Friday 22 November 2019

Treasures: Sculptures for the love of river gods

Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column   

Mask of the Boyne by Rory Breslin
Mask of the Boyne by Rory Breslin

Eleanor Flegg

‘Are they really gods?”

“I never worry about theological questions,” said Nightingale.

 “They exist, they have power and they can breach the queen’s peace — that makes them a police matter.”

That’s from Midnight Riot; the first novel in Ben Aaronovitch’s best selling crime series, Rivers of London.

 The books are based on the notion that London’s river gods are causing havoc among ordinary folks. Irish river gods, of course, are much better behaved.

The river gods of Ireland — although yet to inspire detective fiction — have been popping up at auction. On October 2, The Mask of the Boyne, a bronze sculpture by Rory Breslin (b 1963), will be auctioned at Whyte’s.

One of an edition of three, it’s estimated to sell for between €5,000 and €7,000. On February 27, The Mask of the Barrow, also by Breslin, sold at Whyte’s for €10,000. In December 2016, The Erne Mask, fetched €7,000 at Adam’s. A fourth piece, The Mask of the Nore (est €5,000 to €7,000) went under the hammer at Adam’s on Wednesday.

The modern sculptures are inspired by the wonderful stone carvings on Dublin’s 18th-century Custom House. These 14 masks, representing the main rivers of Ireland and the Atlantic Ocean, are placed as keystones over the doorways. They’re the work of Edward Smyth, a sculptor born in Co Meath in 1749.

When work on the Custom House commenced in 1781, the architect James Gandon went looking for a stone carver.

He was ready to hire the best. The famous Italian sculptor Carlini submitted design-models. So did Edward Smyth, then busy making chimney pieces for Henry Darley, a builder based in Abbey Street.

When Darley recommended Smyth for the job, he shot himself in the foot. According to TJ Mulvany’s, The Life of James Gandon, Esq. (1846) the architect was so impressed by Smyth’s work that he turned to Darley and announced: “This will do; this is the artist I require; he must go alone and quit your employment.” You can almost hear the swish of the architect’s cloak as he stalked from the room.

River gods are traditionally associated with trade and commerce which is why they were chosen to embellish the Customs House. It’s also why, in the 1920s, Smyth’s gnarly-looking carvings inspired the designs for Ireland’s first Legal Tender banknotes, known as the Lady Lavery series.

The beautiful Hazel Lavery was depicted on the front of the notes; the river gods were on the back. The 10-shilling note was the River Blackwater; the £1 note was the River Lee; £5 was the River Lagan;  £10 was the River Boyne; £50 was the River Shannon; and £100 was the River Erne.

In Irish banknotes — Irish Government Paper Money from 1928, Mártan Mac Devitt observed that “the smile on the faces of the River ods broadens with the ascending value of the lowest denominations — 10 shillings to £10, but from £20 upwards the faces maintain a more serious disposition”.

The notes remained in use from 1928 to 1977.

Now, Lady Lavery notes can fetch good money, especially pre-1950 £20, £50, £100  notes in good condition.

In March 2009, a one £100 note, dated September 10, 1928, sold at Whyte’s for €18,000.

More recently, on May 14, 2016, a Central Bank of Ireland Lady Lavery ‘War Code’ £20 note, dated January 10 1944, sold for €9,500, also at Whyte’s.

The sculptor Rory Breslin can’t remember whether it was the Lavery banknotes or Edward Smyth’s carvings that first drew his attention to the river gods. The original carvings are still in place.

They survived the fires of 1789, 1883 and (miraculously) the devastating fire of 1921.

They’re visible from the street, but it can be hard to get a good look at them.

“I was passing the Custom House a few years ago and thought it was disappointing that viewing of the river-heads was restricted by the semi-circular railings,” says Rory Breslin.

“Also none of the Northern heads would have ever seen bright light, given their orientation, which is a shame, given their wonderful detail.  So I decided that I would do a new variation of them, a bit like one would have a new interpretation of a musical classic.”

At just under 90 cm high, Breslin’s river god sculptures are larger than the originals and their characteristics reflect the commercial activity of each particular river.

The Mask of the Boyne is crowned with wheat, his twisted beard reflecting the meandering river.

The Mask of the Nore has a seine net on his head, complete with ropes and floats, while the Erne Mask is weighed down by salmon, a pike with an eel in its jaws, and shells. The grumpy Barrow has minnows and water weeds entangled in his beard.

Even on a low budget, you could have great fun collecting the 14 Riverine Masks, based on Smyth’s carvings and made by Forde Crafts.

Until a few years ago, these cast-limestone reproductions, each just under 18 cm high, were made by Mairead Canning and Kieran Forde in Blessington, Co Wicklow. Now, they’re hard to come by. Single masks sell on Ebay for around €30 each and, four years ago, a complete set of 14 sold for €420. All of these had the original information tags, each giving the story of that particular river.

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