Saturday 17 February 2018

Treasurers: Return of the Belfast Boys

A George Campbell painting
A George Campbell painting
Collection of coins, Roman and other

Have you got a George Campbell sketch in your attic or on your wall at home without realising? If so, you could be holding a couple of hundred euros in your hands. Perhaps thousands if you have an oil painting.

And these works might be worth more again in the years ahead given the view put across by a forthcoming exhibition focusing on the work of four Belfast artists. Entitled "George Campbell and the The Belfast Boys" the exhibition asserts that George was the most unfairly unappreciated of the group.

Back in the late 1960s, Martin Whelan, a guard from Ardara, was stationed in Roundstone, Connemara and naturally enough, he made his way down to Connolly's Bar where he met an unusual pair of characters. George Campbell (1917-1979) and Gerard Dillon (1916-1971) were both self-taught artists, but here the similarity ended. Campbell was a Protestant, born in Arklow and brought up in Belfast. Dillon was a nationalist Catholic from the Falls Road. Dillon was shy and intense. Campbell was outgoing, gregarious and a fine guitar player. In between late night music sessions, Whelan, who was a native speaker, taught Campbell how to speak Irish.

Dillon died in 1971 and the years following were difficult for Campbell, the loss of his friend bringing out a darker side of his character. Many people who met him at that time remember the artist as a brooding cantankerous man. By this time the guard, Martin Whelan, was stationed in Galway City. One day he was directing the traffic and recognised the car of Tom Kenny, who had recently started to hold exhibitions in Kenny's Bookshop. Thinking that he might do something to help his friend, Whelan stuck out his hand and stopped the traffic. He strolled over to Kenny's car. Kenny wound down the window. "Have you ever heard of an artist called George Campbell?" Whelan asked. Kenny said that he had. "Would you consider putting on an exhibition of his work?" Kenny said that he would.

Tom Kenny, then on the edge of the art world, would indeed have heard of George Campbell. In the 1960s, Campbell was a well known artist and winner of many prestigious awards. In many ways he was the Louis le Brocquy of his day. But his fame had faded quickly. During the 1970s, Campbell and his friend Arthur Armstrong, had several exhibitions at the Kenny Gallery in Galway but, by the 1990s, the Irish art world had largely forgotten about him.

Campbell's work continued to sell. His Dublin On A Showery Day, an abstract cityscape, sold for €65,000 at Adam's in 2006 (those were the days!), but many churches around the country for which he designed stained glass windows and painted Stations of the Cross may as yet be unaware of the value of what they have. It's also likely that many of his smaller works are in ordinary homes throughout the country. George Campbell was a prolific artist and generous with his work.

"The people who have his work will remember Campbell himself," says David Britton of Adam's. "They probably know what they have, but they might not know what they're worth." In the last 12 months Campbell's oil paintings have fetched between €950 and €3,500 at auction, but small watercolours and sketches will also have some value. "A couple of hundred," says Britton, hazarding a guess.

Small and ephemeral items by Campbell are likely to be less valuable than those by his friend Dillon whose postcard-sized watercolour of cats, commissioned by the writer Kate O'Brien, made €4,600 at Adam's in 2008. More recently, handmade Christmas cards by Dillon have sold for €200. "All these artists were great letter writers," Britton explains. "And they illustrated their letters." These too are worth showing to a reputable auctioneer.

Karen Reihill is the curator of the upcoming Adam's Summer Loan Exhibition, George Campbell and the Belfast Boys. The Belfast Boys are the four friends: George Campbell, Gerard Dillon, Daniel O'Neill (1920-1974) and Arthur Armstrong (1924-1996). To use the old Beatles comparison, if Dillon and O'Neill are the John and Paul of the Belfast Boys, George would be George, and Armstrong would be Ringo Starr. The exhibition is accompanied by a detailed catalogue, also by Reihill. "I felt a sense of responsibility to tell Campbell's story while so many of the people that knew him are still alive," she says.

For Reihill, the exhibition is an opportunity to show the work of an unfairly neglected artist who has slipped between the cracks in the art establishment. Campbell is not a big brand name like Sean Scully, nor is his work as engaging as that of his friends Dillon and O'Neill, but she describes his paintings as "interesting and original".

It's also evident that Campbell, through his art and his music, touched the lives of many people. During the process of researching the show, Reihill heard of a sketch that Campbell had made of a farmer. With typical generosity he gave the small artwork to the farmer who inspected it, folded it in half, folded it again, folded it a third time and stuck it in the band of his peaked cap. "I'll keep that forever now," he said.

Although Campbell's reputation may have been neglected by his native country, not so in Spain where he spent six months of the year for much of his life. In 1978 he was made a Knight Commander of Spain with the Insignia and Privileges of the Order of the Merito Civile, the equivalent of a knighthood. In 2006, and with much ceremony, a roundabout was established in his honour. The magnificent Glorieta Jorge Campbell is situated in Malaga, on the road to Pedregalejó.

George Campbell and the Belfast Boys runs at Adam's in Dublin from July 7-30 and at the Ava Gallery, Clandeboye, Co Down, from August 6 to September 3. Admission is free.

In the salerooms


Coins, banknotes and postcards led the way at Whyte's auction of The Eclectic Collector on June 13. A collection of coins, Roman and other, in a purpose-built 19th-century cabinet sold for €10,500 (it had been estimated between €2,000 and €3,000).

The collection came from the family of the original collector - the grandfather of the great-uncle of the seller. A collection of postcards, divided in lots according to town and county, made a total of €22,000. In sporting memorabilia, a 19th-century GAA football medal fetched €7,200.

The gold medal was inscribed "Virtual Championship of all Ireland 1895". It was presented to a member of Pierce O'Mahony's club from Navan for the 1895 All-Ireland Senior Football Championships, played on March 15, 1896. It was the first final to be played in Jones Road (later Croke Park) and Meath's first appearance in a final.

The match was won by Tipperary's Arravale Rovers by a single point which the referee later admitted to be a miscalculation, declaring that the match should have been a draw. The result stood, and an All Ireland "Virtual Championship" medal was presented to all members of Pierce O'Mahony's that played on that day. Full results are on


The 'Belfast Boys' did well at deVeres Irish Art Auction on June 16 with Pony In A Connemara Garden by Gerard Dillon RHA RUA (1916-1971) selling for €42,000 and Daniel O'Neill's Maidens for €19,000.

The auctioneers considered O'Neill one of the best performers in the sale. Resting, a painting of a woman in an Irish landscape and Reclining Figure, which has similar subject matter, both reached €1,400. Between The Lights, a fey landscape of an island shore with a figure standing in a currach in the foreground, sold for €6,500.

Four paintings by George Campbell RHA RUA (1917-1979) were sold in the same auction: Window, Spain for €3,500; Memory Of Howth for €1,700; a gouache, Fishermen Tending The Nets, Spain, for €1,300; and a watercolour, Musicians, for €900. Full results are on


The bidding on Morgan O'Driscoll's most recent "Off The Wall" auction closes on Monday July 6, with viewing at the auctioneer's Skibbereen offices on Thursday and Friday, July 2-3, and on the day of sale.

The auction includes a number of pieces by the Belfast Boys, including two by Gerard Dillon RHA RUA (1916-1971). The Eye Of The Wind is estimated between €1,000 and €1,500 and the helpfully titled Abstract Landscape in mixed media between €800 and €1,200.


The biannual Kilkenny Antique Art & Vintage Fair will take place at Newpark Hotel, Kilkenny on Sunday July 5, from 11am to 6pm.

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