Tuesday 20 March 2018

Treasures: Linen closet to another realm

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Samuel Byrne's Our Shooting Party photo
Samuel Byrne's Our Shooting Party photo
The leather bound albums that were found in the linen closet.

Eleanor Flegg

The notion that a valuable album of old photographs might be hidden somewhere in the attic is generally a family myth. Old photographs are rarely valuable and if an album has been relegated to storage, it's usually because it's not that interesting. But, just occasionally, something of genuine interest comes to light. And that's what happened when the auctioneers from Mealy's were cataloguing the contents of Lotabeg, Tivoli, in Cork City.

"The family mentioned an album of old photographs of India but they didn't know where it was," says George Gerard Mealy. "We found them in the hot press."

Because old photographs are sensitive to light and fluctuations of temperature, the linen closet was a relatively sensible place to store the three leather-bound albums.

The albums contained images dating from the earliest days of photography and taken by one of the pioneering explorer photographers of the British Empire, Samuel Bourne. When Bourne arrived in India in 1863, he set up a studio in Simla and, from there, embarked on three successive photographic expeditions to the Himalayas.

Each venture was crazier than the next. Bourne had all the qualities of a Victorian explorer-photographer: physical courage, exquisite craftsmanship, and complete disregard for his own (or anyone else's) safety in pursuit of his goal.

Bourne's final expedition travelled to the source of the Ganges in 1866 with an entourage of 80 porters. Early photography was a cumbersome business and the porters were required to carry boxes of chemicals, glass plates, and a portable darkroom tent. Another part of their job was to tend to the flock of sheep and goats that travelled with the party, supplying them with food on the hoof.

Bourne crossed the Manirung Pass at 18,600 feet, taking the opportunity of a rare break in the cloud cover to set the world record for high-altitude photography. He took three views at the pass, one of which is included in the Lotabeg albums. The death-defying expedition continued to the ice cave at the Gangotri Glacier where the Ganges originates.

Bourne returned to England in 1870, leaving a legacy of around 2,500 views, mostly of architecture and landscapes. Reproduced and distributed by his partner Charles Shepherd, who remained in Simla, the photographs were avidly collected by the British in India.

Most of the photographs in the Lotabeg albums are by Bourne, signed and numbered. They show Indian landscapes ranging from the Taj Mahal at Agra and Gate of the Kaiser Bagh in Lucknow to colonial shooting parties, complete with grisly trophies, and ethnographic studies.

They include alluring titles like 'Group of Thugs' and 'Snake Charmers'. On one level the photographs are a fascinating glimpse of life on the subcontinent, as seen through British colonial eyes, but Bourne's meticulously composed images also show the potential of the emerging art of photography.

"You can tell that real time and effort went into setting up the shots," Mealy comments. The three albums are for sale as a single lot with an estimate of €6,000 to €10,000.

Bourne's photographs can fetch very large sums at auction. In November 2015 an album of 68 photographs from the studio of Howard and Bourne sold at Bonham's Travel and Exploration sale in London for £22,500 (€28,567). Bourne's partnership with Howard was brief and predated that with Shepherd, which would have added to the price. In the same sale, an album of 53 views of India by Bourne sold for £3,250 (€4,126).

The high prices paid for Bourne's work reflects a wider interest in photographs of 19th-century exploration. This March, a collection of portraits of Maori people by Elizabeth Pulman (née Chad) (1836-1900) sold at auction in Shropshire for £18,000 (€22,766) collectively, or £850 (€1,075) to £2,000 (€2,530) apiece.

The auction had the blessing of the Maori Society of London, who travelled to Shropshire to pray around the collection before the sale, and several of the images will return to New Zealand.

Although many early photographs require expert valuation, it's possible to get a notion of their value by rule of thumb. A photograph must, for example, contain interesting subject matter. A boring 19th-century photograph is of no interest to anyone. Original photographs of famous people can be valuable, especially if they were taken by a known photographer (many of these, like Bourne, signed the negatives).

As it can be difficult to tell an original photograph from a later reproduction, the provenance of the collection will also be taken into consideration.

