Tuesday 11 December 2018

Treasures: Don't look past the beauty of stained glass

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

The Daughters of Charity — the Butterfly Nuns, from the Harry Clarke Studios
The Daughters of Charity — the Butterfly Nuns, from the Harry Clarke Studios
St Patrick from the Franz Mayer Studios
St Brigid from the Franz Mayer Studios
Portrait of a Lady

Eleanor Flegg

I never pass though Tullycross in Co Galway without pulling over to gape at the Harry Clarke windows in the church. I love the spooky strangeness of his work and the way that it changes with the Connemara light. That's one of best things about stained glass - you never know what you're going to get.

Stained glass can be breathtakingly beautiful, but it looks best in situ. Stacked in an auction room, stained glass panels can seem forlorn and out of place. Another aspect of Irish stained glass is that most of it is religious. "Stained glass isn't everyone's cup of tea," says auctioneer George Fonsie Mealy. "A lot of people are put off the idea of it, but when a panel is properly mounted and box lit, you can see what an exciting medium it is."

Most Irish stained glass dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There's a lot of it about. Around this time, there were around 100 glaziers across the country, all beavering away to decorate a surge of new Catholic and Protestant churches. The standard of their work was mixed.

Many Irish makers used the same pattern books as their competitors, large foreign ecclesiastical decorating firms. The results were the stained glass equivalent of painting by numbers. In 1903, an article in the Irish Builder complained about the "abominably vulgar foreign windows so common in Ireland".

Not all imported windows were poor quality. The internationally renowned stained glass company Franz Mayer & Co of Munich, stained glass artist to the Holy See, was responsible for many windows in Irish churches. Four of these are coming up for sale at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers' Chatsworth Fine Art Sale, which takes place on Tuesday, November 14. They are to be sold as pairs: Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary (each panel is 188 x 61 cm); and Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick (218 x 70 cm). Each pair is estimated to sell for between €4,000 and €6,000.

Another version of Saint Patrick, St Patrick Our National Apostle (234 x 110 cm), sold for €5,500 at Fonsie Mealy's in July. Magnificently coloured, with a decorative border and a domed top, it was made in Dublin by Earley Studios.

The Earley family established their stained glass workshop on Dublin's Camden Street in 1860. Its founder, Thomas Earley, had trained as a painter-decorator under the architect AWN Pugin, uncrowned king of the English Gothic Revival.

The firm passed to Thomas' nephew, John Bishop Earley and his brother William, who managed it until his death in 1956. The company continued until 1975, but it is generally recognised that William's work was the best to come out of the studio.

"I'm keen to give Earley Studios a rebirth," says James Earley, a contemporary artist who works in stained glass, among other media. "William Earley was my great grand-uncle. His use of colour, texture and form is stunning, and there's lots of it all over Ireland. Stained glass is a forgotten art form and often overlooked due to its links to religion."

Like William Earley, the famous Harry Clarke (1889-1931) grew up in the ecclesiastical decorating business. He attended night classes under Alfred Ernest Child, an artist who had been inveigled over from England to give Irish stained glass a kick in the pants. Child's brief, according to the art historian Nicola Gordon Bowe, was to instruct a "new generation of Irish artists" to produce native stained glass "using the best materials and a recognisably Irish iconography".

Harry Clarke designed, made or supervised no more than 160 windows and a small number of panels. These don't tend to drift around the auction circuit. Stained glass by Harry Clarke Studios, which continued in production until 1973, is much more likely to turn up at auction. Fonsie Mealy's November sale includes one of these, catalogued as Saint Peter (est. €1,000 to €1,500), possibly by Harry Clarke's son David.

In July, also at Fonsie Mealy's, a stained glass panel from the Harry Clarke Studios, The Daughters of Charity - The Butterfly Nuns sold for €3,700. It wasn't in the same league as Harry Clarke's own work but, subtly coloured in shades of green, blue and purple, it had a touch of the same haunting atmosphere.

