Thursday 14 November 2019

Treasures: The big house clearance sale

Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column

The torcheres at Courtown House
The torcheres at Courtown House

Eleanor Flegg

In his poem, Old Furniture, Thomas Hardy imagines: "I see the hand of the generations / That owned each shiny familiar thing / In play on its knobs and indentations, / And with its ancient fashioning / Still dallying."

But big old furniture looks cramped in a modern room and out of context in the homes of today. At an auction it broods in dark corners like an outsized old mutt down at the rescue centre - so big and gloomy that no one wants to take it home.

In contrast, the very same pieces - mahogany tables, chairs, desks and sideboards - look completely different in the rooms where they belong. Antiques were made to go in big old houses and generally speaking (there are exceptions) old furniture makes sense in its natural habitat. Sometimes antiques were owned by interesting people and their history becomes part of the story.

This weekend offers a rare opportunity to see old furniture in its natural habitat at Courtown House & Stud, Co Kildare, where the entire contents will be sold by Adam's on April 22 ( Viewing is from tomorrow to Tuesday, April 18-21.

This has all the ingredients of a grand day out, plus a good snoop through someone else's house. Courtown has celebrity associations and was rented for a number of years in the 1950s by the film director John Huston, who came to Ireland to hunt with the Kildares. The house has changed hands several times since, but a surviving catalogue from 1963 suggests much of the furniture remains in situ. You can, potentially, bid for the table where the young Angelica Huston ate her breakfast.

That's if you have the readies. The dining table at Courtown is a magnificent mahogany piece dating from the reign of George IV and most probably made by Gillington's of Dublin. It divides into three separate tables of equal size and is estimated to make between €25,000 and €35,000.

Other exceptional pieces include a pair of gilt wood torcheres, tall slim stands inspired by ancient braziers and currently accommodating a pair of bronze statues of Mercury and Venus, to be sold separately. The torcheres are in the style of Robert Adam, who adapted the classical form for domestic use in the 18th century, and probably came from the workshop of the Del Veccio family. Originally from Italy, this family settled in Dublin in the early 19th century and are especially famous for mirror frames and console tables in carved and gilded wood.

The torcheres are exquisitely balanced, a central leaf-wrapped column supported by three stems with the heads of eagles (with the disapproving look of Sam from The Muppets) and terminating in talon feet. They are estimated between €20,000 and €30,000.

But for the unwashed rest of us, the auction also includes many items of lesser value, with the everything-must-go thrill of potential bargains. Lots range from taxidermy (from around €200) to a full size snooker table for between €2,000 and €4,000. Transporting this to its new home is the buyer's problem, but the auctioneers will advise.

Also this weekend, the Irish Antique Dealers' Association are opening their National Antiques Week with an event at Russborough House on April 18-19. "Last year we hosted events in people's shops," says Niall Mullen of the IADA. "This year we wanted to bring it out of its shell and Russborough is emblematic of what Irish antiques are all about. It was built in the days when Dublin was the second city of the empire and the creativity of our silversmiths and furniture makers was second to none!"

The event includes guided tours of the house by experts in the different aspects of its decoration and furnishing, and a series of lectures by members of the IADA. Events are free but you have to book (

And in the vein of the Antiques Roadshow, you can also bring your own antiques for free valuation.

"People are always interested in what their things might be worth," Mullen explains. "Times are tight and there's always a chance that granny's teapot will be the saving of it. Most of the time that's not the case, but occasionally something turns up."

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