Friday 17 August 2018

Treasures: Wedded to a life of colour

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column     

'In a Public Garden' by Grace Henry sold recently for €10,000
'In a Public Garden' by Grace Henry sold recently for €10,000
'Woman of Connemara' which sold for €6,500 in 2011
Blue girl

Eleanor Flegg

Paul Henry was colour blind. He didn't make this public. According to his biographer SB Kennedy, Henry's condition wasn't common knowledge until 15 years after his death. It was first revealed by his doctor at the time of a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1973.

"I've heard that his wives used to mix his palette for him," says Ian Whyte, auctioneer. Paul Henry (1876-1958) was married twice. His first wife was Grace Henry (nee Mitchell) (1868-1953); his second was Mabel Young (1889-1974). Both were artists in their own right and may have brought their colour sensibilities to bear upon his work.

"They say that you can see the difference in his colours when he moved from one marriage to another," Whyte says.

It was difficult, in those days, for women to exhibit their artwork professionally and Grace Henry's work was overshadowed by that of her husband.

Until their marriage ended in 1930, they exhibited together as "Mr and Mrs Paul Henry" and some of her paintings were inscribed as the work of "Mrs Paul Henry".

Sixty years after their deaths, Paul still trumps Grace in the auction rooms.

In Whyte's sale of Important Irish Art on May 28, a painting by Grace Henry, In a Public Garden (St Stephen's Green, Dublin), sold for €10,000. This is decent, if not a record breaking, price for Grace Henry and exceeded its upper estimate by €4,000. In the same sale, Paul Henry's painting, Killary Bay, sold for €140,000. It shows a boat sailing down the fjord, dark sail against blue mountains and a restless sky, and was painted between 1910 and 1915.

Grace would have mixed the colours for that one. The couple went to Achill for a fortnight's holiday in 1910 and stayed until 1919. Paul loved it; Grace found it difficult. Eventually, she did a flit, leaving both Achill and her husband behind. Her paintings certainly show a different perspective of the West of Ireland; less romantic than Paul's, and much more empathetic towards the locals.

Grace Henry's Woman of Connemara, which sold at Adam's for €6,500 in 2011, shows Irish thatched cottages at their most claustrophobic and bleak. Her subject, wrapped in a plaid shawl, is obviously poor. There's a bit of transcendent light in the sky above, but not very much of it. Thatched cottages are a recurrent theme in her husband's work too, but you rarely get a sense of the people who lived in them.

Paul Henry's A Road in Connemara (est. €40,000 to €60,000) goes under the hammer at de Vere's Irish Art Auction on Tuesday.

It dates from the end of his painting career (which means that Mabel would have mixed the palette). There is a pair of cottages in the painting, but their primary purpose is to give a bit of foreground to the mountains and the sky. The painting is all about the sky.

Paintings by Paul Henry command very high prices, most famously The Potato Diggers, which fetched €400,000 at Adam's in 2013.

It shows two people digging the soil, painting with more awareness of the hardship of their lives than you generally see in his work.

"I have yet to see people who worked so hard for so little gain," he wrote, in his autobiography.

Henry wrote two autobiographies, neither of which mentions Grace. That can't have helped her career.

After leaving Paul, Grace Henry went on to travel in Europe and studied under the Cubist painter André Lhote. Her paintings changed, over time, as she absorbed different influences. They've been described as more adventurous than that of her former husband, and more aware of experimental ideas.

If you like her work, but can't afford an oil painting, she also painted watercolours, two of which sold at Adam's on May 30 for €280 and €450 respectively.

In one sense, it's foolish to compare the work of artists, or the prices that they command, just because the artists were married to each other.

Paul Henry's work is infinitely subtler and more compelling than that of either wife. But it wasn't a level playing field. Women worked under different circumstances than men.

Perceived as amateurs and accomplished hobbyists, they did not have the same opportunities for training, exhibition and sales.

"There probably were as many women painting as there were men, but they didn't make a career out of it," says Ian Whyte.

"Until about 1950, it wasn't the 'done thing'." This imbalance is reflected in the number of works by women artists for sale at auction.

In Whyte's Important Irish Art sale on May 30, just 10 out of 164 lots were by female artists. That's 6pc.

This is an unusually low figure and Whyte estimates that the average percentage of work by women artists in his sales is between 20pc and 25pc. It's a similar story in the other Irish auction houses: Adam's Important Irish Art auction on May 30 had 141 lots; 32 of these were the work of women artists (22pc). In de Vere's Irish Art Auction, which takes place on Tuesday, 24 out of 128 lots are by women (18pc).

This will change in coming decades.

In this year's 188th RHA Annual Exhibition, 184 of the 412 exhibiting artists are women (45pc). In time, that will be reflected in the auction rooms too.

See whytes.ie, adams.ie, and deveres.ie

In the Salerooms

John Weldon Auctioneers

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Blue girl
 

John Gaskin of Dublin came from a long line of goldsmiths. He traded as a watchmaker on Essex Street until 1803. Then he went up in the world and moved to 22 College Greene where he worked until his death in 1834. Remarkably, some of the watches that he made then are still working now.

There's an 18ct gold watch movement by John Gaskin in John Weldon's next auction, which takes place on Tuesday at 2pm (est. €500 to €700). The sale also includes some branded watches: a diamond-set women's 18ct gold Cartier wrist watch (€3,500 to €4,500); a men's stainless steel diamond-set Rolex bracelet watch (est. €2,400 to €3,000); and a men's diamond-set Hubolt wrist watch (est. €3,000 to €4,000). Jewellery in the sale ranges from a spectacular ruby and diamond necklace (est. €25,000 to €30,000) and diamond single stone ring, estimated weight of diamond 2.70cts (est. €17,000 to €22,000); to a gold enamel mermaid brooch by Bvlargi (est. €1,500 to €2,500, above) with turquoise hair. "This is one of those fun pieces," Weldon says. "She has a certain style to her." Viewing is from tomorrow. See jwa.ie

Matthews Auction Rooms

Matthews of Oldcastle, Co Meath, will be conducting a two-day house contents auction on the premises at Drumbear, Ballybay Road, Monaghan Town, tomorrow and Sunday. The sale includes the collections of Ernie & May McPhillips, gathered throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

"It's a modest house but crammed with things - neither May or Ernie took a drink, smoked or went out, collecting, it seems, was their passion," says Damien Matthews, auctioneer.

The 900 lots include antique furniture, paintings, old silver and fine china, cut crystal, Persian rugs, gold and diamond jewellery, and collectables with estimates ranging from €20 to €60,000. Viewing continues today and tomorrow from 10am. The auction commences at 1.30pm both days. See matthewsauctionrooms.com

De Vere's

The artist Roderic O'Connor (1860-1940) used many female models, especially in his later years, when he was working in Paris. One of these, Renée Honta, became his mistress.

She was described by Clive Bell as "a charming and gifted lady who "mitigated the painful loneliness" of O'Connor's old age.

Honta married O'Connor in 1933 and cared for him when his health started to decline. La Blouse Verte (est. €15,000 to €20,000), a portrait of Renée Honta by O'Connor, shows her in a green over-garment with rolled up sleeves, which looks like an artist's smock. The painting is for sale in de Vere's Irish Art Auction, at the Royal College of Physicians, No 6 Kildare Street, Dublin 2, on Tuesday at 6pm.

Viewing is at de Vere's, 35 Kildare Street, from tomorrow. See deveres.ie

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