"When stained glass comes up for sale it tends to be small stained glass works or plans and designs for larger pieces. Those are an art form in themselves," says Ross O'Suilleabhain of Herman and Wilkinson.

"Small works that we have had come for auction are generally from small Irish studios. In the past we have sold small stained glass works from the likes of the Murphy-Devitt Studio, which generally make between €300 and €500."

Murphy-Devitt Studios was in operation in South Co Dublin between 1960 and 1980. It was set up by Dessie Devitt and John Murphy, former employees of Harry Clarke Studios.

A small number of contemporary Irish artists have worked in stained glass; most famously James Scanlon and Maud Cotter. Woman, an abstract collage (31 x 19.5 cm) in an illuminated box by Scanlon sold for €740 at Fonsie Mealy's July auction.

It was a vibrant piece of artwork and, unlike the historic panels, you wouldn't need a massive house to put it in.

Fonsie Mealy's Chatsworth Fine Art Sale takes place at The Old Cinema, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, on Tuesday, November 14. See fonsiemealy.ie. See also hermanwilkinson.ie.

In the Salerooms


Portrait of a Lady

Forget about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. In 18th century Ireland, gold was the thing. A gold and coral baby's rattle, made in Dublin around 1770, fetched €8,500 at Adam's Country House Collections sale of October 10. The rattle had, quite literally, all the bells and whistles, as well as a coral teething piece and a loop for a ribbon (you wouldn't want to lose it). It may possibly have been chewed on by the infant daughter of the notorious 'Fighting Fitzgerald' of Co Mayo. His exciting life ended when he was hanged for murder in 1786. The predictable top lot in the sale was a painting of A Mountainous Wooded River Landscape with a Waterfall and Three Figures by George Barret Snr (c.1728-1784), which sold for €200,000. Other interesting paintings in the sale included a Portrait of a Lady, Full Length, Standing in a Landscape Wearing a Riding Habit (above) by Sir Francis Grant (1803-1878), which doubled its estimate and sold for €22,000. Much is known about the artist, but nobody knows the name of the lady. See adams.ie.

Fonsie Mealy

The spectacles that once balanced on the nose of poet WB Yeats (and a much more elegant pair belonging to his sister-in-law) are among the more unusual pieces of Yeats memorabilia at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers' sale of November 14. This is the final chapter in the disposal of Yeats family assets, which kicked off with a sale of items from the Yeats collections at Sotheby's on September 27. Highlights include a sketchbook compiled by WB Yeats during the year he spent at art college in Dublin (1884-5). It's one of only two known to exist; the other made £28,000 (€31,345) at Sotheby's. The sale also includes the original ink sketch by John Butler Yeats, reproduced in WB Yeats' dramatic poem, Mosada (1886). There are also many family oddities, such as a green silk cloak lined with white, which the auctioneers believe may relate to the esoteric rituals of the Order of the Golden Dawn. The Yeats Family Collection - The Final Chapter takes place at The Old Cinema, Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, on Tuesday November 14. See fonsiemealy.ie.

De Vere's

There was an unusual sleeper hiding among the classy Italian furniture at De Vere's Design Auction, which took place on Sunday, October 15. A stylish but spindly Italian floor light, 190cm high, with a blue enamel adjustable shade and a tripod base (est. €600-€900), sold for €3,000. Rosewood sideboards also sold well. A 1960s Italian rosewood side cabinet, on tubular brass legs with a smoked glass top above four gilt metal drawers (est. €1,400-€1,800) sold for €2,600. Another 1960s rosewood sideboard, attributed to the Dutch designer Fristho Franeker (est. €1,500- €2,500) sold for €2,400. The top lot in the sale was a tapestry EDEN, 1951 (AKA Woman's Heel). Designed by Louis le Brocquy and woven in Edinburgh (c.1952), it sold for €29,000. See deveres.ie.

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