Friday 24 November 2017

Treasures... Big money in little China

Prisoner Of Love Belleek piece
Prisoner Of Love Belleek piece
Belleek second period alligator
Patterened Belleek
'Seated Figure' by John Craxton

Your unloved Belleek shelf-warmers may be worth much more than you think.

There's a joy without canker or cark,

There's a pleasure eternally new,

'Tis to gloat on the glaze and the mark

Of china that's ancient and blue.

So wrote Andrew Lang in his not-entirely-serious Ballades In Blue China (1880). The introduction to the volume adds that 30 years previously, there had been a fetish for blue china in "aesthetic circles of which the balladist was not a member". Lang, it seems, was taking the piss.

Over the decades many Irish people have been similarly irreverent about our own Belleek china, besmirched by the memory of shamrock-strewn vases from the 1950s.

It's a clear case of the prophet being without honour in his own country. Belleek is considered highly collectible in America and the UK, and there are very beautiful pieces in both the National and the Ulster Museum. What's more, the factory is still going strong. There's a lot more to Belleek than late 20th century kitsch.

"Any auctioneer would give you €5,000 to €7,000 for Prisoner Of Love," says Stuart Purcell of Whyte's. "That's the holy grail of Belleek." The plain white statue is made in Parian, a type of china designed to imitate carved marble, and shows the figure of a downcast girl, garlands of flowers across her lap and doves nestling at her feet (it's a symbol of unrequited love).

At 65cm high, it was the largest piece made by the factory and dates from Belleek's first period (1863-1890). "They all have profound firing cracks, the kilns weren't designed for pieces of that size."

Belleek was conceived in 1849 when John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited the encumbered estate of Castle Caldwell, Co Fermanagh. With Ireland still reeling from the Great Famine, Bloomfield started a number of enterprises to give his tenants regular employment. Some were set to lace making, some to cement-plaster production and others to the making of porcelain clay. Bloomfield, who was an amateur mineralogist, was excited to find the raw ingredients of porcelain on his land - feldspar, kaolin, flint, clay and shale. Belleek clay made its first appearance at the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853.

Bloomfield and his partner Robert Williams Armstrong set about building the factory, powered by a waterwheel, on the River Erne. He also, remarkably, negotiated for the railway to come to Belleek, and had a branch track built to the pottery. The potters, until Irish apprentices could be trained, were head-hunted from Stoke-on-Trent.

In the early years, Belleek depended heavily on earthenware to keep the factory in production. The company also made telegraph insulators at the time when the telegraph network was being extended across the country, but Belleek's bread and butter came from hand-painted and transfer-printed mugs, jugs, bedpans and washstands. It's lovely stuff.

Earlier this summer, a pair of transfer-printed mugs from Belleek's first period (1863-1890) sold at Whyte's for €100; a sponge-printed mug and bowl went for the same price.

The latter is interesting as the early sponge-ware was the inspiration for the highly successful Nicholas Mosse, but such engaging pieces of Irish history don't go for big money.

Parian prestige-ware from this early period is a different matter. This high-end work was made for export and pieces are thin on the ground, but those that remained in the country, purchased by the rich of Ireland, are occasionally seen at auction.

"Like the poor, the wealthy have always been with us and they were milking it up to the end of the 19th century," says Purcell. "Prisoner Of Love has passed through my hands twice now, although I've never actually sold one."

In the relatively depressed market of 2010, one of the Belleek classics, Erin Awakening From Her Slumbers, sold at Adam's for €3,600. The allegorical Erin has shamrocks in her hair and is shown unveiling an urn, which symbolises the Belleek Pottery. There's a harp and a Celtic cross half-hidden in the folds of her gown and the waves of Lough Erne are splashing at her feet. This piece was designed by the Dubliner William Boyden Kirk (1824-1900) and comes from Belleek's second period (1891-1926).

"The top 5pc of Belleek's output was well-designed, beautifully made, delicate and rare," says Stuart Cole of Adam's. "The people who are serious about collecting it are out there."

