When auction rooms run away with the faeries
George Russell AE (1867-1935) was a man of many parts. He was an artist of course, but he was also a writer and a mystic. On a more pragmatic level, he spent nearly 20 years as the editor of a farming journal, The Irish Homestead.
Russell enjoyed a stormy friendship with the poet and fellow mystic, WB Yeats. "I am always fighting with Yeats but if I hadn't him to fight with it would be a great gap in my life," AE said.
He described Yeats, possibly at the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society, walking up and down the room waving a 'magic' sword and uttering incantations (another mystic). There was a bowl of plums in the room and, every time Yeats passed it, he took one. "Really Yeats," said AE, "you can't invoke great spirits and eat plums at the same time."
Like many others of his time, AE was inspired by Irish mythology. "AE was fascinated by folklore and believed that the sídhe populated many of the more untouched parts of rural Ireland which he visited frequently in his role as a spokesman for The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society," writes Pádraic E. Moore in the catalogue note for Adam's forthcoming sale of Important Irish Art. The sale includes three paintings by AE.
Sometimes AE painted the sídhe directly: their luminous bodies contrasting with the solidity of the human world. More often, he painted landscapes with otherworldly qualities. In the current Adam's sale, In Some Ancestral Paradise (Lot 16: est. €12,000 to €18,000) shows children playing in a wood. It's not entirely clear whether there's a supernatural element to it or not - the title suggests that there is - and the painting leaves you wondering if what you're seeing belongs to the real world.
In the same auction, Children on the Beach, Donegal Bay (Lot 88: est. €7,000 to €10,000) shows a twilight scene, painted in mauve, rose and amethyst. Moore draws attention to a comment The third painting, The Kelp Gatherers (Lot 95: est. €4,000 to €6,000), is a dark evocative scene of women gathering seaweed.
Magical as it is, AE's work can be gloomy. His contemporary critics accused him of not paying attention to the craftsmanship of painting.
There's a lobby that argues that AE hasn't had the attention that he deserves and his prices tend to support this view.
The paintings aren't cheap but, considering the quality of the work and the fact that the artist is historically interesting, their prices seem relatively low. Maybe it's because, although people like the idea of fairies, they don't really see the fantastical as serious art.
You could say the same about the painting of Lady Beatrice Glenavy (1883-1968). Critics agree that her work is underappreciated, but there's no consensus about why this might be. Twentieth century female artists rarely command the same high prices as their male counterparts.
She was also incredibly beautiful. William Orpen painted her in 1909, red-haired and foxy with a mischievous grin. When she left Dublin, on his advice, to study at the Slade, the Arts Club held a farewell dinner. Susan Mitchell wrote: "Our Pretty Beatrice departs / To win her Art more grace. / But she'll not fashion anything / More lovely than her face." It's a nice sentiment but not really what you want if you hope to be taken seriously.
It's also possible that her work is undervalued because, like AE, she dwells on the fantastical. Her landscapes are romantic, playful and pretty, populated by lively beings who look like they're having a lark. Maybe they lack gravitas.
Case in point, The Sailor's Return, which is coming up for auction at de Vere's on 26 March (Lot 27: est. €6,000 to €9,000). It shows a stylised sailor leaping gladly upon his lover, who looks to have been re-reading his letters, while a dog frolics at their side. Her paintings almost always have dogs.
At its best, Lady Glenavy's work is extraordinary and 1930s Ireland didn't know what to make of it at all. Her acknowledged masterpiece, The Intruder (1931), shows a dreamlike woodland picnic with a female centaur trying to lure a young man into the woods.
Back then this newspaper found it "rather novel, with its strange whimsical figures" and a committee of potential purchasers remarked that it was obscene. Lady Glenavy was bemused. "My meaning, if any, had been that the unknown was more interesting than the known," she observed. The next year the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and caricatured by George Morrow in Punch under the title 'The Home Wrecker'.
De Vere's Irish Art Auction takes place next Tuesday at 6pm (see deveres.ie); Adam's Important Irish Art Auction takes place next Wednesday at 6pm (see adams.ie)
In the Salerooms
John Weldon Auctioneers
What would you do with a hat pin? It’s hard to imagine a contemporary use of these beautiful historic objects. There’s a lovely diamond and enamel Fabergé hat pin (est. €3,000 to €4,000) coming up for sale in the next Fine Jewellery & Silver Auction at John Weldon Auctioneers. It’s a graceful and murderous looking object with a long slender pin (to hold your hat in place) with a blue enamel finial set with diamonds. The maker’s mark is AH, which means that it was made by one of two Finnish workmasters at the House of Fabergé: Albert Holmström (1876-1925); or August Wilhelm (1829-1903) who was appointed chief jeweller by Gustav Fabergé in 1857. So, with your hat pin, comes a little historical puzzle.
Other intriguing pieces include an antique gold portrait bangle set with blue enamel and pearls in a fitted box (est. €3,000 to €4,000). The portrait is signed CP, dated 1845, and contains a lock of hair. The sale takes place next Tuesday at 2pm, with viewing from tomorrow. See jwa.ie
O’Reilly Fine Art
The next auction of Fine Jewellery at O’Reilly Fine Art takes place on Wednesday at 1pm. The sale includes an interesting necklace that may once have been a tiara (Lot 395: est. €24,000 to €26,000). It’s catalogued as: “a sapphire and diamond necklace, with Burmese sapphires of approx. 45.00ct in total, rose cut diamonds of approx. 10.00ct in total, boxed.”
Other interesting pieces include a diamond set charm necklace (Lot 58: est. €4,000 to €5,000) with 17 diamond, amethyst and mother of pearl set charms, on a 14ct white gold chain. See oreillysfineart.com
The Spring Antiques & Interiors Auction at Victor Mitchell’s Mount Butler Salesrooms, Roscrea, takes place next Wednesday at 10am. Expect a wide range of antique furniture and household items which come from a number of country houses, including probate sales. They range from a Georgian brass fire insert (est. €800 to €1,000) and a pair of 19th century Rococo gilt mirrors (est. €800 to €1,200) to an Irish mahogany sofa with scroll arms (est. €500 to €600). Viewing is from tomorrow. See victormitchell.com and the saleroom.com