Bodkin, Thomas (1887–1961), art historian, was born in Dublin 21 July 1887, eldest of six children of Matthias McDonnell Bodkin (qv) and Arabella Bodkin (née Norman) of Dublin. Educated at Belvedere College, Clongowes Wood College, and UCD (BCL 1908), he was called to the bar (1911) and practised till 1916, when he was appointed secretary to the commissioners of charitable donations and bequests in Ireland (1916–25). From an early age Bodkin showed an interest in art and literature; he published reviews and articles on the visual arts in various journals and newspapers from his late teens onwards. Introduced to Harry Clarke (qv) in 1916, he became a great supporter and close friend, writing Clarke's first major notice in the Studio (1919), one of a number of important articles on Irish art that Bodkin contributed to this magazine. Considered a forthright critic, he took the RHA to task on several occasions for its lack of ‘fresh talent’. A close friend of Hugh Lane (qv), he was nominated in Lane's contentious codicil to help obtain premises for the proposed gallery of modern art in Dublin. He also took a personal interest in the agitation for the return of the Lane paintings to Dublin and was commissioned by the government to write the book Hugh Lane and his pictures (1932).
Author of the chapter on contemporary Irish art in the Saorstát Eireann handbook (1932), he served on a number of important government commissions including the 1926 commission on coinage, when he advocated the bird and animal designs of Percy Metcalfe (qv). At the currency commission (1927) he championed John Lavery (qv) as the designer of the Free State bank note, after unofficially discussing with his friend Hazel Lavery (qv) the idea of putting her portrait on the note. He was a member of the 1927 Department of Education inquiry into the national museum, the report of which resulted in many of the provisions of the national monuments act (1930). Bodkin constantly stressed the importance of education in the visual arts and of awareness of design in general, which, he advocated, would result in improved standards in industrial design and craftsmanship. Successive Free State governments, restricted by more pressing financial priorities, rarely followed his advice.
Bodkin's position with the commissioners of charitable donations and bequests, and his knowledge of legal matters, placed him in an influential position within the National Gallery of Ireland, of which he was a board member (1917–35). Appointed director of the gallery (1927), he pressed in vain for the position to be made full-time and for the meagre purchase grant to be increased. Despite these setbacks he managed to make important additions to the collection, and his 1932 catalogue was considered to have been the most scholarly of its day. In 1935 he resigned from the gallery to take up the position of professor of fine art at the Barber Institute, Birmingham. Shortly after his departure from the gallery, he gave in TCD a biting lecture on the state of the visual arts in Ireland, ‘The importance of art to Ireland’ (published 1935), highlighting the neglect of the college of art, the national gallery, and the national museum by successive Free State governments, which he said had resulted in the material and spiritual impoverishment of the Irish people.
In 1948 Bodkin, who was a close friends of John A. Costello (qv) and hoped to return to Ireland, wrote a ‘Report on the arts in Ireland’, in which he recommended the reestablishment of a ministry of fine arts, something for which he had campaigned since its abolition in 1921. Once again most of his suggestions were ignored, but the arts act of 1951 included his proposed arts council, which was set up under the Fianna Fáil administration (1952). Offered the directorship, he initially declined; by the time he relented, Fianna Fáil had given the post to Paddy Little (qv). Bodkin never returned to live in Ireland, continuing to reside in Birmingham after retiring from the Barber Institute in 1952. In later life he appeared regularly on BBC radio's ‘The brains trust’ and on television, where he was known for his wit and his physical resemblance to G. B. Shaw (qv). His prolific writing, especially on the arts, included Four Irish landscape painters (1920), containing the first account of Nathaniel Hone's work; an introduction to art appreciation in An approach to painting (1927); and the autobiographical work My Uncle Frank (1941).
Highly ambitious, in 1927 he asked others to canvass on his behalf for the position of high commissioner to London. An ardent catholic, he is said to have hung the papal flag from his house on Wilton Terrace, Dublin, on appropriate occasions. Bodkin was elected an MRIA (1924); the NUI awarded him a D.Litt. (Hon.) (1927) and an LLD (Hon.) (1961); and Dublin University made him honorary professor of fine arts at TCD (1930) and awarded him a D.Litt. (Hon.) (1936). He was appointed a member of the Comité des Musées Royaux de la Belgique (1930); made Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government (1933), and promoted to Officer (1952); and appointed a papal knight of St Gregory (1952). He was also FRSA (1936), hon. RHA (1949), hon. AIBA (1950), and hon. ARIAI (1960).
Bodkin married (1917) Aileen, third daughter of Joseph Cox (qv); they had five daughters. He died in Birmingham 24 April 1961. His collection of paintings was presented in his memory to the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland, who gave them to museums and galleries throughout Ireland. A full list of MS sources, bibliography, writings, etc., can be found in Alan Denson, Thomas Bodkin: a bio-bibliographical survey with a bibliographical survey of his family (1966). Aileen Bodkin donated the Bodkin papers to TCD (MS 6965). The Bodkin family papers are in NAI, acc. no. 1155.