In the case of the Lotabeg albums, the connection to colonial India was not difficult to trace. The albums come from the collection of Vincent Hart (1881-1939) and his wife Evelyn Hart (née Sheedy) of Lotabeg. Between 1903 and 1935, Vincent worked as an engineer with the Indian Public Works Department in Madras. His biggest project was the construction of the Cauveny Mettur Dam which, at the time, was the biggest solid gravity dam in the world.

The engineering of this massive project was solidly documented by Vincent with an archive or photographs of every stage of construction along with newspaper clippings (mainly of himself). The archive is included in the sale (€200-€300).

In 1935, King George V presented Hart with the Companionship of the Star of India, a prestigious order of chivalry founded by Queen Victoria. This too is included in the sale, along with the corresponding letter from George V. It is estimated between €1,200 and €1,800.

The sale of the contents of Lotabeg, Tivoli, will take place on May 24 in the Silver Springs Clayton Hotel, Cork. For full details see mealys.ie.

In the salerooms

De Vere’s

The Irish Art Auction at de Vere’s takes place at the Royal College of Physicians, No. 6 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, on May 25 at 6 pm. There is much here to interest the serious collector of Irish art, including two paintings by Roderic O’Conor. ‘Still Life with Apples on a White Cloth’, painted in the mid-1920s in his Paris studio at rue Cherche-Midi, reflects the subtle light and the influence of Cézanne. It’s estimated between €50,000 and €70,000.

A portrait by O’Conor, ‘Woman in a Turquoise Cardigan’ (€15,000 to €20,000) was probably painted in the mid-1930s. ‘Semur-en-Auxois’ (€30,000 to €50,000), a lively cubist oil by Mary Swanzy (pictured), shows the River Armançon winding through the town (the red roofs work well for her in this regard). It was probably painted in the 1920s. ‘The Ferry Boat’ (€50,000 to €70,000) by Jack B Yeats, dates from 1943 and shows a paddle steamer between flooded streets, an arrangement that seems to blend the ferries of early 20th-century Dublin with a Venetian cityscape.

Contemporary artists represented in the sale include John Shinnors. His deeply engaging oil on canvas, ‘Badgers, Her Place’ is estimated between €25,000 and €35,000. ‘English Allotment, Snow’, also by Shinnors, is estimated between €4,000 and €6,000.

Other contemporary works include paintings by Martin Gale, Donald Teskey, and Nick Miller. The works are on view at de Vere’s Gallery, 35 Kildare Street, from 21 to 25 May with full details on deveres.ie.

Morgan O’Driscoll

The online Off the Wall auction conducted by Morgan O’Driscoll is currently underway with bidding ending on May 23. It includes a number of paintings by well-known artists including Kenneth Webb, Markey Robinson and Graham Knuttle.

There are several works of equestrian interest. Liam O’Neill’s ‘The Horse Fair’ is estimated between €4,000 and €6,000, and ‘The Morning of a Horse Fair’ (2003) by Cecil Maguire (also €4,000 to €6,000).

Cecil Maguire was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland in 1930. In 1993 he was a Gold Medal Award winner at the Royal Ulster Academy and he now divides his time between Italy, Belfast and Roundstone, Connemara, which has been the genesis for much of his work.

‘Tallow Horse Fair Against Evening Light’ by Arthur K Maderson is estimated between €1,500 and €2,000 and a t20-th century bronze sculpture of a horse by Stephen Lawlor (24 x 27 x 8 cm) is also €1,500 to €2,000. Full details are on morganodriscoll.com.

Antiques and vintage fairs

The Kerry Antique Fair, organised by Robin O’Donnell of Hibernian Antique and Art Fairs, will take place in The Earl of Desmond Hotel, Tralee, County Kerry, on Sunday May 22. For further details see the organisation’s new website hibernianantiquefairs.com.

The following weekend there will be a two-day Antique & Collectors Fair organised by AVA Antiques, in the Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle, County Down. The fair takes place on Sunday May 29 and Monday May 30, from 11am to 6pm on both days, and admission is £2.

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