Thursday 23 November 2017

Treasures: Garden of antiquities

Ireland's antiques, fine arts and collectables column

Antique ornamentation: Marble statue of Apollo
Antique ornamentation: Marble statue of Apollo
18th-century carved limestone lion

Eleanor Flegg

'So, there's this guy holding an orb and he's got no head," says Philip Sheppard, auctioneer. The headless bloke in question is a carved stone sculpture, dating from the 18th century or possibly even earlier. Going by the way that the figure is dressed, the auctioneers guess that it was a sculpture of an important ecclesiastical figure. But they can't work out who this mysterious churchman was, or how he lost his head. "He's not telling us a lot," Sheppard says. "We've done a bit of research but we just aren't making any headway." No pun intended.

The unidentified headless sculpture (est. €800 to €1,200) is for sale as part of Sheppard's auction of Garden Sculpture & Architectural Ornaments, on display in Gash Gardens, Castletown, Co Laois, this weekend. Pieces range from a lifelike modern bronze pig (est. €1,400 to €1,800) to an adorable 18-century carved limestone lion (est. €4,000 to €6,000, pictured, inset).

Stone lions tend to be a bit generic (not to say dull) but this one is a bit of a pussy cat and comes from the Crofton Estate in Co Roscommon. Historically, it would probably have had a partner. Typically, stone lions came in pairs to guard the entrance of grand country houses. Their symbolism was part of the 18th-century revival of all things Classical, with a bit of British imperialism thrown into the mix. There are other lions in the sale, including a pompous version in Victorian moulded stone (est. €300 to €500).

Artificial stone, known as Coade stone, was developed in the 1770s by an enterprising British businesswoman called Eleanor Coade. From that time on, Neoclassical sculptures and garden ornaments could be moulded, instead of laboriously carved from stone. Before this, the best way of getting your garden ornaments was to have them shipped home from Italy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the sons of the rich were often packed off to Europe on a very expensive holiday known as the Grand Tour. It was intended to complete their education, but it was also a shopping trip.

One of these young bucks clearly fell in love with a marble statue of Hope as a teenage girl and arranged to have her shipped home, probably from Italy. The 18th-century statue (est. €2,000 to €3,000) has lost an arm and part of her nose along the way (but she's still very pretty). "We didn't have any problem identifying her as Hope because she's holding an anchor," says Sheppard. Her missing arm would have been raised, with a finger pointing at the sky. Symbolic, but vulnerable to breakages.

Carved sculptures tend to be more finely detailed, and more expensive, than those cast from moulded stone. A carved marble statue of Apollo (est. €4,000 to €6,000, pictured main), almost two metres high, would need a large garden to do it justice, but there are many other pieces on a smaller scale.

Classical urns can be used as planters but their traditional purpose was to create a focal point to draw the eye. Sometimes a pair of urns was used to mark the top of a flight of steps.

Early garden seating was made of stone or wrought iron, beaten into shape by a blacksmith. Then, in the 19th century, new industrial techniques for making cast iron paved the way for a new generation of garden furniture.

"By the 1840s, the leading manufacturer of garden benches was the Coalbrookdale foundry in Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire, offering slatted seats in ever more florid designs," writes Antony Woodward, author of The Garden in the Clouds. "Names such as 'Convolvulus', 'Nasturtium', 'Oak and Ivy Leaf', 'Lily of the Valley' and 'Passion Flower' give some idea."

The flowery Coalbrookdale style was copied widely and there are some good examples at Mealy's Summer Sale, which also takes place on 30 May. A pair of cast iron garden benches (est. €1,500 to €2,500) shows just how elaborate the style could be. Both the back rest and the seat are covered in a mass of scrolling lilies and foliage, the arm terminals are in the shape of eagle heads and the bench is raised on front paw feet and scroll rear legs. Both benches are painted green, 167cm wide and extremely heavy. "You wouldn't be moving them around much," says George Mealy. "It takes four people to lift each one."

Historic garden seating can be uncomfortable to the point that some historians have suggested that it was designed to denote the idea of sitting, rather than actually sitting on them, but Mealy swears that this pair is perfectly comfortable. "There's a bit of bounce to the seat. You'd spend an afternoon on one of them no problem." He also points out a white cast iron garden bench in an unusual Gothic Revival style (€1,000 to €1,500). Like the others, it's very heavy indeed. "You wouldn't worry about them getting stolen either," Mealy says.

Sheppard's Garden Sculpture and Architectural Ornaments auction is on view at Gash Gardens at Castletown, Co Laois, from Saturday May 27 to Monday 29 (9am-5pm each day). Admission is €10 per person. The auction takes place in Sheppard's Irish Auction House, Durrow, Co Laois, on Tuesday May 30 at 10.30am.

Mealy's Summer Sale is on view in their Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, saleroom on Sunday May 28 (12-5pm) and Monday May 29 (10am-5pm). The auction takes place on Tuesday May 30 at 11am.

See and

In the salerooms


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An Important Irish Art Auction will be held on Wednesday May 31 at 6pm. Big-ticket items include Sean Keating's 'The Turf Quay, Aran' (est. €40,000 to €60,000). See

sean eacrett auctions

The entire contents of the former Central Bank on Dame Street will be auctioned in The Heritage Resort, Portarlington, Co Laois, on Tuesday May 30. Viewing for the auction will take place from today. See

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