The faces of children are a familiar trope in our visual culture at this time of year. Perhaps that’s why leafing through the catalogue for Adam’s sale of Important Irish Art on December 5th, a number of portraits of young people jump out from its pages. As rendered by some of our best-known artists in a variety of media, however, these complex kids are a million miles from the pleasantly synthetic youngsters of television advertising.
One of the most mesmerising images in the auction is Louis le Brocquy's Battersea Boy (Lot 41, €10,000-€15,000). It was painted in 1954 when the artist was living and working in London; known locally as a painter, he asked the boy's mother for permission to paint him. One wonders what she made of the result, if she ever saw it; with its grey outlines and simple colour palette, the picture captures both the innocence of childhood and something potentially much darker.
Another ambiguous personality can be seen in Daniel O'Neill's richly-coloured Boy from the North (Lot 27, €10,000-€15,000), who looms large and self-contained against a sensuous, almost exotic landscape.
The boy in Gerard Dillon's 1950 ink and watercolour Study for Tom Baker, Moyard (Lot 32, €2,500-€3,500) was a member of the family who ran the farm next to the painter's rented cottage, and supplied him with milk, eggs and potatoes. In this study for a work which was included in a retrospective in the Ulster Museum in Belfast in 1972/3, the child sits on a bed, dressed in an old man's cut-down shorts and a jacket. Only his restless hands – and toes – give away the fact that he may be finding it hard to stay still for so long.
It's one of a number of paintings by Dillon in the sale; also included are the idyllic Near Moyard (Lot 28, €30,000-€40,000) and a view of the river Boyne at Drogheda (Lot 103, €6,000-€10,000).
There are four works by another Belfast painter, George Campbell, notably his magisterial Clifden, Connemara (Lot 82, €10,000-€15,000). Executed in shades of cool, elegant greens and greys, it was once in the collection of the Hollywood film director John Houston.
The sale presents a fine collection of sculpture, from the 10th in FE McWilliam's Women of Belfast series (Lot 52, €6,000-€8,000) to his whimsical Peace B (Lot 48, €8,000-€12,000) in which two women attack each other with "peace" banners.
Selma McCormack's dancing bronze nude Abandon, (Lot 50, €800-€1,200) captures a woman in happier mood, while there are two action portraits of musicians by Rowan Gillespie, a violinist (Lot 45, €2,000-€3,000 ) and a guitarist (Lot 46, €2,000-€3,000).
An important work is Oisin Kelly's bronze Children of Lir, which was cast from the model for the statue in Dublin's Garden of Remembrance (Lot 93, €30,000-€50,000). The only other cast of this piece is currently on display outside the Taoiseach's office in Government Buildings.
For Kelly the changing of the Children of Lir into swans was a visual representation of the dramatic and painful birth of the Irish State after the 1916 Rising. A less romantic view of our socio-political evolution is offered in Michael Farrell's The Third Very Real Irish Political Picture (Lot 63, €20,000-€30,000).
Farrell uses Francois Boucher’s celebrated 18th-century portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy as the starting point for a series of allegorical paintings which criticise our long history of colonisation and sectarian violence. This one features the artist himself, naked, hapless and almost totally submerged in a tumbler of water.
Another striking self-portrait in the auction is by the Welsh painter Augustus John (Lot 44, €20,000-€30,000). A regular visitor to Ireland, he gave the picture to his friend and fellow artist Percy Gethin. After Gethin was killed in the first World War it passed to his brother, who donated it to the Irish Red Cross in 1942. It was bought by the Dublin dealer Louis Wine for £40, sold on for £60, and has stayed in Ireland ever since.
This brooding oil is just one example of the auction's variety of faces and characters. Roderic O'Conor's Model Seated (Lot 67) leads the sale with its estimate of €30,000-€40,000. Two literary countenances who need no introduction are present in sketches by Colin Davidson; Seamus Heaney (Lot 86, €5,000-€8,000) and Brian Friel (Lot 85, €4,000-€6,000).
Those with a taste for the abstract will also find much to enjoy, with works by - among others Neil Shawcross, John Kingerlee and Breon O'Casey. Patrick Scott is represented by his Gold Painting (Lot 56, €8,000-€12,000) as well as six felt collages (Lots 57-62, €800-€1,200 each) whose strong forms and vibrant individuality will ensure that they sit well in either a modern or a more traditional interior.
Adam’s, 26 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2. Important Irish Art, Wednesday, December 5th, 6pm. See adams.ie