Life Home & Garden

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Treasures: Picture dealer's swansong for collectors of bird prints


In the frame: Bird and Butterfly with Floral Still Life, hand-coloured a la poupée print, in the manner of Samuel Dixon
In the frame: Bird and Butterfly with Floral Still Life, hand-coloured a la poupée print, in the manner of Samuel Dixon
Bird and Butterfly with Floral Still Life, hand-coloured a la poupée print, in the manner of Samuel Dixon

Eleanor Flegg

People go nuts over bird prints. In the world of collectables, the holy of holies is The Birds of America; from Original Drawings by John James Audubon (1785-1851). It comes in four volumes, published in London between 1827-1838, with 400 hand-coloured illustrations of 1,037 birds. Less than 200 copies were printed and only 120 are known to survive intact, mostly in libraries and museums. A handful remain in private collections. One of these sold at Christie's, New York, for $9.650m (around €8,341,614) on June 14 last. In 2010, another sold for £7.3m at Sotheby's, London, breaking the world record for a single book sold at auction.

In 2004, The Birds of America inspired a spectacularly badly-planned heist. Heavily influenced by films like Ocean's Eleven, four students decided to steal the folios from the Special Collections Library at Transylvania University, Kentucky. The escapade quickly descended into farce. The heisters - using code names like Mr Black and Mr Pink - stole the books. They then tried, unsuccessfully, to sell them through Christie's. It hadn't occurred to them that an auction house would ask about provenance. In the end, the FBI traced the thieves through an email address. Known as the Transy Book Heist, it's now the subject of a movie: American Animals (2018).

But back to Audubon. He was an early naturalist, an acute observer, and a brilliant illustrator. And he was absolutely crazy about birds. "I felt an intimacy with them... bordering on frenzy [that] must accompany my steps through life," he said. Through the project, he identified 25 new species and inspired many other naturalists.

Earlier prints of birds were less naturalistic, more stylised, and made no attempt at ornithological study. More than 100 years before Audubon, in 1748, Samuel Dixon established his business as a picture dealer and painter on Capel Street, Dublin. He began by creating prints of flowers and branched out into birds. Dixon wasn't hung up on originality - he took his inspiration directly from A Natural History of Uncommon Birds and of Some Other Rare and Undescribed Animals (1743 to 1751) by George Edwards - but fashionable society didn't seem to mind.

The prints were sold in a black Japanned frame, with the first in the set bearing a label carrying a dedication affixed to the back. In 1755, Dixon produced his last set of prints. These again depicted birds, but each print was dedicated to a particular patron - thus underscoring his connections with high-ranking clients. "They were sold as decorative items - completely framed - and the people who collect them really like to have the labels on the back," says Stuart Cole of Adams. "Collectors like that element to be complete." Prints by Dixon are very rare and a full set of 12 - with correctly labelled frames - would fetch between €50,000 and €70,000.

A number of prints "in the manner of" Samuel Dixon sold at Adam's Country House Collections auction on October 16. The most attractive of these was a pair of hand-coloured la poupée prints of flowers, butterflies and birds. The pair (est. €2,000 to €3,000) sold for €2,000.

"I think that they were absolutely Dixon's pattern," says Cole. "If they had the frames and the labels they would have been worth €5,000 each."

Another possibility is that the prints were made in Dixon's studio by his apprentice Gustavus Hamilton (1739-1775). Hamilton went on to become a fashionable miniaturist and still-life painter. In 2008, a set of four of his gouache flower paintings (each 31.3cm x 34cm) sold at Adam's for €46,000.

Look closely at the prints, and you'll see that parts of the picture stand out in low relief. Dixon's prints were made by a process called basso relievo, which involves using heated copper plates to impress the image into a piece of paper from behind. The design was lifted out from the page and later hand-coloured in gouache by apprentices like Hamilton. Dixon claimed that he invented the technique, which is unlikely, but he certainly pioneered its use in Ireland.

Dixon's prints were widely copied, which made him cross. In October 1750, he complained in Faulkner's Dublin Journal that: "… foreign bird species in basso relievo which are being hawked about the city by a woman." His increasing intricate labels were an attempt to foil the counterfeiting. This, Cole observes, is ironic, given that Dixon's own works so strongly resembled those from Edwards' book.

In 1776, to the chagrin of his aristocratic clients, Dixon went off to establish a linen business in Co Kildare. His imitators continued to make prints in his manner. There were two more pairs of basso relievo bird prints at Adam's, which sold for €2,000 and €2,200 respectively. Whether these were Dixon's own work, or that of his moonlighting apprentice, or some of the clever fakes, is still a mystery.

If they're genuine, somebody got a bargain, even though they lack the labelling. But, even if they're knock-offs, they're still genuine 18th-century prints with an even better story behind them.

For full results see

In the salerooms

Morgan O’Driscoll

Anyone who turns up to the Morgan O’Driscoll auction in the hope of seeing a self-shredding Banksy print may well be disappointed. Earlier this month, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon self-destructed, moments after it sold at Sotheby’s, London, for £860,000 (€973,747). A shredder, concealed in the frame, destroyed half the print and then apparently malfunctioned, leaving the top half intact. There was high drama at the time, but everyone made a quick recovery.Pest Control, Banksy’s authentication body, retitled the work, Love is in the Bin. Sotheby’s then sold it, for the same price, to a collector who wanted “her own piece of art history”.

Now, a signed Banksy screenprint Laugh Now (2003) (est. €30,000 to €40,000) is going under the hammer at Morgan O’Driscoll’s November 12 sale. “There’s no shredder included!” says the auctioneer, sounding a little disappointed. “We’ve checked the frame carefully.” Other pieces of art history in the sale include a signed Andy Warhol screenprint, Golden Mushroom, from Campbell’s Soup II, 1969 (est. €20,000 to €30,000). There’s also an interesting Victorian painting in the Classical style, A Greek Ode (est. €12,000-€18,000), by the almost-forgotten Cork artist Alfred W Elmore (1815-1881), whose work is currently being re-discovered is also up for sale. The auction takes place at 6pm in the RHA, Dublin, with advance viewings in Cork, London, and Dublin. See


The Armada Table will remain in the country but its new owner remains anonymous and has no immediate plans to put the table on public display. The table a composite piece that includes parts of a shipwrecked Spanish Armada galleon,almost doubled its upper estimate when it sold for €360,000 at Adam’s on October 16. Other excitements included the sale of an Irish George III mahogany breakfront bookcase, once owned by Bram Stoker’s brother, Dr Thornley Stoker, and part of the original furnishings of Ely House. The bookcase, which has Gothic lancet glazing bars,  multiplied its upper estimate of €20,000 when it sold for €75,000. For full results see

Antiques & Vintage Fairs

The National Antiques, Art and Vintage Fair will run on November 10 & 11 in the South Court Hotel, Limerick, with more than 80 stands. “Our promise is this fair will knock your socks off no matter what your interest may be,” boasts Robin O’Donnell of Hibernian Antique Fairs. Expect objects for all budgets and from all ends of the country with exhibitors including Black Horse Antique Furniture from County Kerry; Moycullen Antique Furniture from County Galway; Desmond Gallagher from Belfast; Martin Maguire Antique Furniture from County Mayo; and Greene’s Antique Furniture from Drogheda.This year, though, the event is tinged with sadness. O’Donnell paid tribute to the “incredibly kind” Fidelma O’Faherty of West Gate Antiques, Clonmel, who passed away this month: “I am aware of her incredible kind and loving nature. I am aware of her can-do attitude and I am aware of her thinking that you bounce back again, and just get over the past, and move on with the future.”

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