COLLECTORS:Like Irish art, crafts have become eminently collectable. Some discerning crafts collectors show off their favourite treasures, writes DEIRDRE McQUILLAN
When John Lynch hosts afternoon teas in the sumptuous surroundings of his Georgian residence on Ormond Quay in Dublin, tables are set with pieces of antique and contemporary silverware. “I love silver to be used and people always remark on it,” he says.
“Many are turned off by having to clean it, but it’s easy to do and if you want a job that is visually rewarding, there’s nothing better than polishing silver,” he says, pouring a cup of coffee from a silver pot made in Birmingham in 1900.
A lifelong passion for collecting was inherited from his grandmother, who tutored his eye and from whom he learnt the difference between Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian furniture. The love of silver was fostered early and he remembers playing games with buried treasure, actually his grandmother’s silver plate, and his sense of amazement when his father’s tarnished golfing trophies were transformed at the flick of a polishing cloth. “The first piece of silver I bought was when I was a student in Galway and it was a silver cake stand from 1920, which cost £4. It was a present for my mother,” he recalls. His enthusiasm grew when he worked on a stall in Portobello in London and his payment was goods in lieu. “I would start at five or six in the morning and go around the other stalls. That’s when the dealers would buy.”
Since then, his trove of antique and modern silver has grown into a serious collection, with a number of rare pieces. “Guess what this is?” he asks, holding up a tiny silver saw with an ivory handle. “It’s a cucumber knife – Victorian – and it’s the most decadent thing I have.” Some of his favourite pieces include a set of helmet salt cellars made about 1780 and an Irish silver samovar made by Augustus Byrne in 1794 embellished with the crest of the dukes of Leinster. “I like to root around,” he says, admitting that some of his finds, such as a Fabergé egg and a Tiffany piece, were found in junk shops at a fraction of their worth.
“I tend to like the simplicity of l8th-century Irish silver. It is almost contemporary in its design and some contemporary silver is based on early designs. The Georgians used simple lines and compared to Victorian ostentation, they were more discreet.” He also loves art deco and has a wonderful strawberry sugar shaker and a teaset by Mappin Webb that is in regular use.
Among contemporary Irish silversmiths, he singles out Seamus Gill as exceptional and “very collectable. It’s important that craftsmen like him are supported because they are making one-off pieces,” he says, showing a low silver candelabra with tapering arms made by Gill.
Everything he shows – just a small selection from his extensive collection – has a story. “I am a great lover of provenance and history and I love finding out how things were made and what they were used for. It is a beautiful metal.”
A delighted dilettante
Describing herself as a “dilettante collector”, Katie Verling says that when she sees small, desirable things, she has a “visceral longing” for them, although she doesn’t have big collections or a big budget. “I come from an arty background and my mother was very friendly with Terry Kelly, formerly of the Irish Crafts Council, who still remains my mentor. When I lived in Italy I went with her and people from Letterfrack [Furniture College] looking at top furniture stores and items such as Eileen Gray reproductions. We then had a week in Venice exchanging our views of everything we saw and we had a ball.”
Ninety per cent of what Verling has is Irish. “I have 15 teapots, for example, including one given to me by my grandmother, an early Belleek, and on a recent visit to the VA to view the ceramics, I saw a bigger version of that same teapot.” Running craft shops in various places around Ireland has given her a special appreciation of Irish craftsmanship. In her view Joe Hogan and Alison Fitzpatrick are two of the most talented craft workers in the country. “I bought a sciob for holding potatoes from Joe Hogan. As a child I lived in Carraroe and there was a family of 10 beside us who would dig, clean and cook the spuds, and then put them into the basket and eat them straight out of it.”
The elevation and transformation of everyday objects is what she admires about the work of these basket makers. “It’s a peasant, domestic creation for utilitarian use and they have not only complete knowledge of the craft, but also a high-art sensibility. But I also love Irish glass, like that of Killian Schurmann, who makes magnificent vases. I once bought a green glass ring of his in Designyard, but it broke.”
Her most precious possession is a piece of Murano crystal by Venini, which she bought in a junk shop in Ireland, in thin, lime green glass. “I love the colour and modernity of it. The company has been going since 1925 and they have a shop beside St Mark’s Square in Venice.”
If money was no object she would buy “Irish ceramics until they came out of my ears”. She cites the work of Katherine West, Frances Lambe and Claire Curneen’s pieces as particular favourites. “When I set up my first craft shop in Limerick in 1991, I bought a Claire Curneen fat lady. She creates figures and they have big legs, big feet, big hands; you almost see the cellulite and the generosity of the curves, but she gets thinner and thinner as you move up the torso. I love that amplitude and humanity – they are wonderful pieces.”
The ffrench connection
“Ever since I was a boy I’ve loved old things,” says ceramics collector Peter Lamb, recalling early finds such as an embossed leather wallet and a lacquered fire screen. His introduction to pottery came at the age of 10, when his parents took him to Arklow Pottery, Belleek and Carrigaline. His interest grew when, while working as a draughtsman in London, he met people who collected Victorian pottery.
He started collecting Carrigaline pottery made in Cork in the 1930s. His parents had used it at home and he lent pieces for a small Rosc exhibition of items made in Cork. “After that I started looking around at other potters and discovered John ffrench [the Galway-born ceramic artist] and a piece he made in Kilkenny in the 1950s. It was so different, so unlike other ceramics which were usually thrown on the wheel and symmetrical. His pieces really came from his hand. He was an artist in his own right and had an artist’s eye. He had trained in Italy and was influenced by Mediterranean rather than British pottery, due to his half-Italian background.”
Lamb has been instrumental in making ffrench’s work better appreciated in Ireland. He curated a major retrospective at the Crafts Council in Kilkenny. “John disappeared from Ireland in 1969, but I eventually discovered that he had gone to America. I contacted him and we became great friends. He made vessels and dishes, bowl shapes, platters and tiles.”
One of his favourite ffrench pieces is in Boyers of North Earl Street, Dublin in its upstairs restaurant: “It’s a very dramatic mural from the l960s, a public example of his work and a wonderful, exuberant wall piece. It’s not to everybody’s taste and is very unconventional.” He also loves ffrench’s ceramics from the 1950s and 1960s that are held in the Crawford Gallery in Cork. “I commissioned his last pieces, some Christmas trees last year. What he was really doing was a lot of postcard-shaped designs, dozens of them, and his graphic work showed in the calendars he did every year. He did lovely greeting cards and he was able to go on right until his death in January this year at 81.”