Monday 11 December 2017

Treasures: Watercolour of money

Irelands fine arts, antiques and collectables column

The small Percy French watercolour discovered in Huddersfield
The small Percy French watercolour discovered in Huddersfield
First edition of Gulliver's Travels

Eleanor Flegg

Sometime last year, a Yorkshire woman went to her local Huddersfield auction. It was a house clearance sale with a typical mixed bag of lots. But, as she sifted through the good, the bad and the ugly, something caught her eye.

It was a little watercolour landscape showing a bleak lake, a moody sky and a bare tree. It might have been painted by the shore of a bog lake in the west of Ireland, probably in winter. The artist had captured the golden glow of reeds and rushes that often comes with low light.

At 4.75 by 6.75 inches, the watercolour wasn't much bigger than an average postcard and the auctioneers hadn't deemed it important enough to list it in the catalogue. Taking the painting on its own merits, the woman placed a low bid. Nobody else was interested and she walked away with it for around £20. She took it home, put it on her wall, and thought no more about it.

Over the next few months, the woman noticed that the visitors to the house admired the painting, so she decided to find out a little more about the artist. It was signed by one Percy French and a quick internet search revealed that William Percy French (1854-1920) was an Irish watercolourist of some renown.

She began to wonder how much her painting was worth and contacted the auctioneers at Whyte's, who had sold Percy French's work before. The little watercolour is coming up for sale in Whyte's auction of Irish and International Art, which takes place this Monday. It's estimated to sell between €1,000 and €1,500. "The owner had done some research, so she knew the painting was probably worth something, but she definitely didn't think it was worth a grand!" says Ian Whyte.

Few of French's paintings sell for less than €1,000 and some of the larger ones have made much more. Famously, French's watercolour Wherever I Go My Heart Turns Back To The County Mayo sold for €44,000 at Whyte's in 2005, but that was at the height of economic madness and the painting had once been owned by Rupert Guinness, Second Earl of Iveagh. In December 2016, five Percy French watercolours sold at Adam's for between €4,000 and €2,800.

Even though they don't belong to a fashionable genre, French's paintings are tremendously popular. Most are unassuming landscapes, in the Victorian watercolour tradition. His peers would have been Mildred Anne Butler and Rose Maynard Barton. French's landscapes can be sentimental, but they all have a strong sense of place. Often, there's something magical in the way he paints light coming through clouds.

French is probably better known as a songwriter than an artist. His haunting, hilarious and heartbreaking songs were popularised by the Irish tenor Brendan O'Dowda in the mid-20th century. Like his paintings, they're not currently at the height of fashion, but it's probable that those who love the watercolours enjoy the music too. French's songs range from the nostalgic, 'The Mountains of Mourne' (1896) and 'Come Back Paddy Reilly To Ballyjamesduff' (1912) to the incredibly funny. His ballad 'Are Ye Right There Michael?' affectionately lampooned the West Clare Railway, who promptly took him to court for libel. It's said he arrived late for his court appearance. When the judge complained, French explained that he'd travelled by the West Clare Railway. Point proven, the case was thrown out of court.

French's songs have sometimes been dismissed as 'stage Irish'. In recent years, his ear for local idiom has become much more widely appreciated among literary communities and the Percy French Festival in Roscommon is an annual event.

French originally trained as a civil engineer. He studied in Trinity College, Dublin, between 1872 and 1880.

In 1883, French was appointed Chief Engineer by the Board Works, Cavan. It was during this period that he began to paint the watercolour landscapes that so delicately depicted the beauty of the Irish bog.

Later, French worked as a singer and continued to paint his watercolours on the road between engagements, hence their sketch-book size.

There are two other watercolours by William Percy French in Whyte's auction of Irish and International Art, which takes place on Monday at 6pm. They are larger than the one discovered in Huddersfield and estimated to sell between €2,000 and €3,000 each (see

The Oriel Gallery on Clare Street, Dublin 2, has also been a long-term champion of French's watercolours and currently has a couple for sale, price on request from

In the salerooms


Last September, a carpet made by the Dun Emer Guild went under the hammer at Adam's with an unassuming guide price of €2,000 to €4,000. It fetched €10,000. Since then, owners have been eagerly beating the dust from their Dun Emer carpets.

One of these will be among the lots in Adam's At Home auction, which takes place on Sunday at 11am. The carpet is large (c.400cm x 345cm) and fairly exciting, with Celtic patterns and exotic multicoloured birds. The estimate is a cautious €2,000 to €4,000.

The sale also includes a feral-looking Irish carved mahogany and marble-topped side table in the Georgian taste (est €8,000 to €12,000) and two still life studies by Cecil Kennedy (1905-1997): 'Still Life With Wine Cooler And Flowers' (est €6,000 to €10,000) and 'Still Life With Vase of Flowers' (est €5,000 to €7,000).

An early Victorian Mason's Ironstone 85 piece dinner service stands out amongst the china in the sale. It has enough pieces for 14 place settings and is decorated with the traditional Imari pattern in burnt orange, deep blue and gilt (est €2,000 to €4,000). See


An Irish and International Art Auction conducted by Whyte's will take place at the RDS, Ballsbridge, on Monday at 6pm.

The sale includes a number of works by Louis le Brocquy, including two Aubusson tapestries. 'Cherub', 1952 (est €20,000 to €30,000) is one of a series of three tapestries themed on the Garden of Eden. This one shows an apocalyptic-looking being with wings. The other, 'Táin Cúchulainn In Spasm', 1969, (est €15,000 to €18,000) comes from Le Brocquy's collaboration with the poet Tomas Kinsella on 'The Táin', published by Dolmen Press in 1969. Le Brocquy called the images "shadows thrown by the text" and the art historian Medb Ruane describes them as "so iconic that it is almost impossible now to imagine 'The Táin' differently".

Affordable works in the sale include a number of limited edition signed prints by Pablo Picasso (est from €2,000); Salvador Dalí (est from €400); and Antoni Tapies (est from €400). See


First edition of Gulliver's Travels

Did you know that one of the earliest examples of the genre now known as science fiction and fantasy is Irish? Jonathan Swift's 'Travels Into Several Remote Nations Of The World... By Lemuel Gulliver', commonly known as 'Gulliver's Travels', was published on October 28, 1726. It sold out within two weeks. The stories of Gulliver's travels to fantastical lands like Lilliput and Brobdingnag have been popular ever since and the book is considered the most widely-read work of 18th-century English literature. On March 1, a first edition of 'Gulliver's Travels' (above) will come up for sale at Bonham's auction of Fine Books and Manuscripts in London (est €23,321 to €34,977).

The auction also includes other early sci-fi, such as Johannes Kepler's 'The Dream: Or, A Posthumous Work Of Lunar Astronomy' (est €23,321 to €34,977), published posthumously in 1634. The book describes an imaginary tale of a voyage to the moon, with what the auctioneers say is "an astonishingly accurate description of how the rest of the celestial system would look as seen from the moon".


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