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Auction favourite: William Orpen’s Sergeant Murphy parody painting to fetch €350k

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Sergeant Murphy And Things by William Orpen

Sergeant Murphy And Things by William Orpen

Sergeant Murphy And Things by William Orpen

Sir William Orpen and Sergeant Murphy had a couple of things in common. Both were Irish. Both had engaging personalities. And both reached the pinnacle of their respective careers, but not in their native country. There, the similarities end.

William Orpen (1878-1931) was an artist. He worked in London as a successful and wealthy society painter. Sergeant Murphy (1910-1926) was a horse. He became a veteran of seven Aintree Grand Nationals, which he won in 1923.

The fortunes of the pair collide in a famous and interesting painting, Sergeant Murphy And Things by Sir William Orpen (Lot 44: est €250,000 to €350,000), which is coming up for sale at Whyte’s auction of Exceptional Irish Art on December 7.

“The current owner is English, a retired racehorse trainer and breeder,” says auctioneer Ian Whyte. “It’s a painting of a great Irish racehorse by a great Irish artist and it might appeal to someone in the racing industry. Sergeant Murphy would have been as famous as Red Rum in his day.”

The painting shows the horse in the foreground with the jockey, Captain Tuppy Bennet, who rode him to victory in the 1923 Grand National. The following year, Bennett died of a kick to the head following a fall, resulting in skull caps being made compulsory for jockeys.

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Trainer George Blackwell with Sergeant Murphy and Captain Tuppy Bennet

Trainer George Blackwell with Sergeant Murphy and Captain Tuppy Bennet

Trainer George Blackwell with Sergeant Murphy and Captain Tuppy Bennet

The horse’s American owner Stephen Sanford (known as Laddie) and his trainer George Blackwell are on the left of the painting. Below them, a complex landscape stretches to the horizon with a racing scene, a village, farmland and a strangely technicolour sky. Orpen was colour-blind, a difference that he masked behind a rainbow palette. In short, there’s a lot going on. And that’s just at first glance.

There’s a strong, and very plausible, argument that Sergeant Murphy And Things is a send-up of the work of the famous equine portrait artist, Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959). Both Orpen and Munnings were official war artists and met in France during the First World War. Munnings had an extraordinary ability to depict horses in motion.

The story is that Orpen, with scant experience of equine portraits, undertook the work to show that he could paint a horse as well as, or better than, his rival. There are a couple of clues in the work. The title is an irreverent reference to Munnings’ own picture, Sergeant Murphy And Trainer, now in the National Museum of Racing & Hall of Fame, Saratoga Springs, New York.

The “Things” in question include an oak tree, a device of which Munnings was particularly fond, and a portrait of Munnings leaning against the tree. Likewise, the stance of owner and trainer, and the position of the jockey, are all references to Munnings’ work. The general impression is that Orpen was having a lot of fun.

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When Sergeant Murphy And Things was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1924, the press had a lot of fun too. Before the show opened, the Irish Freeman’s Journal leaked that Orpen was “expected to put Mr Munnings and the most famous painters of horses in the shade”.

Comparisons were made and Munnings later remembered a review of the show “about Orpen’s picture of Sergeant Murphy saying that the Irishman’s picture was better than mine of the grey horse...that my horse’s head was too small”.

Sergeant Murphy died in 1926 after breaking a leg during a race. He went on to feature on Players Cigarette Cards (Racehorses #17) and became the subject of the film, Sergeant Murphy (1938), starring Ronald Regan. Orpen outlived the horse by five years, but following his death, his reputation nosedived. Now Orpen’s star has risen in the eyes of the critics and, with it, his prices.

In 2001, his portrait of his mistress’s daughter, Gardenia St George With Riding Crop (1912), sold at Sotheby’s for £1,983,500, making it then the most expensive Irish picture ever sold at auction. “They were crazy times, price wise,” Whyte says. “But a beautiful woman will always sell better than a horse.” See whytes.ie.

In the Salerooms

Sheppard’s
And the sleeper of the year award goes to… a Chinese celadon vase (Lot 662: est €800 to €1,200), which sold for €1.2m at Sheppard’s Castlehyde House auction on Friday, November 27. It broke the record to become the most expensive art object ever sold at auction in Ireland. The Qing Dynasty vase was made during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor (1723-1735). The bulk of the sale came from Michael Flatley’s collection, with highlights including the mask worn by Anthony Hopkins in the movie Hannibal, which sold for €85,000, and a painting by Flatley, The Finish Line, which fetched €37,000. Another print, sold in aid of Barnardos, made €3,000, and the Aston Martin bag in which he carried his dancing shoes (Lot 382: est €200 to €300) sold for €7,500. See sheppards.ie.
Fonsie Mealy
There’s a copy of James Joyce’s Modernist classic Ulysses to fit every budget at Fonsie Mealy’s Rare Books & Collectors’ Sale at Chatsworth Auction Rooms, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, on Wednesday and Thursday, December 9-10 at 10.30am. The highlights are a 1922 first edition, No285 of 750 copies, (Lot 917: est €7,000 to €9,000) and a rare original printed copy of A Protest Against Plagiarism (Lot 918: est €3,000 to €5,000). See fonsiemealy.ie.

Lev Mitchell & Sons
The contents of Rathbran Cottage in Louth will be sold on the premises by Lev Mitchell & Sons on Saturday, December 5, at 11am. It was the home of Mags Kirk-Carric.
See milltownauctionrooms.com.


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