Treasures... Finding new purpose for old furniture
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
'A pot stand?" queried the woman loudly at the auction viewing, peering at the label on a long-legged mahogany cabinet that looked more like a bedside locker than something that you would use to display a pot-plant. The man beside her whispered something in her ear. Her eyebrows went up. "Oh… That sort of pot!"
In Georgian and Regency times, the pot stand was a common piece of dining room furniture. It would contain a chamber pot. After dinner, the ladies would retire from the dining room, leaving the gentlemen to drink their port, regale themselves with bawdy tales - and piss in the pot.
The pot would then be returned to the cupboard, full, to be dealt with by one of the servants. That was in rich homes. The poor just went out the door. Hence the phrase "they didn't have a pot to piss in".
Now, pot stands are just one example of the obscure objects to be found in the auction rooms. They were made for a redundant purpose. Nobody, not even the most nostalgic wants to revisit the days of the outdoor toilet (or the indoor dining room version!) but pot stands were as nicely made as any other piece of dining room furniture. "They were made to a quality that was accepted to be seen," says James O'Halloran of Adam's. There are a couple of chamber-pot related items at Adam's At Home sale, which takes place on Sunday at 11.30am. They include a Victorian mahogany pot cupboard (est €250 to €350). At 43cm high, it's the sort of piece that might be repurposed as a drinks cabinet (once you got over the association). Other pot stands were designed for the bedroom and include a George III mahogany and boxwood inlaid toilet commode (est €300 to €400) with a top that opens to reveal a ceramic wash basin. The chamber pot went in the cupboard section below.
"It's almost like a campaign piece," O'Halloran says. Nobody, he admits, is going to use it for its original purpose, but it would work well as "a bedside locker with a story to tell".
Some obscure objects are more easily repurposed than others. The canterbury, for example, was a low open-topped stand with slatted partitions. It was originally designed to hold sheet music. Few people now use sheet music and those that do tend to keep it in the piano stool, but the canterbury segued almost effortlessly into the 20th century as a magazine rack. The sale at Adam's includes a William IV rosewood canterbury (est €500 to €800) with four open spindle galleried sections and an open shelf below.
But, however easy it would be to assimilate a canterbury into your life, it would be much harder to find a use for a teapoy. There's one of these in the sale too: a Regency rosewood sarcophagus-shaped teapoy (est €500 to €800) on a 73cm high column. It belongs to an era where tea was incredibly valuable and kept in the drawing room, under lock and key. When the lady of the house wanted to serve tea, she would ring for hot water, have it unlocked, spoon the leaves in herself and then lock up again. If you lift the teapoy's lid, it reveals four caddys, each of which would have held a different type of tea. "Making tea was a big production," O'Halloran explains. "There was quite a bit of alchemy involved. A lot of teapoys had a mixing bowl so that Lady Muck could blend the tea to her taste." It's all a far cry from the Lyon's teabag. Now, people who have teapoys tend to use them for anything other than tea. "When I see them in people's houses they're invariably stuffed with paperwork," says O'Halloran. "Credit card bills, parking tickets… It's the only place for them!"
Sunday's sale also includes a George III mahogany and satinwood inlaid rent table (est €4,000 to €6,000), that served several purposes at once. It's of a type known as a drum table with a deep circular revolving top containing several drawers. These are labelled alphabetically, like a filing cabinet. When a tenant came to pay the rent, the estate manager would consult the records held under their name. Then, they would open the lid of the central well, and drop the money down. This formed a drop safe in which the money could be stored until the landlord unlocked the door in the base of the column. Unless you had the key, you couldn't get it out.
It's an imposing table and would once have formed the centrepiece of an estate-manager's office. "It's an attractive thing in itself," O'Halloran says. "It was made for utility but also to convey a sense of quality and style. You know very well who is in control." While it is at the same time too deep to be a dining table, the rent table would work well in an office, or in an entrance hall.
In the Salerooms
Traditionally, sculpture is a major investment - large to display and expensive to buy. This isn't always the case. The selection of Irish and international art to be auctioned by Whyte's this Monday includes some smaller works by well-known Irish artists. At five inches high, Oisín Kelly's bronze Family Group (est €500 to €700) is a tiny but distinctive work by a much-loved Irish sculptor.
Similarly, Imogen Stuart's exquisitely modelled 12-inch-high relief plaque of Saint Brigid Feeding the Poor (est €600 to €800, pictured). The piece is similar in design to Stuart's commission for the opening of Saint Brigid's National School, Castleknock, Dublin, installed on its gable wall in 1970.
On a larger scale, Niall O'Neill's patinated bronze Viking II (est. €4,000 to €6,000) measures 22 by 17 inches and reflects a different aspect of Irish heritage. There's also an interesting bronze, 21 inches high, by the British artist Charles Robinson Sykes. Called Spirit of Ecstasy (€2,500 t0 €3,000) it's an upscale version of the Rolls Royce hood ornament, also designed by Sykes. It's one of a number of such statues made for display in Rolls Royce showrooms.
The sale also includes major paintings by artists including Louis le Brocquy, Paul Henry, and Nathaniel Hone. These will be on view at the RDS, Ballsbridge Dublin from tomorrow until Monday, from 10am to 6pm daily. See whytes.ie
Do Irish artists see the world differently? The art on your walls quite literally shapes the world around you, so what do we see when we live with art from Ireland? These questions, and others, will be addressed by the art critic Gemma Tipton as part of a talk on Seeing Ourselves: Living with Irish Art, which will take place at de Vere's, 35 Kildare St, on Sunday, March 4 (12noon to 2pm). This event is part of a valuation day and will include a preview of some works that will go under the hammer at an April 17 auction. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a place.
The contents of a townhouse on Fitzwilliam Place form the backbone of the forthcoming At Home sale at Adam's, Stephen's Green, which takes place this Sunday at 11.30am. The house was developed in the 1980s and lavishly decorated in a period style (with most of the furnishings supplied by the antique dealers Chantal O'Sullivan and Gerald Kenyon). They include a splendid Irish Regency giltwood convex mirror, surmounted by an eagle with outspread wings (est €4,000 to €6,000) and an - also eagle-themed - console table with a white marble top raised on the carved giltwood bird (est €5,000 to €8,000). The sale also includes a spectacularly long William IV extending mahogany dining table. The sale is on public view today (10am to 5pm) and tomorrow (11am to 5pm) and the catalogue is online at adams.ie.