A stroke of good luck
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
THE story behind Ireland's favourite painting - Sir Frederic William Burton's Hellelil and Hildebrand, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864) - reads like a 19th-century version of the 1992 film, The Bodyguard.
It's based on a medieval Danish ballad of forbidden love. In the story, Hellelil falls in love with her bodyguard, Hildebrand. She loses her chastity! Her father finds out and orders his seven sons to put an end to Hildebrand, who kills six of them. Hellelil intervenes to save her youngest brother, who then imprisons her, tortures her, and sells her into slavery. Nice. And Hildebrand dies of his wounds. Burton's painting shows none of this bloodbath, but focuses on the romantic - and deeply sexy - moment of the lovers' final parting. The novelist George Eliot, who also sat for Burton, wrote of the painting that: "The face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament." In 2012, after a campaign by RTÉ, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs was declared Ireland's favourite painting. You can see it in the National Gallery of Ireland and it's also the artist's most famous work.
Sir Frederic William Burton (1816-1900) who was born in Co Wicklow in 1816, moved to Clifden House, Corofin, Co Clare for his childhood. He hated the smell of paint so much he avoided oil paints entirely. Forced to find a non-smelly alternative, Burton painted in watercolour and, because he trained as a miniaturist, used a technique of tiny delicate brush strokes to create deep colours. That's why some of his watercolours have the intensity of oil paintings.
Burton was a meticulous painter and well-known for making lots of preparatory sketches. That's exciting, if you happen to find one in your attic. When a Dublin family were clearing out their family home, they discovered a 31 x 20 cm watercolour, believed to be a preparatory study for The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, in a bedroom at the top of the house. Now, it's coming up for auction at Fonsie Mealy's Chatsworth Spring Fine Art Sale on March 7. It's estimated to sell for between €7,000 and €10,000.
The watercolour is catalogued as "attributed to" rather than "by" Burton.
"Because it's not signed, we're not putting our necks on the block," says George Fonsie Mealy, auctioneer. In these situations, auctioneers look for provenance, a record of ownership that may help to establish the authenticity of a work of art. In this case, there's a manuscript note on the reverse of the frame which reads: "Original study by Sir Burton for a picture which is in the National Gallery Dublin, the study was given by Sir Burton to his cousin, Dr CE Fitzgerald who gave it to GP? (George Prescott)". "The note is contemporaneous," George Fonsie Mealy explains, meaning that they can date it by looking at the paper and ink.
The National Gallery of Ireland can't comment on works of art at auction but, according to Marie Bourke, curator of the recent exhibition Frederic William Burton: For the Love of Art, Burton's estate sale included 24 preliminary studies for The Meeting on the Turret Stairs. One of these is in the collection of the McMullen Museum of Art in Boston and the National Gallery has the full-size cartoon for the painting, a monochrome study (larger than the original painting), and an early study for the painting. "The studies and preliminary drawing help people to understand how Burton took time in considering and composing his works," Bourke says.
George Fonsie Mealy feels the study that he is selling is probably one of the final sketches. Luckily, it was kept in a dark room. Watercolour is a delicate medium and needs to be protected from the light. This is the reason that the final painting of The Meeting on the Turret Stairs is on display at the National Gallery of Ireland for just two hours a week (and all day on Saint Valentine's Day!).
In general, Burton's work rarely comes up at auction. When it does, it tends not to generate wild excitement. When a conté crayon Portrait of a Young Woman, signed by Burton, went under the hammer at Adam's on February 25 it carried a modest estimate of €600 to €1,000.
In 2005, Yelizta, a timeless watercolour of a young girl signed by Burton, sold at Adam's for €23,000. Although lovely, that price was a sign of the times. Now, the same painting would probably carry an estimate of between €5,000 and €8,000.
The truth is that few of Burton's paintings carry the same emotional charge as The Meeting on the Turret Stairs.
The Chatsworth Spring Fine Art Sale takes place at the Chatsworth Auction Rooms, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, on Wednesday at 10.30am.
See fonsiemealy.ie, nationalgallery.ie and adams.ie.
In the Salerooms
In 1941, Denis Guiney wrote a cheque for £241,000. This bought him the entire share capital of Clery and Company. The original cheque, along with a selection of photographs, office journals and store record books going back 150 years is coming up for sale as part of the Clerys' collection on Monday and Tuesday. The sale, undertaken by Victor Mee Auctions and Niall Mullen will take place at The Heritage Hotel, Killenard, Co Laois, and will also include decorative items from two Dublin nightspots: Howl at the Moon and the Residence Club. "Howl's spectacular furnishings include a 2 x 2 m French chandelier, four full-size alabaster pillars, original works by artist Patrick O'Reilly, life-size bronze statues, two full-size bronze doors, a grand piano, and a unique collection of Irish whiskey," Mullen says. The selection will be on view at Golf Club of the Heritage Hotel, Killenard, today through to Sunday from 2pm to 6pm. (victormeeauctions.ie).
The next auction at RJ Keighery Antiques, Waterford, takes place on Monday at 10.30am. There's an eclectic selection on offer including a taxidermy golden pheasant in a case (est €100 to €150) and a large stag's head (est €200 to €300). More substantial, and probably more useful, pieces of furniture include a Victorian mahogany table with two leaves (est €1,200 to €1,800) and a Victorian mahogany four-door breakfront bookcase with adjustable shelves (est €1,200 to €1,800). The sale also includes a Waterford six-branch chandelier (est €1,200 to €1,800) and a modern Zender baby ship's piano (est €600 to €900). Viewing is 12 noon to 5pm until Sunday (see antiquesireland.com).
A one-off bronze sculpture of WB Yeats (€2,000 to €3,000, above) is currently for sale at Morgan O'Driscoll's Irish Art Online Auction, which continues until Monday between 6.30pm and 9.30pm. The sculpture, 30cm high on a granite base, is the work of John Coll and was once part of the Yeats Family Collection, as was a pencil drawing At the Abbey Theatre (1906) (€1,000 to €1,400) by John Butler Yeats. The sale also includes an abstract oil on canvas Nelson Mandela is Free (1990) (est €3,000 to €4,000) by Francis Tansey and a still life Louis-Roederer Champagne (€1,000 to €1,500) by Raymond Campbell. Viewing is in Morgan O'Driscoll's Skibbereen offices: today from 11am to 5pm and on Monday from 11am to 3pm. See morganodriscoll.com.
Antiques & Vintage Fairs
An Antiques & Vintage Fair organised by Vintage Ireland will take place at the Osprey Hotel, Naas, Co Kildare, on Sunday from 11am to 6pm. Expect antique and vintage jewellery, silver, rare coins, books and other collectables, traditional antiques and homeware. Admission is €3.50. See vintageireland.eu.