Treasures: Rediscovered artist shatters stained-glass ceiling
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
Margaret Clarke is having a moment in the sale rooms right now and it's well deserved. She spent a significant part of her life picking up the pieces after the long illness and the untimely death of her husband, the stained glass artist Harry Clarke. Over time, her reputation has been eclipsed by his. In itself, this is not astonishing. She wouldn't be the first female artist to be overshadowed by a famous husband and Harry's work is spectacular. But Margaret's work is incisive, insightful and strong. She is so much more than Mrs Harry Clarke.
A quiet domestic scene by Margaret Clarke is coming up for auction at Whyte's Irish and International Art auction on March 4 (Lot 13: est. €20,000 to €30,000). It shows two girls, one reading in an armchair and the other playing with a doll, with a bookshelf in the background. The painting is neither signed nor dated but the art historian Carla Briggs suggests that the girl shown in profile could be Clarke's daughter Ann (b.1917), which would date the painting to the late 1920s.
Until recently, Margaret Clarke's work was not well known. The last time that Double Portrait of Two Girls went under the hammer was in 2009 as part of the estate of Dr Karl Mullen, a consultant gynaecologist most famous for captaining the Irish rugby team to victory in the Five Nations championship of 1948. He failed to leave a note as to who painted the charming portrait of two young girls and the auctioneers at Mealy's, who conducted the sale, attributed the painting to "Circle of Sir William Orpen (1878-1931)."
It wasn't a bad guess. Margaret Clarke (neé Crilley) studied under Orpen at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and her work is visibly influenced by his. Clarke's debt to her teacher is acknowledged in the painting by the name "Orpen" on a buff coloured book on the top shelf, but she left a much bigger clue on the library floor. As Briggs describes: "The russet volume in the foreground is a copy of Lennox Robinson's play Crabbed Youth and Age, first performed in 1922 and first published by GP Putman's Sons in 1924. The cover illustration, of a dramatist manipulating his puppet characters, is by Harry Clarke." Big clue!
Some of the bidders recognised that the painting was by Margaret Clarke and it sold for its upper estimate of €10,000 in 2009. Now, following a 2017 exhibition of her work in the National Gallery of Ireland, her star is rising. "She isn't forgotten anymore," says Ian Whyte, auctioneer. "The last time we had one of her paintings at auction we put it in at a hefty estimate and it went for much more than we expected."
That was November 2018, when Margaret Clarke's Self Portrait (c.1914) sold for €48,000 at Whyte's sale of Important Irish Art, far exceeding the €20,000 to €30,000 estimate. In the portrait, she carries an artist's palette and gazes over it, meeting the eyes of the viewer so that the painting feels like an encounter. Behind her, you can see the loosely indicated pattern of wallpaper. She has painted herself as an artist, but the setting is domestic and her half-smile indicates that the irony of this isn't lost on her.
There is plenty of hidden humour in her work. One of the funniest, Airman of Inisheer, sold at Whyte's for €7,500 in November 2015. It shows an aviator in full leather garb surrounded by women in traditional Aran island dress, trying out the spinning wheel by the roadside, thatched cottages beyond. The aeroplane is parked in a field between dry stone walls and sheep look on with interest. It's probably an imagined scene, collated from Clarke's memories of summers spent sketching on Inisheer and the story of the British aviators, Alcock and Brown, who landed their first trans-Atlantic flight in Connemara bog in 1919.
Margaret married Harry Clarke in 1914 and had three children between 1917 and 1920. In the midst of this, she continued to paint. In 1927, she became the second female artist to be elected a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). She was one of three Irish artists - the others were Seán Keating and James Humbert Craig - selected to design posters for The Empire Marketing Board (EMB), a body established in 1926 to boost trade within the British Empire, of which Ireland was still part. The doll with a blue and pink dress and blue hair bow in Double Portrait of Two Girls also makes an appearance in the EMB poster The English Breakfast (1930). The poster shows a family at the breakfast table and carries the caption: "Irish Free State butter, eggs and bacon for our breakfasts."
By then, her husband's health was deteriorating. Harry Clarke died of tuberculosis in 1931 and, after his death, Margaret took over the management of the Harry Clarke Studios on North Frederick Street. Her studio was above the workshop. She continued to paint until the 1950s but it can't have been easy. It's clear, from her work, that she had other things on her mind. Had she been born a man, and married a supportive wife, her career might have followed a different path.
Whyte's Irish and International Art auction takes place on March 4 at 6pm. See whytes.ie.
In the Salerooms
Mike Todd was an American theatre and film producer, best known for his 1956 production of Around the World in 80 Days. He is also famous for being the only one of Elizabeth Taylor’s seven husbands that she didn’t divorce. Maybe she didn’t have time — Todd died in a flying accident just a year after their marriage. Like his hero, Phileas Fogg, Todd travelled in style. Three of his Louis Vuitton canvas steamer trunks (Lots 443-5: est. €2,000 to €3,000 each) are coming up for auction at Sheppard’s Paradigms & the Unexpected sale on Tuesday and Wednesday. The sale also includes the carpet bag (Lot 446: est. €800 to €1,200) used by Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days.
Among the other pieces of interest in the sale is Pegasus, an early woodcut by Paul Henry (est. €800 to €12,000). A print from the woodcut was used to advertise an exhibition of miniature watercolours by Jack B Yeats and drawings, woodcuts and book designs by Paul Henry in Dublin’s Leslie Gallery (c. 1905). Viewing is at Sheppard’s Auction Rooms, Durrow, Co Laois, tomorrow to Monday from 10am to 5pm each day. The auction begins at 10.30am. See sheppards.ie
John Weldon Auctioneers
The next Fine Jewellery & Silver Auction at John Weldon Auctioneers takes place on Tuesday at 2pm. “This auction is a tale of two types of clients,” John Weldon explains. “Those who are upgrading and those who are downsizing.” The owner of a silver four-piece tea service in box, made in Dublin by James Le Bas & E Crofton in 1825/26 (est. €1,000 to €2,000), may be someone who has downsized their home and no longer has the space, time, or inclination to be polishing and displaying pieces of silver. He adds: “One of the ladies who is upgrading was telling me her husband buys a new car in January, so she buys a new ring in February and she auctions off last year’s so it can help pay for this year’s purchase.That is certainly one way to do it!” The sale includes a fine diamond three stone ring (est. €1,500 to €2,500) and a fine diamond solitaire ring set in 18ct gold (est. €5,000 to €6,000). Viewing is tomorrow 23 February with full details on jwa.ie
Anyone for an Old Master? A portrait of a 17th-century gentleman, seated in an interior (Lot 284: est. €2,500 to €3,500) is for sale as part of Adam’s At Home auction on Sunday. The painting is attributed to Isaack Luttichuys (1616-1673), a painter of the Dutch Golden Age. It’s a bit on the sombre side.
On a lighter note, A Lady with her Attendants (Lot 431: est. €3,000 to €5,000) dates from a similar period but shows a flirtatious scene with lots of innuendo. It’s described as “in the manner of Jan Cossiers (Flemish School, 17th century).” The sale includes more silver spoons than you could shake a stick at and some fine pieces of furniture.
There are two a nineteenth-century carved giltwood and gesso console tables (Lots 205 and 247: est. € 2,500 to €3,500 each) with white marble tops and fancy golden legs, and a pretty George III satinwood and painted serpentine side cabinet, c. 1790 (est. €2,000 to €3,000). Viewing continues today (10am to 5pm) and tomorrow (11am to 5pm).
The auction is on Sunday and begins at 11.30 am.