Treasures: Foreground attraction
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
My grandfather said he met Paul Henry sketching by a Connemara lake. He greeted the artist, who he knew slightly, and asked him how he was doing. "Oh, slapping in the gable ends," Paul Henry cheerily replied. His landscape paintings were, and are, best known for the whitewashed cottages and dark turf stacks that punctuate their foregrounds.
Evidence suggests that Henry (1876-1958) wasn't above poking fun at his own work. "A few years ago we handled a little ceramic thatched cottage - a fairground prize - signed by Paul Henry," says James O'Halloran of Adam's. "It was thought that he used it as an aide memoire for putting his cottages in the landscape." Not all Henry's paintings feature cottages, but those that do show more or less the same cottage, albeit from different angles.
Henry, who was born in Belfast as the son of a Baptist minister, is now considered one of Ireland's blue chip artists, but until his reputation was established in the 1980s, the art world tended to look down its nose at him. "Part of the problem was that Henry was a bit of an advertising man," says O'Halloran. "He fancied the whole marketing thing."
With no family money behind him, Henry accepted commissions for tourist posters based on watercolour paintings, most famously from the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, who ran the Irish Sea passenger ferry from the 1920s to 1940s. These posters are now highly collectible but, since they were made to attract British tourists, aren't often seen in Ireland.
Between 2009 and 2011 four copies of Come To Ulster For A Better Holiday, a colour lithograph poster designed by Henry, sold at Whyte's for prices ranging from €800 and €1,250. "The posters just glow with this inner light," says Stuart Purcell of Whyte's. "They're fabulous things. Paul Henry taught us how to look at the Irish landscape and then he used the posters to teach the British too."
Henry's oil paintings were also widely reproduced as prints which, according to Adelle Hughes of Whyte's, became the wedding present of choice in the 1950s and 60s. But the quality of reproduction at the time was not good and the prints tended to muddy with age. Over time, people became a bit sick of them and Henry, who was only trying to earn his living, developed a reputation for ubiquity.
If you think you have an undiscovered Paul Henry in the attic, it is most probably a print. Auctioneers see a lot of these, brought in by vendors who hope they have an original. Most of the time, the owners are disappointed. A Paul Henry print in good condition might be worth a couple of hundred euros. On the flip side, if you're in the market for a Paul Henry but don't have a five figure sum to invest, a signed print could be an affordable option. Just keep it away from sunlight.
Henry is still very famous, to the extent that I've seen real life Connemara landscapes that remind me of his paintings, but he's often accused of sameness, possibly by those that fail to see beyond the cottage in the foreground.
This March, A Connemara Village, painted by Henry in the mid 1930s, sold at Adam's for €119,000. Yes, there are gable ends and turf stacks, but half the painting is taken up by a rolling sky that is just beginning to think about rain. There is a sense of movement in the clouds above and stillness in the lake below, while the distant mountain fades back into shades of paler blue.
It's that ability to capture a moment in the changing landscape that sets Henry's work apart. "It's traditional, representational work and it just takes my breath away," says O'Halloran.
"I've seen too many artists trying to copy him and none of them get it right. He captures the atmosphere of the West of Ireland in an undiluted way. That's why he's continued to be a major force."
There is a Paul Henry painting in Adam's forthcoming sale of Important Irish Art on June 1, but it's a cityscape entitled Grand Canal Dock, Ringsend, Dublin (1928). Although it's got a murky industrial charm, the painting will be mainly of interest to serious Henry collectors who appreciate the visible influence of his former teacher, James McNeill Whistler. The painting has an estimate of €20,000 to €30,000.
The two Paul Henry landscapes coming up for sale in Whyte's auction of Important Irish Art on Monday are of a more familiar type. West of Ireland Road Through The Bog (c.1932-1935) shows a mountain road, possibly in Kerry, with turf stacks in the foreground and a blue mountain against an active sky. It is estimated between €50,000 and €70,000.
The painting dates from a period of stability in Henry's life. He had lived in Paris at the turn of the century, where he married the artist Grace Henry. The couple moved to Achill in 1910 and it is generally understood that this put a strain on the marriage. That said, many wonderful paintings date from this period including The Potato Diggers (1910-11) which sold at Adam's for €400,000 in 2013.
The second Paul Henry painting coming up at Whyte's, Connemara Landscape (est €80,000 to €120,000), shows all his classic components: gable end, turf stack, mountains, lake and sky. It is, of course, far more than the sum of its parts.
See whytes.ie and adams.ie.
In the salerooms
ADAM’S OF BLACKROCK
An auction of Furniture, Works of Art & Paintings will take place at Adam’s of Blackrock on May 31 at 11am. The sale will include items from 50 vendors including Mrs Eva Tenbach (deceased) of Derrynid Cove, Tuosist, Kenmare.
Expect an eclectic selection of 19th century furniture including a partner’s desk from a solicitors practice. The desk (est €1,000 to €1,500) is made of mahogany and measures 1.6 metres in length.
The auction also includes a four-door breakfront bookcase (€1,000 to €1,500); three Victorian gilt overmantles (€800 to €1,200 each); an Irish Waterford mirror (€800 to €1,200); three Waterford nine-arm chandeliers (€1,700 to €2,200) and a pair of rosewood card tables (€1,400 to €1,700).
Modern furniture on show ranges from a circular table designed by Warren Platner, sofas by the Irish company Orior, and a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. There will also be a number of pieces of Irish silver including a punch bowl, tea pots, a tray by Alwright & Marshall, and paintings by Thomas Ryan, Sean McSweeney, Brian Bourke, Patrick Pye, Markey Robinson and Peter Curling.
See adamsblackrock.com for full details.
In 1775, one William Presley of Stradnakelly, Co Wicklow, suffered a serious assault. His statement, recorded in court, recounts that a number of assailants “violently insulted, assaulted, beat and abused deponent with whips and fists … battered and abused him. Some swearing they would have his life”.
Unsurprisingly, Presley left Wicklow shortly after and moved to America with his son Andrew. They settled in New Orleans. One hundred and sixty years later, William’s descendant Elvis Presley was born. Anything Elvis-related is a honey pot for collectors, including the transcript of his ancestor’s court examination. This document sold at Whyte’s Eclectic Collector auction on May 14 for €2,300.
The top lot in the sale was a Currency Commission consolidated banknote (known as a Ploughman, pictured below) from the Provincial Bank of Ireland. It was dated 1939 and had an original value of 10 pounds. It sold for €10,500. The second highest price in the sale went to a rare Irish stamp: an ordinary looking 2d map stamp with no perforations on the vertical sides. It was issued in
1934-5 for use in coil machines, a vending machine that dispensed stamps from a roll. The stamp sold for €10,000. For full results, see whytes.ie.
ANTIQUE AND VINTAGE FAIRS
A two-day antiques fair hosted by Ava Fairs will take place in the Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle, Co Down, on Sunday and Monday. Expect more than 30 dealers offering a variety of items. Doors open from 11am-6pm each day and admission is £2 (the ticket is valid for both days).
At the other side of the country, the build-up for the National Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair, Limerick, is underway. With more than 100 purveyors of antiques, fine art and vintage items, this is Ireland’s largest fair and will take place in the South Court Hotel on June 18 and 19 from 11am-6pm. The event is organised by Hibernian Antique Fairs who have also announced the inaugural Dublin National Antiques Art & Vintage Fair, which will run in the Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, on October 15 and 16. See hibernianantiquefairs.com.