Tuesday 16 July 2019

Treasures: Painting a different picture of Irish culture


Fields of glory: The Flax Pullers by Lilian Davidson, showing the summer harvest of flax for Ulster’s linen industry, sold for €105,207
Fields of glory: The Flax Pullers by Lilian Davidson, showing the summer harvest of flax for Ulster’s linen industry, sold for €105,207

Eleanor Flegg

Where would Irish culture be without the Americans? In the 1960s, when Irish traditional music was struggling, they welcomed The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem with open arms. The Aran-clad folk group took America by storm and Ireland sat up and took notice. Soon, the Irish traditional music revival was in full swing. But we needed the Americans to pave the way.

The Irish-American business attorney and entrepreneur, Brian P Burns, took note. Was it possible that the Irish were as good at visual art was they were at music and literature? "I made a bet almost 40 years ago, that a people who could speak and write so brilliantly and compose music so lyrically, surely must also have painted," he says. And so he began to collect.

In November 2018, 100 works from Brian P Burns' collection went on sale at Sotheby's in London. They sold for a collective €3,688,827, bringing Sotheby's overall Irish art sales in 2018 to €6.7m, the highest amount that it has sold in a single year since 2008.

The usual suspects led the way. Roderic O'Conor's Romeo and Juliet sold for €408,482, and Jack B. Yeats' Misty Morning fetched €320,951. Sir John Lavery's Armistice Day, November 11th 1918, Grosvenor Place, London, sold for €280,551 to the British Imperial War Museums, which seems like the right place for it.

Only one painting in the sale went to an Irish institution. Kathleen Fox's Self-Portrait with Palette (€14,028) was purchased by the National Self-Portrait Collection of Ireland at the University of Limerick, with the help of the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland. "It's a particularly beautiful self-portrait and we're delighted to have it," says Yvonne Davis, curator of the collection.

The painting dates from around 1920 and shows the artist in a living room, co-opted as her studio. Brushes bristle from the ceramic vases on the mantelpiece and the room, complete with chandeliers and Persian carpets, seems chaotic and slightly mad. It is, as Peter Murray describes in the catalogue essay, a good depiction of "the upper-middle class Dublin background into which, in 1880, Fox was born".

Despite, or because of this, she became involved in the Easter Rising, sketching openly in many of the hot spots and carrying messages between the leaders. Her painting, Ruins of the Four Courts, sold at Adam's for €8,000 in 2014.

Like the self-portrait, this painting spent time in America, but under different circumstances. In 1917, Fox sent it to a friend in New York for safekeeping. It was "lost" for 30 years and returned to the artist in 1962, the year before she died. It was purchased by the Sligo Museum committee and is now part of the Niland Collection.

For Charlie Minter, Head of Irish Art at Sotheby's, Fox is an artist whose work is often overlooked. "When a painting belongs to a collection like this one - well known and widely exhibited - it gives it an extra prestige," he says. The price at Sotheby's is the highest ever paid at auction for a work by Fox. Other artist records in the sale include The Flax Pullers by Lilian Davidson (1893-1954). Estimated between €33,666 and €56,110, the painting sold for €105,207. The painting shows the summer harvest of flax for Ulster's linen industry, the plant pulled instead of cut to preserve the long fibres in each stem.

But, while a stint in a prestigious American collection can give a painting the stamp of approval, there's no recipe for success. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," Minter admits. Despite his best efforts, the paintings of Beatrice Campbell, Lady Glenavy (1883-1970) still aren't getting the prices they deserve. "She's underappreciated and she doesn't have a steady auction market," he says.

Campbell's work is theatrical, fantastical, and there's no obvious reason for its relative low profile, other than it's not particularly fashionable. The Vain Suit (€33,666 to €56,110), which came from the Brian P Burns collection, didn't sell at auction. Neither did the wonderful The Intruder (.est €44,772 to €67,158). This went under the hammer at Sotheby's in September 2018. The painting sold after the auction, but failed to achieve the stardom that Minter feels that it deserves. See sothebys.com


In the Salerooms


A collection of 100,000 picture postcards will go under the hammer at Whyte’s on January 26 in an auction devoted entirely to the collection of Seamus Kearns (1929-2014). Kearns was a Dubliner and his collection began with topographical postcards of Ireland and then expanded to include a vast array of cards ranging from aviation to advertising. A troubling but historically important collection of racist cards includes a “White Nigger Minstrel” group in Mayo and a postcard of students posing as the Ku Klux Klan for Trinity Rag Week in 1925. Most of the cards are much more palatable, especially some exceptionally pretty Art Nouveau postcards by Raphael Kirchner dating from the 1920s. The sale is divided into 500 lots, which vary from about 10 cards to over 3,000 per lot. Estimates run from €50 for 110 views of Belfast to €3,000 for a collection of Irish advertising cards. The auction takes place at the Freemasons Hall, Molesworth Street, at 1pm. See whytes.ie.


In the 1930s, Van Cleef & Arpels invented the “minaudière” — a case that would contain everything a stylish woman needed (comb, lipstick, watch, cigarette holder, lighter, mirror, and compact). Reputedly, it was inspired by the opera singer Florence Jay Gould who met Claude Arpels while she was carrying all her belongings in Lucky Strike cigarette case. The Van Cleef & Arpels tradition of inventive containers for feminine accoutrements continued and one of these — catalogued as a Van Cleef & Arpels beauty box in metal, gold and sapphire (est. €2,800 to €3,500) — is on sale as part of the next auction at O’Reilly’s Fine Art, which takes place on Wednesday at 1pm. Potential tops lots in the sale include a tanzanite and diamond cluster pendant mounted in platinum (est. €10,000 to 12,000) and a late Victorian diamond butterfly brooch, set throughout with diamonds (est. €8,500 to €10,000) but there are also many more modest pieces. These include a coral and diamond necklace (est. €1,500 to €1,800); a shamrock-shaped ruby, sapphire, diamond and enamel pendant (est. €950 to €1,200); and a pair of Asprey daisy heritage earrings, with yellow sapphires (€2,200 to €2,700). See oreillysfineart.com.

Morgan O’Driscoll

Bidding continues until Monday at Morgan O’Driscoll’s Irish Art Online Auction, with work by many of Ireland’s favourite mid-range artists on view in their Skibbereen office. Highlights include Village with Shawlies by Markey Robinson (est. €8,000 to €12,000) – Robinson was a prolific painter but this is a nice one – and a subtle nude by the ever-popular John Shinnors (€6,000 to €8,000). Still Life on a White Table Cloth by Peter Collis is estimated to sell between €4,000 and €6,000 and Kenneth Webb’s Cottages in Connemara for €6,000 to €8,000. The sale also includes sculpture: Remember ’98 (est. €9,000 to €12,000) by Colm J Brennan; Patrick O’Reilly’s pugilistic Bear with Golden Gloves in bronze and gold leaf (€5,000 to €7,000) and a fine Wild Boar in bronze by Anthony Scott (€5,000 to €7,000).  See morganodriscoll.com

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