Treasures: Putting value on sentiment
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
When someone describes a painting as "sentimental" they're usually trying to insult it. If they call it "charming", it's a thinly-veiled jibe. The Victorians loved pretty pictures of cottage gardens and children at play, but this type of artwork went out of fashion in the early 1900s and stayed there. Now, it's a love that dare not speak its name.
Obviously, people still enjoy romanticised pictures of children playing with puppies and kittens, but they tend to keep it on the down low. The art world sneers at sentiment. But don't let yourself be cutesy-shamed into dumping your unfashionable Victorian paintings. They can fetch good money at auction.
"Victorian paintings are not the sort of thing that people want to hang in contemporary apartments," says Ronan Flanagan of Adam's. "Traditionalists and collectors like them. I'm a bit of a fan myself, to be honest. I think they're really sweet."
The phrase "19th century painting" is often stretched to include early 20th century pictures in the traditional style. There's a pair of these at Adam's At Home auction, which takes place on Sunday. The Little Gardeners (1919) shows children with wheelbarrow and watering can in a flower-strewn courtyard, surrounded by thatched, half-timbered houses. In Feeding Kitty (1919) an infant offers a saucer of milk to a kitten. The setting is a cottage doorway, framed by hollyhocks. The paintings are by Frank Moss Bennett (1874-1953) and for sale as a single lot. The estimate is €3,000 to €5,000.
So how do you tell if a schmaltzy Victorian painting is going to be a contender at auction? "It's mostly down to the name of the artist," Flanagan explains. One of Frank Moss Bennett's paintings realised £50,900 (€58,192) at Christie's in 2007. A track record like this makes the auctioneers prick up their ears. Also at Adam's Lady with parasol, with cat by feet (1893) by Victor Gilbert is estimated to sell between €6,000 and €10,000. It belongs to the pretty-girl-with-a-kitten genre but the artist, being Parisian, makes the sentimental subject matter look stylish. It's also skilfully executed.
Occasionally, a really great picture by a lesser-known painter can do well at auction. "If your painting is not by a famous artist, don't be discouraged," says Charlie O'Brien, Bonhams' specialist in 19th-century painting. "It's not all about the name." This March, Butterflies by the American artist Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson (1847-1906) sold at Bonhams for £70,000 (€81,074).
The adorable painting of a young girl feeding butterflies belonged to a family in Yorkshire where Dodson was not particularly well known. "It turns out that she was a big cheese in Philadelphia!" The auctioneers knew that the painting was valuable - its quality is obvious at a glance - and they had estimated that it would sell between £7,000 (€7,851) and £10,000 (€11,216). "Most people know roughly what a painting is worth," says O'Brien. "But they don't know what it will be worth on the day."
That said, O'Brien admits that auctioneers spend most of their time disappointing people. "Nineteenth century paintings tend to be narrative or landscapes," he says. From the sheer volume of muddy-looking scenes of lakes with cattle gathered around them that can be found in auction rooms around the country, this kind of subject matter must have been of interest in the 19th century. Now, it's hard to see how. Many of them seem as dull as ditchwater.
Apart from landscapes, the Victorians also loved paintings that told a story. In the forthcoming sale at Adam's Amorous Rivalry (est €5,000 to €8,000) by the 19th-century Italian artist Ernesto Torrini is fairly self explanatory. It's also funny. Other narrative paintings dealt with sadder topics. "Establishment artists used their pictures as a form of social commentary," O'Brien explains. "They painted the suffering poor. That was real life, and it's nice to see those narratives, but people don't want to buy a picture of a child lying ill in bed." The Victorians were prudish about showing their ankles, but they were much less squeamish about maudlin death scenes than we are now. For many, this is the point at which sentimentality becomes hard to handle.
But why do we hate sentimentality so much? In 2012, Victorian Sentimentality, an exhibition at Tate Britain raised the question: "Why has sentimentality come to seem so unforgivable?" Snobbery, the curators included, is partly to blame. Sentimental art has a wide appeal and the art world tends to look down its nose at populist themes. They also suggested that "the emotive themes that recur in sentimental art - childhood and especially child death, forsaken love, animals, sunsets, heart-rending stories and pathetic scenes - now seem hackneyed."
Sentimental art - which makes it pretty obvious what we're meant to be feeling - makes people feel manipulated. The poet Keats had it nailed. "We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us," he wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818. It makes us feel that we're being "got at".
Sometimes artists used the title to hammer home their point. A painting of a child flower-seller by Alexander Mark Rossi (1840-1916) sold at Adam's for €1,800 in September 2016. Its title was Only a Penny. Just in case you didn't know you were meant to feel sorry for her.
On the other hand, when you're in the mood for puppies and cushions, a sweet Victorian painting can be just the thing.
See adams.ie and bonhams.com.
In the Salerooms
If your bucket list includes owning a genuine George III Irish mahogany log bucket, look no further than Adam's At Home auction, which takes place on Sunday at noon. A testimony to the almost forgotten art of coopering, the bucket (est €1,000 to €1,500) has brass banding, a swing handle, and a removable inner brass bucket liner. At 40cm high, it's smaller than the legendary George III mahogany and brass bound peat bucket that sold for €145,000 at Adam's in 2005. Those were the days! While it can't be said that the bottom has fallen out of buckets, it's recognised that such prices are not likely again. Wine buffs with deep pockets may be interested in a lead-lined George III Irish mahogany cellarette (est €1,000 to €2,000) with lion's mask, ring handles, which stands on four carved feet. Potential highlights include a Killarney arbutus and marquetry inlaid folding top card table (pictured, est €4,000 to €6,000). The inlaid detailing shows a picture of Muckross Abbey within a border of acorns and foliage and opens to reveal a backgammon and chess board. See adams.ie.
Though it looks like a simple portrait of a drinking man, Sean Keating's painting Blessed be Wine (est €30,000 to €50,000) can be seen as a pointed political dig. That's according to his biographer, Dr Eimear O'Connor who sees the painting as casting a "critical eye at what the artist termed 'governmental departmentalism'". Its background shows the cupola of the building that became home of the executive council of the new Irish Free State in 1922. The painting is one of those on sale at de Vere's Irish Art Auction, which takes place at the Royal College of Physicians, 6 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, on November 21 at 6pm. Viewing is at de Vere's Gallery at 35 Kildare Street. The sale also includes two significant paintings by Jack B Yeats. Muldoon & Rattlesnake (est €80,000 to €120,000) shows horse and jockey in conversation with a supporter on Drumcliffe Strand, in Sligo; and The Night Has Gone (est €250,000 to €350,000) shows the artist walking alone in a dawn landscape. It's an emotive picture and was painted in 1947 in the weeks following the death of his wife, Cottie Yeats. See deveres.ie.
If you're in the market for 18th century swords, American civil war revolvers, or even a letter from Queen Elizabeth II, these are some of the more unusual lots at the next Antique & Fine Art Auction by Lev Mitchell & Sons. The auction will take place at Glebe House, Dowth, Drogheda, this Sunday at 1pm. It will include a large selection of collectibles ranging from a bookcase formerly owned by the Briscoe family, well-known for their political involvement, to brass taps from Drogheda's Cairns brewery. Viewing is today and tomorrow, with full details on milltownauctionrooms.com.