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Saturday 7 December 2019

Treasures: Investing in Christy's legacy

Surreal Composition With Floating Head by Christy Brown
Surreal Composition With Floating Head by Christy Brown
Christy Brown's painting of one of his sisters
Christy Brown painting of one of his sisters
Italian violin

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column.

Ah dearest heart if you will but wait

I'll become the ideal soulmate.

Nevermore causing you a moment's trouble

And I but a mere ectoplasmic bubble

Swaying above your gorgeous head

Gruff and garrulous and safely dead.

The poem comes from Christy Brown's 1977 collection, Of Snails And Skylarks. The theme is echoed in an undated watercolour, also by Brown, in which a disembodied head floats above a composition of tree-like forms.

It's called Surreal Composition with Floating Head. The picture is going under the hammer at Whyte's Irish & International Art auction on February 29. It's part of a collection of 13 paintings by Brown in the sale, reflecting a resurgence of interest in the artist and his work.

Christy Brown (1932-1981) was no stranger to the separation of mind and body. Born with cerebral palsy, he wrote, drew and painted using the toes of one foot. Now, he's largely remembered for the film, My Left Foot (1989). Daniel Day Lewis won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Brown in the film, as did Brenda Fricker, who played Brown's mother.

The movie, which was based on an autobiography Brown wrote when he was very young, has eclipsed his reputation. His autobiographical novel, Down All The Days (1970), was described by John Banville as "perhaps the best Irish novel since Ulysses".

Brown too had high hopes for the novel. "I think it will hit the world slap-bang between the bollicks." Now it's out of print. His paintings haven't been in the limelight either, but the auctioneers at Whyte's hope a revival of interest in Christy Brown will be reflected in a rise in prices.

The first signs of a renewed interest were triggered by an auction held by Bonham's of London in 2014, which included his personal and family archive of papers, paintings, books and personal effects.

"It was a really interesting collection - relatively complete - with a low reserve," says Simon O'Connor of the Little Museum of Dublin. Even so, the archive was beyond the Little Museum's (also little) accessions budget. Then, the day before the auction, a friend of the museum - Direct Medical - offered enough money to put in a serious bid. The National Library of Ireland came on board and purchased the archive with the Little Museum of Dublin for £37,500 (€48,575).

The archive became the basis of Dear Christy - The Christy Brown Collection, an exhibition that ran in the Little Museum in 2015 and then toured to the American Historical Society in London. Several works in the current sale at Whytes, which belong to a private collector, were also part of the exhibition.

"Christy Brown didn't want to be remembered as a miracle story. He wanted to be remembered as a serious artist," says O'Connor, who curated the exhibition.

Even a cursory glance through the archive shows there was a great deal more to Christy Brown than My Left Foot was able to portray.

The paintings on sale at Whyte's show an untutored style capable of capturing real character, particularly the tender and powerful portraits of his sisters (€1,000 to €1,500) and (€800 to €1,200).

A painting of rooftops, also by Brown, is estimated between €2,000 and €3,000.

Some of Brown's work was reproduced on Christmas cards - some, however, was not Christmas card material.

"There are some superb erotic drawings in the archive," says O'Connor. "We couldn't use them in the exhibition but they're in the National Library now."

Whyte's auction of Irish & International Art takes place on February 29 at the RDS, Anglesea Road, Ballsbridge, with full details on See also and

In the salerooms


Italian violin

An auction of Classical Convergences: Antiques, Art & Accent takes place at Sheppard's auction rooms in Durrow, Co Laois on March 1 and 2.

The highlights of the sale include an Italian violin dating from around 1850, probably made by Antonio Pelizon of Gorizia, near Venice and estimated between €16,000 and €24,000.

Among other potential top lots is a 19th century Buhl Bureau Mazarin (€20,000 to €30,000). This, in plain English, is a desk. A bureau Mazarin is a type of desk with two or three tiers of small drawers under the desktop and supported by eight legs with cross braces between them (this one has a total of seven drawers).

The type was named after Cardinal Mazarin, a 17th century regent of France, and originally designed to be used sitting sideways, with only one knee under the desk. This was to prevent one's sword from becoming entangled with the furniture.

The word Buhl (or Boulle) refers to an intricate pattern of decorative marquetry on the desk's surfaces.

The auction also includes a French Art Deco dressing table designed by Jules Leleu (1883-1961), estimated between €8,000 and €12,000.

Viewing takes place February 27-29 with full details on


De Vere's auction of Outstanding Irish Art will be conducted at The Physicians Hall, No 6 Kildare Street, on Monday, March 7 at 6pm.

The line-up shows no shortage of the 'big names' in Irish Art. A comical water colour (1897) by Jack B Yeats is entitled Hold Me Hat Till I Tear Him Un! (Let Me At Him). This study of an enduring Irish dynamic shows two men being restrained by their friends and is estimated between €10,000 and €15,000.

More conventionally, Roderick O'Connor's still life Nature Morte - Flowers On A Table (1910) shows a bowl of flowers on a table, along with other domestic objects and is estimated between €60,000 and €90,000.

Sir John Lavery's Steamers In The Harbour, St Jean de Luz (€15,000 to €20,000) was first exhibited in 1920 and was painted during the artist's first foray out of London since 1914.

Viewing is at 35 Kildare Street from March 4 with full details on


An auction conducted by Lev Mitchell & Sons will take place at The Glebe House, Dowth, Drogheda, Co Meath this Sunday, February 28 at 2pm.

The auction will include a portrait of Patrick James Carroll, founder of PJ Carroll's Tobacco of Dundalk, which was established in 1824. The portrait is unusual in that it is made from tobacco leaf, stem and plug pipe tobacco.

The auctioneers note the work was "compiled" by the sister of Brendan O'Dowda, the talented Dundalk tenor most famous for his popularisation of the songs of Percy French in the mid 20th century.

The auction also includes a selection of Carroll's memorabilia: a letter to Mr Carroll from the Duke of Leinster, thanking him for the gift of a packet of cigars, and a number of original photos.

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