It's unlikely that such an ironic piece will be found unremarked at the back of a charity shop, but Belleek produced a vast number of designs, ranging from classical-style sculptures and intricately-woven baskets to wall plaques and hand-painted tea sets. Rare early pieces from any of these genres will be of interest to collectors.

You can date the china by the mark, which changed in colour and style throughout the decades, but is distinguished by an Irish wolfhound, a round tower and a harp, all perched on a Belleek banner with sprigs of shamrock at each end.

The second mark (1891-1926) was brought in to comply with a tariff regulation that required a specified country of origin and has an additional ribbon inscribed "County Fermanagh, Ireland".

From 1926, a registry mark was introduced along with a Celtic scroll and the words Deanta in Eireann. "Anything with a registry mark isn't likely to be of much monetary value," says Purcell, "but every home needs a shamrock cup and saucer for St Patrick's Day."

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In the salerooms


The Kinsale Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair will take place on Sunday, July 26 at Acton's Hotel, Kinsale, between 11am and 6pm.

The second largest of the Hibernian Antique Fairs, the Kinsale Fair is run three times a year with dealers including IADA members Marie Curran of Dublin with silver and jewellery; the Whitley Gallery of Wicklow, with Chinese woodblock prints and oriental art; Treasure Irish Art of Athlone; and Weldon's of Dublin, experts in Irish provincial silver as well as diamonds and jewellery.

Expect also vintage tin plate toys, steam engines and train sets from Alec Chamberlain of Kilcrohane, Cork; carefully selected vintage fashion and accessories from Eily Henry of Stradbally, Waterford; and furniture, brass and copper from Black Horse Antiques of Kerry.

If this fair clashes with your holidays, there will be several other chances with the West Cork Antique Fair at Rosscarbery's Celtic Ross Hotel on Sunday, August 16 and the Cork National Antiques Art & Vintage Fair at Silver Springs, Cork, on Saturday and Sunday, September 12-13.


Chinese vases excelled at Sheppard's auction of June 30 and July 1, with a pair of Chinese Qing period gu-shaped polychrome vases, estimated between €800 and €1,200, selling for €60,000.

The vases came from the collection of Sir William Hutchinson Poe, Baronet 1848-1934, of Heywood House, Queen's County.

Not too far behind, a Chinese Qing period famille verte vase sold for €42,000. The tapering vase was decorated with images of vase-held flowers and estimated between €1,000 and €1,500.

A pair of Chinese Qing period famille verte jardinières, estimated €1,500 to €2,500, sold for €28,000 and a Chinese Qing period bottle vase decorated with peaches, which held a similarly conservative estimate, sold for €11,000. Other top lots included a Chippendale pier mirror (c.1770), which fetched €40,000; a 19th century carved giltwood table (€14,000) and Resting nude, an oil-on-canvas painting by Maria Szantho (1897-1997), which almost doubled its upper estimate and sold for €11,000.


Four bronze sculptures by Fallon himself were among the top lots at Adam's sale of the collection of Nancy Wynne-Jones and Conor Fallon of Ballard House, Co Wicklow, on June 24.

Fallon's Trout in bronze and stainless steel (67cm long), estimated between €3,000 and €5,000, sold for €8,000; Hawk I (28cm high) sold for €5,000; Bird Of Capricorn went for €4,600 as did Dove III.

The top lot, by a long stretch, was Seated Figure, an oil-on-canvas by John Craxton (1922-2009). The angular and melancholic figure, possibly in a sailor's uniform, had been painted on a trip to Greece in the 1950s and was shown at the Leicester Galleries in 1954, where it was purchased by Nancy Wynne-Jones.

Estimated between €7,000 and €10,000, the painting eventually sold for €40,000. The abstract Composition In Blue by Peter Kinley (1926-1988) more than tripled its upper estimate and sold for €15,000, while Floating Nude, by the same artist, went for €10,000.

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