Saturday 24 March 2018

Treasures: Plenty of money in beastie boys

Frog by Frederick Vodrey
Frog by Frederick Vodrey
A bird by Martin Brothers
Ruby cabochon

I've lost my heart to an ugly bird. My new friend is the size of a small parrot with a head like a crow, a knowing leer and a twinkle in its eye.

Made by the Martin Brothers of London in 1895, the bird is a ceramic tobacco jar with a removable head. It will go under the hammer as part of Adam's auction of Fine Period Interiors this Sunday, where it's estimated to sell for between €15,000 and €25,000. That's a lot of money for an ugly bird.

The work of the Martin Brothers is famously, expensively grotesque. It's also pretty rare in Ireland. Because I'd never seen one of their ceramic birds first hand, I was unprepared for how much I liked it. Underneath the ugliness lies a complexity of human characteristics, exquisitely modelled and sympathetically observed. This is a very engaging fowl.

The story of the Martin Brothers could have come straight out of a novel by Charles Dickens. The eldest brother was Robert Wallace Martin, known as Wallace. He was the genius responsible for modelling the birds.

Wallace had trained as a stone carver, and later as a sculptor, and you can see the influence of Gothic gargoyles in his work.

Their studio was founded in Fulham in 1873. It was an eccentric undertaking, even by Victorian standards.

Wallace's brother Walter fired the kiln, Edwin decorated the work, and the youngest brother Charles chaotically ran the shop.

They never had enough money. Their work was salt-fired, a hair-raising process completed twice a year, involving stress and the burning of furniture. It has been said that the best pieces were hidden under the floorboard shop by Charles, who thought them too good to sell. Charles lost his fragile sanity after their shop burnt down by accident, with much loss of stock. He was committed to an asylum in 1909.

The remaining brothers were not quite fit for the real world either. They were "reluctant to part with the treasures they have made; they are jealous of other ownership even after they are convinced of its worthiness", wrote the British author Holbrook Jackson in 1912.

From the outset, work by the Martin Brothers was collectible with early enthusiasts including Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and Queen Victoria. Wallace, having lived hand-to-mouth for most of his life, wept to see one of his pieces sell for £50 in Sotheby's in 1921.

The Martin Brothers did not only make birds, although these have always been the most coveted of their pieces. They also made gargoyles, spoon warmers (insert the spoon into the gaping mouth of a beastie), and both decorated and plain pots.

Now, their work is extremely valuable. Last December, a bird jar and cover by the Martin Brothers sold at Phillips auction in New York for $233,000 (€206,825). The bird was modelled as a caricature of the Victorian politician Benjamin Disraeli. A "grotesque and smiling armadillo" sold at the same auction for $143,000 (€126,953) and a "bandersnatch" spoon warmer for $106,250 (€94,314).

Several lesser birds from the same workshop sold in the range of €50,000 apiece. Not all pieces by the Martin Brothers, though, command such high prices. A plain gourd-shaped pot can sell for less than €500.

And as I said earlier, sadly the work of the Martin Brothers is rarely seen in Ireland. "Ceramics tend not to travel too far from the place where they are made," says Peter Francis, an antique dealer with an expertise in Irish ceramics. "In 30 years of dealing I've only seen four pieces of Martinware." One of these was a small vase decorated with incised blue birds.

The bird currently on sale at Adam's is a rare migrant and came to Ireland as part of a 1950s inheritance from a London relative.

The Martin Brothers were unique and there is no real Irish equivalent, but there was a potter working in 19th century Dublin who made grotesque animals. Frederick Vodrey, best known for his finely glazed Arts and Crafts vases, also made fabulous beasties. "They're a complete fabrication - not like any real animal," says Francis.

While a Vodrey beastie won't reach the dizzying prices of a Martinware piece, it will be of interest to collectors. In 2010, a frog-shaped holder (18cm by 15cm, pictured left) by Vodrey of Dublin sold at Whyte's for €1,000. Such pieces are by no means common and will be marked, although Vodrey's marking is discrete and could require an expert eye.

Adam's Fine Period Interiors sale takes place on Sunday at 12pm with full details on

See also Peter Francis can be contacted through Agar Antiques, Saintfield, Ballynahinch, 048 9751 1214.

In the salerooms


A well-preserved and almost complete uniform which belonged to Sir William Watson, Deputy Lieutenant of the City of Dublin, is going under the hammer at Victor Mitchell's Spring Antiques & Collectibles Auction on Wednesday.

Watson was the manager of the inland department of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (1822-1922), which was responsible for carrying the mail between Ireland and Britain for more than 70 years. Two of its steamers, including the RMS Leinster, were sunk by the Germans during the First World War. Sir Watson was known for his patented improvements in the construction of seagoing ships and boats for inland waterways.

His early 20th century Deputy Lieutenant's uniform includes a double-breasted navy velvet coatee jacket with silver plate and marquisate buttons; a pair of epaulettes, with silver plated bodies and worked with silver threads and beads, each mounted with a sprig of shamrock in gold thread; a companion navy velvet waistcoat; and a beaver bi-corn hat without its feather flume. The lot is estimated at €800.

Other items in the sale include many of Sir William Watson's college books. For further details see


A painting that provides a rare glimpse into rural Irish life, Portrait Of An Irish Farmer (1871), is currently up for auction at Morgan O'Driscoll's Off The Wall online art auction.

In the 19th century, portrait painting was largely the preserve of the aristocracy and portraits of ordinary rural working-people were rare, but the work of the Bandon-born Charles Henry Cook (1830-1906) is an exception and reflects a fascination with country life and people. The painting is estimated to sell between €1,200 and €1,600.

Other paintings of interest in the sale include High Road by Martin Gale €2,000 to €3,000 and Race To The Finish by Liam O'Neill €9,000 to €12,000. Bidding continues until February 22, with full details on


Ruby cabochon

The next auction of fine jewellery and silver takes place at O'Reilly's of Dublin on Wednesday at 1pm.

It will include a number of examples of cabochon stones. Cabochon stones are domed and polished so they reflect light in a soft glow, rather than sparkling. They are most often found as ovals and their colour is more opaque than a faceted version of the same gemstone.

"Iconic jewellers like Bulgari and David Webb are known for using cabochon cut stones throughout their collections," says Lola Hynes of O'Reilly's.

Examples of cabochon cuts at the current auction include a Cartier cabochon ruby (above) and diamond cluster ring in yellow gold (€3,200 to €3,800); a cabochon sapphire and diamond cluster ring in white gold (€400 to €500); and a cabochon emerald and diamond cluster ring mounted in white gold (€800 to €1,200).

Full details are on

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