Capturing Sybil Connolly on paper is about as easy as catching a leprechaun with a pot of gold. This designer/author, who has been called Ireland’s national treasure, has a gentle, self-effacing humor, a soft Irish brogue and a way of crediting others for her undeniable talents.
In Orange County recently to celebrate the creation of the Bowers Museum Decorative Arts Council, Connolly enchanted an audience of hundreds with her stories about contemporary Irish crafts, her historic Georgian mansion and garden in Dublin and her Irish china and crystal designs for Tiffany & Co.
Connolly, born of Irish/Welsh parents 72 years ago, spent her first 12 years in Wales. It was there that she developed a love of flowers in her grandfather’s exotic garden. Painting and design were part of her early education.
“I belong to a generation that was taught to paint and do needlework and things like that,” she says. “I had two sisters, and I was the middle one, so there was a time when all of us were doing tapestry work, cushion covers, slippers.”
How she got involved with Tiffany & Co., however, was a combination of Irish luck and her nurtured talent.
She had already had a successful career as a fashion designer in the 1950s when she opened Ireland’s first couture house. (Jacqueline Kennedy wears a Sybil Connolly pleated linen dress in her official White House portrait, which Connolly ascribes at least partly to luck.)
In 1984, Tiffany design director John Loring was overseeing the photography for his book “Tiffany Taste” in Ireland. He met Connolly at the Deanery at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, where she was painting a picture of a striped dianthus. “Loring looked over my shoulder and said, ‘Why don’t you do that for Tiffany’s?’ ” she says.
From that question and gentle prodding by Loring came a new career. Connolly got an idea for her first china collection from an American friend. The idea? To do china based on the floral paintings of artist/diarist Mary Delany.
“Mrs. Delany was a woman who lived in the 18th century, and she did these extraordinary flower paintings. Most of them are now in the British Museum. She did her flowers on a black background, as did all the other painters of the time,” Connolly says.
An inspiration to late bloomers everywhere, Delany didn’t begin painting until she was 72 years old and quit when she was 82.
“Isn’t that wonderful?” Connolly asks. “Between those ages she painted 1,100 works. Botanists had such a high opinion of her works that they had her copy plants they found on their voyages. I’d never heard of Mrs. Delany till that time, and now she’s taken over my life.”
The china pattern, named Merrion Square after Connolly’s home in Dublin, has a black border and brightly colored flowers. It was well received when introduced in 1988 and is still one of Tiffany’s most popular items.
Connolly doesn’t just design fine china.
Reviving historic artisanship in Ireland had been a goal of hers for years, and to that end she found talented craftspeople to execute her famous designs and work on new ones like the pattern based on seashells she’s developing.
“When I was doing research for my book ‘Irish Hands,’ I learned that there are only six glass houses in the world that do everything, and Tipperary Crystal, who do my designs, is one of them. Even Waterford, who has the great name, gets its crystal from Czechoslovakia, although they cut it in Ireland,” Connolly explains.
Her Trellis crystal pattern is based on a trellis she saw in Ireland.
She also designs weave boxes in Irish bone china, teapots, honey pots and creamers.
When Connolly leans forward to tell the stories of Ireland and its people, much as Irish storytellers have done for centuries, she evokes her country’s rich heritage of poetry, its love of language and beauty and its warm, friendly people.
“Irish lace is really the story of Irish women,” she says. “During the potato famine . . . after working all day with the men in the fields and doing their household chores, they would sit over the peat fires in the evenings and do the lace. So see, out of tragedy something wonderful and noble happened.”
It’s these Irish stories and legends that are reflected in Connolly’s designs and those of the Irish craftspeople she cares so much about.
“The double edge of sorrow and joy is very Irish; it runs through all our songs and poetry,” Connolly says. “Isolation played an important role in preserving Ireland’s crafts.”
As does Sybil Connolly herself.