Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Treasures: Five Alexanders and a Zulu spear


Ireland's Fine Arts, antiques and collectables column
Ireland's Fine Arts, antiques and collectables column

Eleanor Flegg

When John Alexander V of Milford House, Co Carlow, died in 2017 he left a houseful of interesting objects behind him. Collectively, they tell the story of the Alexander family, who lived at Milford for 233 years, passing from father to son. Very confusingly, all of them were called John.

On Tuesday, the contents of Milford House are going under the hammer, courtesy of Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers.

Disentangling the five generations was not an easy business. Because the house was passed down from father to son, with each of them amassing objects (and because they all had the same name), it's hard to tell what belonged to which John Alexander. In this regard, both the auctioneers and this article lean heavily on the doctoral research of historian Shay Kinsella.

The story of Milford House begins in 1784, when John Alexander 1 (1764-1843) moved to Co Carlow. He renamed the locality 'Milford' (as you do) and built three magnificent mill buildings with castellated parapets. The mill flourished and, in 1799, Milford House was built beside it. It was a grand ensemble and, in 1862, a reporter for the Irish Times described it as: "More a paradise than a place of business." A few months later, the mill was destroyed by fire.

John Alexander I was a man on his way up the social ladder and he made an effort with the furnishings. "The apartments are spacious and finished in the first style," an early visitor commented. Silverware, furniture and plate was brought down from Belfast. So were some of the books in the library, although, as Kinsella indicates, the pristine condition of several early 19th-century volumes suggest that they were purchased as "shelf-fillers and to fulfil a role as status symbols."

A portrait of John Alexander I and one of his wife, Christian Izod Nickson, are included in the sale as a single lot (est. €3,000 to €4,000). The pair were painted by Martin Cregan (1788-1870) and show the couple in later life. John Alexander I was a philanthropist and his portrait shows a kindly eye. His successor John Alexander II was a great improver of the land, building miles of the 'Milford Wall' and the famous Carlow fence. He was an early railway enthusiast, and a dodgy politician, allegedly intimidating voters at Milford in the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation. The auction includes a portrait John Alexander II (1802-1855) and one of his wife Esther, nee Brinkly (est. €3,500 to €5,000), painted by Stephen Catterton Smith (1806-1872).

The next in line, Lieutenant (later Major) John Alexander III (1850-1944), was the most adventurous of them all. As family legend has it, he was one of the first European explorer to enter Tibet, disguised as a monk. He was also involved in the capture of Cetshwayo kaMpande, the last king of the Zulus, at the end of the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. Allegedly, Alexander led the native scout troop that tracked the Zulu king to his place of hiding.

The ceremonial spear was one of three taken from kaMpande. One went to Queen Victoria; the second to Garnet Wolseley, commander of British forces; and the third was meant to go to the British Museum, but was stolen by Lieutenant Alexander's batman. Since it had been reported lost in a flood, the family decided to keep it. The spear is included in the auction (est. €1,500 to €2,000) .

John Alexander III returned to Milford when he inherited the estate in 1885 and became a gentleman farmer. He established a co-operative creamery in the old mill building and, in 1891, used it to house a hydropower turbine. This made Carlow the first inland town in Ireland or Great Britain to have electric street lighting.

The auction includes many exotic items, brought back to Milford by the family over the generations. An early 19th-century Maori Hei-tiki whale bone pendant (est. €1,000 to €1,500) and a Meiji period Japanese silver and bronze okimono, or ornament, modelled as a Manchurian Crane (est. €400 to €600). There is also plenty of the usual Big House stuff, including the magnificent mounted skull and antlers of a prehistoric Megaloceros Giganteus or giant deer (est. €15,000 to €20,000).

Family portraits apart, paintings in the sale include four large 17th-century still-life paintings of flowers and fruit by the Italian artist, Aniello Ascione, for sale in two pairs (est. €8,000 to €12,000 and 10,000 to €15,000). The 100 lots of silver include many crested pieces - the Milford family weren't legitimately allowed to use the Alexander crest, but this didn't hold them back.

Viewing of what the auctioneers describe as "the closing chapter of the Alexander Family and Milford House in Carlow history," will take place on the premises on Sunday (1pm to 5pm) and Monday (10am to 5pm).

The auction is at the Talbot Hotel, Portlaoise Road, Carlow, on Tuesday at 10.30am. See fonsiemealy.ie

In the Salerooms

De Vere’s

Roderic O’Conor’s ‘Breton Girl Reading’ (est. €50,000 to €70,000) is the poster girl for de Vere’s Irish & International Art Auction, which takes place at Dublin’s Royal College of Physicians on Tuesday at 6pm. The sale also includes William Orpen’s portrait of WWI fighter pilot John Letts (est. €20,000 to €30,000); a view of Achill by Paul Henry (est. €30,000 to €50,000); and an early oil painting by Jack B Yeats, ‘Racing on the Strand’ (1912). A later work by Yeats, “The Public Letter Writer,” shows a character who wrote letters for illiterate people to send home. Yeats came across him in New York in 1904. Viewing continues at de Veres Gallery, 35 Kildare St, until Tuesday. See deveres.ie

Matthew’s Auction Rooms

More than 100 lots of antique silver from the estate of the Beryl McCall, a known collector of silver, will be included in Matthew’s auction in the Dukes Brothers Building, Kells, Co Meath, this weekend, beginning at 1.30pm on both days. “Now is a perfect time to begin collecting silver given the low price of it by weight and the general lack of appreciation for it in the market itself,” Damien Matthews says. Potential highlights include a detailed antique curio box by Tiffany of New York, as well as many pieces of Irish silver. The sale also has much in the way of antique furnishings. See matthewsauctionrooms.com


Outside of Ireland, Bono memorabilia is selling like hot cakes. A Gretsch ‘Irish Falcon’ electric guitar (est. €130,000 to €180,000, see left) from the U2 star’s personal collection is coming up in Bonhams’ Rock & Roll Memorabilia auction, New York, on Monday. It’s one of 10 prototypes built for U2’s 2001 Elevation Tour and is signed by the band. See bonhams.com

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