Woman helps solve art mystery with charity shop find

Thu, Sep 13, 2012, 01:00

A DUBLIN woman has discovered a historically important painting in a charity shop window in Blanchardstown.

Her find is helping to solve a British art mystery dating from the second World War, and her “ingenuity” and “generosity” have been lavishly praised by officials in Scotland following her decision to donate the painting to public ownership there.

Antoinette Byrne, who described herself as “a housewife with an interest in art” told The Irish Times she spotted the painting in the window of the St Vincent de Paul shop on Main Street in the west Dublin suburb of Blanchardstown earlier this summer.

She didn’t immediately buy it but was curious about the artist’s signature – AR Woods – and undertook research.

She stumbled on to a major international appeal for information about the artist that had been launched by authorities in Scotland.

It emerged that Woods had painted a mural on three walls of a British ministry of defence building in the Orkney Islands during the second World War. The building, called Ness Battery, overlooks the strategic waters of Scapa Flow and formed part of the Royal Navy’s chief base.

A conservation project to preserve the heritage site was under way but researchers were baffled by the mural. They knew nothing about the artist, why he had been in Orkney nor what had prompted him to paint a mural depicting idyllic scenes of southern English rural life, which has, unexpectedly, become an important tourist attraction.

Following a public appeal, an international hunt for other pictures by the artist got under way. None were known to exist. But then three bearing his signature turned up – one was found in Canada; two at various locations in England. The Blanchardstown find is the fourth.

It was subsequently established that Woods was a native of Kent in southeast England, worked for the Port Authority of London and was a well-regarded painter during the first half of the 20th century. But officials have not yet established why he was in Orkney during the war.

When Ms Byrne explained to St Vincent de Paul the historical significance of the painting and what she planned to do with it, the shop agreed to sell her the painting for €70.

The painting, which depicts a boating scene with an unidentified English village in the background, is untitled and needs some minor restoration work and cleaning.

She contacted the authorities in Scotland and told them she had decided “to donate it to the people of the Orkney Islands . . . because it belongs there”. She has not had the painting valued because she wants it to be in permanent public ownership.

Ciarán Brown, supervisor of the St Vincent de Paul shop, said the painting had been left in anonymously by a member of the public five months ago and had “probably come from a house clearance”.

Julian Branscombe, a spokesman for the project in Stromness, a town on the main island of Orkney, said he was “overwhelmed” by Ms Byrne’s “ingenuity and generosity”. He said the painting she had found was “priceless” and “ particularly important” in helping to piece together “the most amazing story”.

The Orkney Islands Council would be delighted to accept the painting, which, he said, would go on permanent public display beside the mural. He was “fascinated by how it got to Ireland” and is hoping that further information may come to light.

The artist Albert (John) Rycraft Woods was born in Gravesend in Kent in 1876 and died in 1947. The Orkney Islands Council is still trying to trace his descendants, who are, apparently, unaware of the famous mural, and to bring them “to see his artwork, which has captivated people here for decades”.