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Wednesday 29 January 2020

Treasures: Transport is wheel deal...

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

A brougham used as a town coach by the Gore Booth family
A brougham used as a town coach by the Gore Booth family
A carriage which carried King George and, allegedly, his Irish mistress
This brougham belonged to Joseph McGrath

Eleanor Flegg

'My postilion has been struck by lightning!" The phrase allegedly comes from a 19th century Hungarian-English travel guide and it's become an example of the ridiculous phrases found in guidebooks. I once heard it quoted by someone who thought that a postilion was some kind of suitcase.

A postilion, or coach boy, was the driver of a certain type of horse-drawn carriage. Instead of sitting on the carriage itself, the postilion drove while riding one of the horses, or even perched on the wooden shaft between them. The gentry liked this arrangement as it allowed them to talk in private. For the postilion, it was a dangerous job. Getting struck by lightning was one occupational hazard, but falling under the hooves and wheels was much more likely. John Murray's travel book of 1871 includes translations for: "Oh dear! The postilion has been thrown (off) down." Other phrase books indicate that postilions may often have been drunk or insolent. And who can blame them?

Last week, a postilion-driven posting barouche, a four-wheeled carriage drawn by two horses, was sold at auction by Thimble & Shoreland at Corby Castle in Cumbria. Although made in England, the barouche had a fine set of Irish credentials. It's most recent owner was the late Lord Ballyedmond, originally of Dundalk, Co Louth, who died in a helicopter crash in 2014. And its historical owner was the 5th Earl Spencer, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1868-1874) and (1882 to 1885).

Such a vehicle was more about status than transport. For a start, it was a convertible. The black leather calash top could be pulled up to protect the occupants from the weather. The carriage doors carry the Spencer crest of a griffin's head, suspended within the collar of the Order of St Patrick. But there was also an element of security. A raised footman's seat at the rear includes sealskin covered pistol holders.

A large part of the value of the barouche is that it remains in good condition, but hasn't been restored. Details such as the original leather-covered mudguards, interior upholstery and folding steps all add to the price, as well as the historical connection.

"Some of these vehicles do get driven, but this one will almost certainly never be horsed again," says the auctioneer Chris Boreham. Outside of a museum or private collection, there are few places for a postilion-driven carriage in contemporary life. The only person who uses one regularly is the Queen of England, and she has one already. The barouche fetched £59,000 (€65,488) including buyer's premium.

The sale also included a second Irish horse-drawn vehicle, a bow-fronted brougham (pronounced brohm), made by Droham & Son of Carrick. It was formerly used as a town coach by the Gore Booth family of Lissadell, Co Sligo and dates from the late 19th or early 20th century, so it is not unlikely that conveyed the family's most famous daughter, the Countess Markievicz. The brougham carried an estimate of £4,000 to £5,000 (€4,440 to €5,550) and is still under negotiation at the time of writing.

Another Irish brougham is up for auction at Fonsie Mealy's Chatsworth Fine Art Sale on November 15 and 16 (est. €5,000 to €7,000). It belonged to the politician Joseph McGrath (1887-1966), who also fought in the Easter Rising and went on to become the founder of the Irish Sweepstakes. The brougham was made by Robson of Belfast and still has the original leather seating, steps and carriage lamps. "It's ready to rock and roll," says George Fonsie Mealy, auctioneer. "Joseph McGrath used to drive it at the RDS and it's been well cared for since."

He recalls the carriage in which King George IV of England may have bounced around with his Irish mistress, the Marchioness of Conyngham. Despite its poor condition, it sold last autumn for €40,000. There's nothing like a royal connection, especially a salacious one, to boost the price.

Humbler vehicles can also do well at auction. Around 10 years ago George Fonsie Mealy sold a simple pony trap, made by Sly of Dublin and carefully restored by its owner, for more than €4,000. The estimate was between €700 and €900. "The owner was delighted at the price," he remembers. "I think that the Lord Ballyedmond was bidding on it, but he didn't get it."

In general, the advice is not to undertake restoration work on an old horse drawn vehicle. It may be more valuable untouched. "If it's in the shed, it's in a good place and if it has a tarp over it, even better." It's also wise not to put a horse between the shafts until you're certain that the vehicle is safe. "If the shafts go, you're on the ground!" he says.

The auction also includes a tandem, drawn by two horses with a single shaft between them, formerly owned and driven by Joseph McGrath (€2,500 to €3,500), and a racing trap that belonged to Dr Lydon of Renvyle House in Galway (€1,500 to €2,000). The latter includes the original harness. "You can strap up your pony and go," says George Fonsie Mealy.

Another horse-drawn vehicle, a barrel top "gypsy" caravan (€1,200 to €1,800) drawn by a single sturdy horse, is included in the sale. It was previously used as a fairground attraction and of a type that was made in Ireland, but the auctioneers haven't uncovered evidence of genuine Traveller heritage.

Fonsie Mealy's Chatsworth Fine Art Sale takes place on November 15 and 16. The carriages go under the hammer on the first day of the auction. For full details see See also

In the salerooms



What do you get when you cross a camel with a leopard? A camelopard! Until the late 19th century, the giraffe was popularly known as a "camelopard", presumably named by someone who had never actually seen one.

The Camelopard, a signed print by Jack B Yeats, is included in Whyte's Autumn Online Auction which takes place on Monday at 6pm. It shows the exotic beast in an Irish seaside village, led by a sailor returned from foreign parts. The print was part of a series of Broadsides, edited by Yeats and published by Dun Emer and Cuala Press between 1908 and 1915. This one dates from 1909 and the estimate is €150 to €250. Other engaging pieces in the sale include Anthony and Cleopatra, above, (€400 to €600), a signed print showing a roaring domestic row, by Dame Elisabeth Frink. For full details see

Lev Mitchell & Sons

A Georgian stick barometer by Yeates & Son of Grafton Street, Dublin (€800 to €1,200) is among the items for sale at an Antique Furniture Auction, conducted by Lev Mitchell & Sons and held at Joe Lennon Milltown Country Auction rooms Milltown, Dromiskin, Dundalk, Co Louth, on Monday at 4pm. Other items of interest include a Victorian ebonised side cabinet with porcelain plaques (€800 to €1,200); and a Victorian mahogany drumhead grandfather clock (€1,200 to €1,500). See and

Oliver Usher

A Clearance Furniture Auction will take place at Woodlock Hall, All Hallows College, Grace Park Road, Drumcondra, Dublin 9, tomorrow at 11.30am. The sale includes a number of 19th century bookcases; a Victorian mahogany extending cabriole leg dining table and 70 bentwood chairs. The auction is conducted by Oliver Usher in conjunction with Victor Mee Auctions. See


The contents auction of 51 Ailesbury Road (along with some lots from deceased estates elsewhere) will take place at 51 Ailesbury Road on Monday at 11am. The sale will include a four pillar dining table, Georgian breakfront bookcases, Irish Georgian silver tables, sideboards, occasional tables, a four-poster bed, paintings and a Maserati car. For full details see

Morgan O'Driscoll

The artist's palette (est €600 to €900) owned by Gerard Dillon (1916-1971) is among the pieces found on sale at Morgan O'Driscoll's current Irish Art Auction. The sale also includes a painting by Dillon, Sun over the Landscape (€800 to €1,200). The auction continues online until Monday. See

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