Treasures: Hunting fantastic Mr Fox
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
'Carriages were drawn up on all the roads, and horses were clustered on each side of the brook, and the hounds sat stately on their haunches, and there was a hum of merry voices, and the bright colouring of pink coats, and the sheen of ladies' hunting toilettes, and that mingled look of business and amusement which is so peculiar to our national sports."
Such fox hunting scenes, so engagingly described by the 19th century novelist, Anthony Trollope, are familiar even to those who have never been to a meet. Fox hunting, in all its aspects, was painted, drawn, etched, sketched and caricatured by the artists of the day. These hung in the corridors and drawing rooms of country houses. Now, they're finding their way into antiques fairs and auction rooms.
The catalogue cover for Adam's forthcoming auction of A Distinguished Ulster Collection, which takes place on April 6, features a Victorian portrait of John Gregson on a hunter with the Braham Moor Hunt. The painting is attributed to William Osborne RHA and estimated to sell between €2,000 and €3,000.
For the landed gentry, a portrait on one's hunter was a formal display of power. "It's a status sort of thing," says Nick Nicholson of Adam's. "They used it to show that they meant business." Another painting in the same auction, by Valentine Garland (1868-1914), shows a more sentimental depiction of hounds and puppies in the kennel. "When they start painting to dogs, it starts to be more intimate. They got very fond of these animals. They probably had paintings like these in their studies, and the big one in the dining room."
Fox hunting is an English sport at which the Irish excelled and that filtered down from the landed gentry to the wider farming community. Trollope, who took up fox hunting in Ireland where he worked for the post office, described the social mix: "Attorneys, country bankers, bakers, innkeepers, auctioneers, graziers, builders, retired officers, judges home from India, barristers who take weekly holidays, stockbrokers, newspaper editors, artists and sailors."
In Ireland, the sport was identified as a bastion of landlordism and disrupted by the Land League in the late 1880s. By the end of the First World War, with the dispersal of the great estates, many of the old family packs had been handed over to committees of local farmers.
In 1911, Somerville and Ross, whose novels reflect a lifelong passion for hunting, described a rider dashing "through a farmyard with hens and geese in shrieking flight around him, cur dogs barking hysterically, and, somewhere in the background, a mother slamming a half-door upon a flock of children." A first edition of their humorous hunting alphabet, Slipper's ABC of Fox Hunting (1903), could fetch up to €400.
Antique fox hunting memorabilia has a wide appeal. "No matter where you go in the country you'll have collectors with an interest in the horse and hounds," says Sandra Hogan, an antique dealer. "People love the hunting prints. They bring you back to your childhood." Many of the prints are funny, showing the wry humour necessitated by a sport that ended, so often, in mud, blood and disappointment.
Objects used as part of the hunt itself are popular with collectors. The hunting horn, used to communicate with the hounds, is often used as a decorative object. "You're taking between €45 and €75 for a copper and brass hunting horn and €200 to €300 for a silver one," Hogan says.
Stirrup cups in silver or ceramic are collectible. Often made in the shape of a fox or hound, they lack a base. Riders drank from them on horseback and passed them back to the bearer (the experience of hunting was much enhanced by a bracing drink). Hogan also sells wearable items like stock pins, used to keep the neck-tie in place. "I sold a lovely one a few weeks ago, with a fox on a hunting horn in nine-carat gold for €125."
Hogan finds that many people buy antique riding crops to use on the hunting field, but that some of her customers surprise her. "I once sold a silver mounted riding whip to a lady who had a totally different reason for buying it - I'm not even going to tell you what it was. She was in her 80s too!"
Hunting has always had its saucy aspect. The Empress of Austria (1837-1898) was in the habit of travelling to Ireland for a good ride. She was escorted on the hunting field by the dashing 'Bay' Middleton, one of the finest huntsmen of his generation. The Empress had a habit of leaving her riding whips behind. One of these, abandoned in Meath, sold at Adam's for €37,000 in 2010. The whip had an imperial crest on the silver band and a pommel in the shape of an imperial crown.
"We clear a lot of country houses, so there is always an aspect of hunting memorabilia," says the auctioneer George Mealy.
Mealy's Spring Sale this week included several hunting prints and a pair of late 18th or 19th century hunting scenes. One of these, with a large house painted in the background, indicated the status of family for whom it was painted. Unlike more recent hunting scenes, which tend to shy away from the gory aspect of the sport, the painting pulled no punches in showing the demise of the unfortunate fox.
See mealys.ie and adams.ie.