Treasures ... About a Boy: intimate portrait up for auction
Some portraits are painted to commission. The sitter, or their family, pays the artist a fee and keeps the painting. Other artists use models, in which case the sitter may be paid a fee but the artist gets to keep, and sell, the painting.
Either of these arrangements can result in fine work, but both are transactions at heart and require an element of professional remove. When an artist paints a portrait of somebody that they know, and connect with emotionally, the work can have a different quality altogether.
Lucian Freud's Head of a Boy (1956) is coming up for auction at Sotheby's, London, on March 5, with an estimate of stg£4.5 to stg£6.5m (€4,990,000 to €7,210,000). It's a portrait of his lifelong friend Garech Browne (1939-2018), Guinness heir, custodian of Luggala Estate, founder of Claddagh records, and general Irish cultural icon.
"There's a real connection between artist and sitter," says Tom Eddison, expert in contemporary art at Sotheby's. Although it's not known precisely how the painting came about, it's unlikely to have been a commission.
"Freud didn't work that way. He wouldn't have painted someone he wasn't interested in and he didn't take direction from anyone. They were friends and it led to a portrait." It's a small painting (18 x 18cm), a tender close-up of the boy's face, with exquisite fine-brushwork and a real bang of emotional intensity about it. There's a good story behind it too.
Garech Browne is famous, depending on where you're standing, for rescuing Irish traditional music from the doldrums, giving interestingly bohemian parties, and for letting the public scamper all over his Co Wicklow Estate. In the late 1980s, the beautiful white house at Luggala was separated by a small sign that might have read "Keep Off the Grass". It politely requested that the public came no further. The rest of the estate was our playground. It wasn't that we had permission to be there, it was just that nobody stopped us.
The house remained a mystery, though most of us claimed to know someone that had been to one of his parties. In Robert O'Byrne's, Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House (2012), the actor John Hurt described the set up: "Here he collects poets and pipers, Druids, drunks, landed and stranded gentry. He likes to have his friends about him." Now, the 18-century hunting lodge and 5,000-acre estate are for sale, with an advertised price of €28m.
Lucian Freud (1922-2011) first came to Luggala in the 1940s with his wife Kitty and eloped with Browne's cousin, Lady Caroline Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood in 1952. The painting coming up for auction at Sotheby's is Freud's second attempt at painting Garech's portrait. O'Byrne records Browne's comment.
"He was painting my portrait at Luggala when the house caught fire in 1956, so he gave the unfinished version to Caroline and started again." The page of the Luggala visitors book signed by Lucian and Caroline Freud in that year ends with the bald statement in block capitals: "Luggala burnt down."
The whereabouts of the first unfinished portrait is not public knowledge. Presumably it's out there somewhere. "There's no record that it has been destroyed," says Eddison cautiously. Its successor was painted at Luggala during what the auctioneers describe as "a potentially fractious moment in the course of Freud's tempestuous second marriage." Freud and Caroline acrimoniously separated in 1957, barely a year after it was painted.
Despite the family turmoil, and their 17-year age difference, the friendship between Browne and Freud survived. "Perhaps the person from whom I learned most was Lucian Freud," Browne recalled in Luggala Days. "Lucian subsequently introduced me to many interesting people, including Francis Bacon, and brought me around the Louvre."
"Freud was very influential on Garech from a very young age - introducing him to a rich and interesting medley of creative types and sneaking him into clubs in London." Eddison says.
"What is so wonderful about his paintings from this period is the narrative behind them. They're a fascinating view of what his life was like, and the worlds of high and low culture that he stepped between."
Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Auction takes place at 34-35, New Bond Street, London, on Tuesday, March 5 at 7pm. See sothebys.com
In the salerooms
Men’s wristwatches tend to hog the limelight and to fetch higher prices at auction than women’s watches but women were historically the first to wear watches on their wrists. Early women’s wristwatches were more decorative than reliable but more recent examples work just as well as those designed to be worn by men (they’re just a lot prettier).
There are some elegant examples coming up for sale at O’Reilly’s next Auction of Fine Jewellery, Watches and Silver, which takes place on Wednesday, February 20 at 1pm. They include a ladies’ 18ct white Gold Cartier Santos Demoiselle wristwatch, diamond set throughout, on integrated brick link bracelet, with Cartier pouch (Lot 555: est. €7,000 to €8,000); an 18ct yellow gold ladies’ Rolex Datejust wristwatch, on president bracelet (Lot 540: est. €4500 to €5500); and (pictured) a ladies’ 18ct gold Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust wristwatch, with champagne face, diamond dot dial, diamond set bezel, tapered jubilee bracelet strap with integral clasp, with four spare links, boxed with papers (Lot 554: est. €5,500 to €6,500). The sale also includes two diamond Riviere necklaces (Lots 164 and 222) with estimates from €11,000 to €13,000. See oreillysfineart.com
A painting by Jack B Yeats showing the romantic but tragic end to Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, is coming up for auction at Bonhams Modern British and Irish Art Sale in London on Wednesday, June 12. The painting, Romeo and Juliet (The Last Act) (1927), shows the stage of a theatre with the audience in the stalls below and the boxes on one side. All attention is avidly focused on the stage. The audience is — quite literally — on the edge of its seats. On the stage-within-a-painting, the scene is set in the Capulet family mausoleum where Juliet wakes from a drugged coma to find that Romeo, believing that she is dead, has killed himself. Grief-stricken, Juliet takes her own life. In the painting, the bodies of the young lovers lie slumped at the foot of the tomb. The painting is estimated to sell between €90,000 to €135,000. See bonhams.com.
Antiques & Vintage Fairs
The Kerry Antiques Fair, organised by Hibernian Antique & Fine Art Fairs, takes place at Ballygarry House Hotel, Tralee, this Sunday, from 11am. Treasures Irish Art will be coming from Athlone; The Book Shed from Kinsale, Co Cork; and William Harnett Furniture from Co Limerick. Raymond Byrne will be bringing oil lamps from Monaghan; and Patricia Doyle will have jewellery and smalls from Dublin. Admission is €3.50 for adults.