Tuesday 17 September 2019

Evidence of a charmed life

A collection of two lifetimes is about to be dispersed, says Ciara Ferguson, as the Murnaghan collection goes under the hammerONE EVENING in December 1988, the General, alias the late Martin Cahill, donned his balaclava and broke into Number 25 Upper Fitzwilliam Street. He served tea to the owner Alice Murnaghan and her housekeeper, both of whom he held overnight while his accomplices cut about 80 paintings out of their frames. The fact that the then 94-year-old Mrs Murnaghan was relatively unfazed by this episode demonstrates the worldly expansiveness of this lady of another era.

Last January, at the age of 103, Alice Murnaghan died in the grand Georgian house where she had lived for 80 years. Up until the end she remained entirely competent, climbing the three flights to her bedroom each night and continuing to keep her own books and to care for the collection of paintings and antiques collected by her husband up to his death in 1973.

Number 25 Fitzwilliam Street stands now as it was when the newly married couple moved in. On Thursday, October 14, the Murnaghan collection will be auctioned by Alice's old friend, auctioneer George Mealy, in association with Christies. She and James never had children of their own. Her wish was to have the proceeds of the collection divided equally between her beloved nieces and nephews, dispersing the evidence of what seems to have been a charmed life.

James Murnaghan was born in America, the second son of George and Angela Mooney Murnaghan who had emigrated to St Louis in the 1860s. Around 1883, they returned to Omagh, Co Tyrone, moving shortly afterwards to Lisnally House where, as a gentleman farmer, George Murnaghan was to sit as the first Catholic in the Westminster parliament.

James was educated at the National University of Ireland before being called to the Bar in 1903. From 1910 to 1924, he was Professor of Jurisprudence and Roman Law at the National University.

Judge Murnaghan was a member of the First Constitution Committee appointed by Michael Collins in 1922. He was one of the first judges appointed in the State in 1924 and he served on the Supreme Court for 30 years. He sat on the Board of Governors of the National Gallery from 1925 and was made Chairman in 1962. In 1993, 20 years after his death, Alice presented Murillo's masterpiece The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel to the National Gallery of Ireland.

The passion for collecting began as a young man before he married Alice Davy (one of the Davy stockbrokers family from Terenure) in 1919. In the years following 1916, collecting was serendipitous. As the large Anglo-Irish homes were abandoned, the dealers' shops along the quays were an Aladdin's cave for collectors.

The judge earned a reputation for collecting in lots of three, in order to deflect interest from one particular painting. He favoured the old portraits of European masters and religious paintings, and bought purely on the basis of taste and instinct. Some turned out to be more valuable than he thought and others less so. With the support of Alice, the eclectic collection of paintings, furniture, glass, ceramics, bronzes, marbles and silver grew to fill every corner of No 25.

At the time of his death, there were 1,200 paintings in the collection at Fitzwilliam Street. Eighteen paintings went to the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, several to family members over the years and others were sold in a sale at Adams. The robbery by Martin Cahill meant the loss of more paintings, although about half of them were recovered during the following few years. Underground art dealers would still have a problem selling those not yet recovered. Unfortunately the damage to some of the paintings is still evident. But today the house has remained unchanged, a tribute from his wife to the collector.

``The curator of the collections was the gracious and charming Alice Murnaghan, the remarkable hostess who created an atmosphere of quasi-pre-incandescent light, consisting of high tea and good conversation,'' writes her nephew Francis Murnaghan Jnr in the collection catalogue. ``In her various other capacities, such as sitting on the board of St Vincent's Hospital or delivering `Meals on Wheels', both of which she carried on with well into her mid-90s, she was equally gracious,'' he continues.

``She was the family matriarch whose interest and concern extended to the spouses of her nieces and nephews and their progeny without reservation, all of whom were numerous and devoted. To them and to her friends, Aunt Alice was a national treasure, an irreplaceable national treasure, whose legacy will extend far into the coming generation''.

With huge international interest in this auction, it looks as if the collection of two lifetimes will be dispersed across the world.

Some of the more important pieces include Saint John the Baptist and Three Saints by Pietro De Francesco Degli Orioli (1458 to 1496), the most valuable of the General's stash which was damaged in the robbery. It is still expected to fetch between £25,000 and £35,000. Other pieces include The Circumcision, an innocuous-looking painted panel attributed to Innocenzo Di Pietro Francucci (1494 to 1550), estimated at £12,000 to £18,000; Portrait of EM de la Poer Trench by Walter Osborne RHA (1859 to 1903) at £10,000 to £15,000; A View of Dublin by John Henry Campbell (1757 to 1828) at £25,000 to £35,000; The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis by Master of Marradi (15th century) estimated between £25,000 and £35,000; Portrait of a Lady by Follower of Tiziano Vecellio (1530) at £25,000 to £35,000; The Madonna and Child by Michele Di Ridolpho Tosini (1503 to 1577) at £50,000 to £90,000; The Triumph of Time and Justice by Giovanni Di Ser Giovanni Guidi, Lo Scheggia (1406 to 1486) at £25,000 to £35,000.

Viewing begins on October 6 from 10am to 6pm and continues daily until October 12. The auction will be held at the Shelbourne Hotel on October 13 at 10.30am and 2pm.

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