Tuesday 20 March 2018

Treasures: Dressers to impress

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Traditional Irish dresser
Traditional Irish dresser
'Girl Looking At An Andy Warhol' by Robert Ballagh

Eleanor Flegg

Three noggins, three mugs, a bowl and two jugs,A crock and a pan something lesser, A red fourpenny glass, to draw at for mass, Nailed up to a clean little dresser.

These treasures were listed among the prized possessions of Thady O'Brady, subject of an anonymous poem written around 1800. In average Irish country homes, the kitchen dresser took pride of place.

There are many different kinds of dressers, but most were simply made from pine planks by local carpenters and painted in the same livery as the rest of the kitchen furniture.

Claudia Kinmonth, a historian who specialises in Irish country furniture, is one of the speakers at the Irish Antique Dealers Fair, which runs at the RDS from September 23 to 25. "A good dresser should be, and probably was, painted," she says. "People couldn't afford new furniture so they used to upgrade it with paint."

Some were painted dark red to look like the mahogany furniture in the 'Big House'. Others were green and cream or pale blue and pink. "The only colour I hardly ever see is purple."

Although many dressers lost their paint to the 1970s trend for stripped pine, they are more valuable and more interesting with their original layers of paint intact.

An Irish country dresser dating from the 18th or 19th century can be a valuable piece of furniture. Fireside Antiques in America currently has an "Irish 19th century painted pine farmhouse dresser" on sale for $3,995 (€3,580), reduced from $4,995 (€4,476). Kinmonth agrees that it could be an authentic Irish piece, but that its real date is probably closer to 1900 than the listed 1850. "Dating country furniture is an uncertain art and dealers tend to err on the side of age." There's no record of what the dresser's original owner received for the piece. In Ireland, a 19th century dresser could fetch up to €600 to €800 at auction, although many sell for as little as €200.

If a dresser has wide backing boards, about 1ft wide, it may well be an old one. Other obvious signs of age include sledge feet, attached to the base of the dresser like the runs of a sleigh. These both spread the load of the dresser across an uneven kitchen floor and elevated it from the damp.

The inexpensive deal of which dressers were made was vulnerable to decay and the sledge feet could be replaced by a carpenter as required.

In general, the upper section of an Irish dresser was divided into shelves for display of both practical and precious items. Plates and platters were stacked vertically, leaning forward on the rail so they didn't gather dust; bowls were stored upside down; mugs and jugs hung from hooks. Until the 19th century, when mass produced ceramics became widely available, most Irish tableware was made of wood or pewter.

Crockery was known as 'delph' and considered so precious that an English traveller of the 1770s observed that broken cups were kept for display on Irish dressers, with the flaw turned inwards. English farming families were a bit more extravagant and threw out their broken crockery.

"Sometimes the display on farmhouse dressers doesn't change much over the generations," says Kinmonth, who has just visited an Irish farmhouse where the pewter plates have sat undisturbed since the 18th century. She has also discovered that some dressers have small holes in the shelf from which spoons dangled.

The lower half of the dresser was used for storage or, in one of the most interesting variations, a hen-coop. The hens would run around the farmyard during the day and be ushered into the kitchen at night to roost in the dresser.

A few years ago, a 19th century Irish chicken coop dresser sold for €3,200 at Cloverhill Antiques, in Cavan. "It came from the Donegal/Leitrim border," says auctioneer Victor Mee.

Claudia Kinmonth is one of the speakers at the Irish Antique Dealers Fair, which runs at the RDS from September 23 to 25 (iada.ie). She is a Visiting Research Fellow at NUI Galway and the author of Irish Country Furniture 1700-1950 (1993) and Irish Rural Interiors In Art (2006). Cloverhill Antiques are consigning for their annual period pine sale in mid-October, see cloverhillauctioneers.com.

In the salerooms


If you have an Irish painting or sculpture and are wondering if it's worth anything, there's an opportunity to run it by an expert at De Vere's valuation day, which takes place at The Ballymaloe Grainstore on Thursday, September 22 (2pm to 6pm).

There's no charge and no obligation to sell. The valuation will be followed by a talk given by John de Vere White on the best strategy for putting together a collection, including artists to follow and various pitfalls to avoid. This takes place at 7pm. The talk is free, but you have to book.

'Girl Looking At An Andy Warhol' by Robert Ballagh

The event will also include a preview of some of the works coming up for auction at De Vere's Irish Art Sale in Dublin, scheduled for November 22. Highlights of the sale include 'Gold Painting' by Patrick Scott (€25,000 to €35,000); 'Men Walking Dogs' by Sean Scully (€200,000 to €300,000) and 'Girl Looking At An Andy Warhol' by Robert Ballagh (above), est €10,000 to €15,000. See deveres.ie.


The 51st Irish Antique Dealers Fair takes place at the RDS from September 23 to 25, with an expected audience of more than 15,000 people and a full lecture programme.

At noon on Friday, September 23, Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register will outline the drama of recovering stolen art and antiques. On Sunday, also at noon, Dr Tom Sinsteden of the Dublin Assay Office will give a talk entitled 'Fakes and Forgeries of Irish Silver'.

At 4pm, Cathryn Day Carrigan will instruct the audience on 'Gilding And Establishing Authenticity Of Original Frames'. The show's star turn, the American interior designer Carleton Varney, will speak on Saturday at 2pm on 'Decoration Around Your Personality: From Dromoland Castle (1962 to the present)'. Admission to the fair, which includes the lecture programme, is €10 at the door. See iada.ie.


The first evening auction at Herman & Wilkinson, 161 Lower Rathmines Road, Dublin 6, takes place on Monday, September 19 at 6.30pm. This may be a handy one for those whose work commitments don't allow them to attend auctions during the day.

"Dublin had a huge tradition of evening auctions organised by well-established auctioneers like Morgan Scales in Rathmines, Gartlan's on the Quays, Mulvaney & Very in North Street, Sherry's in Baggot St and Ballycorus in Dundrum," says David Herman, auctioneer. "They left a huge vacuum in the market after they ceased in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We hope to recreate that tradition."

See hermanwilkinson.ie.


The next auction of Fine Jewellery, Watches & Silver at O'Reilly's will take place on September 21 at 1pm. Those that love emeralds will find much to interest them in this sale.

Pricier pieces include a Victorian emerald and diamond cluster pendant, with a single cushion shape Columbian emerald at centre surrounded by eight old cut diamonds (€14,000 to €16,000) and an emerald and diamond cluster ring (€12,000 to €16,000).

Smaller and quirkier pieces include some pretty examples of Victorian butterfly jewellery: a late Victorian gold, emerald, ruby, pearl and diamond butterfly scarf slide (€400 to €500) and a diamond, ruby and emerald butterfly pin (€100 to €150).

See oreillysfineart.com.

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