serves as Director of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin from 1927 to 1935 and founding Director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, England from 1935 until 1952, where he acquires the nucleus of the collection described by The Observer as “the last great art collection of the twentieth century.”
Bodkin is the eldest son of Matthias McDonnell Bodkin, a nationalist journalist, judge and Member of Parliament. Graduating from the Royal University of Ireland in 1908 he practises law from 1911 until 1916 while collecting art privately, influenced by his uncle Sir Hugh Lane. With the death of Lane in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, Bodkin is charged with ensuring that Lane’s collection of art is displayed in Dublin, a dispute that would only finally be settled in 1957 and about which Bodkin is to write Hugh Lane and his Pictures in 1932.
Bodkin leaves the legal profession in 1916 to become a Governor of the National Gallery of Ireland, being appointed Director in 1927. He also serves in 1926 on the committee that commissions the design of the new coinage of the Republic of Ireland from Percy Metcalfe.
In 1935 Bodkin leaves Ireland upon being appointed Director of the newly established Barber Institute of Fine Arts and Barber Professor of Fine Art at the University of Birmingham. The funds available to the Barber Institute for the purchase of new works compare favourably even to some national museums and Bodkin is able to make a string of exceptional purchases in the depressed art market around the time of World War II. The collection that in 1935 numbers just seven works, by 1939 holds major pieces such as Tintoretto‘s Portrait of a Youth (1554), Simone Martini‘s St. John the Evangelist (1320), Nicolas Poussin‘s Tancred and Erminia (1634) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler‘s Symphony in White No. III (1867). Bodkin retires in 1952 but retains control over acquisitions until 1959. His successor as Director and Professor, Ellis Waterhouse, wistfully refers to Bodkin’s wayward later purchases as “Acts of Bod.”
Bodkin is also an active broadcaster and author, publishing personal reminiscences and translations of modern French poetry as well as works of art history and criticism. In particular, his The Approach to Painting (1927), an introduction for a popular audience, runs through many editions over the succeeding thirty years.
A few years before his death Bodkin appears on the BBC panel show Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? identifying curiosities from around the world, along with museum curator Hugh Shortt and archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler.
Bodkin is awarded the Civil Division of the Order of St. Gregory the Great for services to his church. A bust of Bodkin, previously exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1958, is donated to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts by its sculptor, Sir Charles Wheeler, President of the Royal Academy and a personal friend of Bodkin’s, on the latter’s death.
Thomas Bodkin dies in Birmingham, England on April 24, 1961. His remains are interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.