Get an ‘affordable Yeats’ for Christmas at Whyte’s

This month’s auction of Irish art is rich in Le Brocquys from a selection of Tain drawings to a 1959 oil from the artist’s ‘white’ period

Jack B Yeats, The Man With The Wrinkled Face

Jack B Yeats, The Man With The Wrinkled Face


It’s that time of year when our shops are stacked high with Christmas cards of every conceivable shape, size and price. Yet one of the classiest Christmas cards you’ll ever see is going under the hammer at Whyte’s sale of Important Irish Art at the RDS on Monday week. 

A tiny watercolour stencil of a robin – it is dated Christmas 1904 – carries the handwritten greeting “this very cheerful bird is to wish you a very happy New Year”, and is signed by one of the most highly sought after Irish painters in the world Jack Butler Yeats.  

Just five inches by three, this little bird (Lot 26, €1,000–€1,500) is at the affordable end of the currently buoyant Yeats market. The extraordinary oil on canvas The Man With The Wrinkled Face, in which Yeats portrays a man seated at a table in a pub,  sits at the other end of the price scale (Lot 25, €80,000–€120,000). 

This expressive work was part of a major Yeats national loan exhibition in Dublin in the summer of 1945. As so often with Yeats, the subject of the painting is an isolated ambiguous figure. He wears a smart hat and bow tie, but the painter has rendered his face as an almost sculptural enigma. In the background another man leans towards the bar, chatting to a heavily made-up barmaid; behind that again an open door reveals a set of steep steps leading upwards.  

Somewhere between the magisterial oil and the mischievous robin a lively pen, ink and watercolour drawing illustrates another side of Yeats’s output. Depictions of country life in the west of Ireland were among his most popular works during his own lifetime, and St John’s Eve Bonfire Night (Lot 27, €12,000–€18,000) was executed around the time of a 1905 visit to Belmullet, Co Mayo, by Yeats and John Millington Synge.

Irish women artists 

One of the most heartening trends in the current Irish art market is the surge in appreciation for Irish women artists, many of whom have been ignored and neglected until relatively recently. 

This sale includes a striking self-portrait by Margaret Crilley (Lot 22, €20,000–€30,000), who is perhaps better known by her married name of Margaret Clarke – her husband was the stained-glass artist Harry Clarke. Twice loaned to the National Gallery, first in 1987 for a show by Irish women artists and last year for a major retrospective, this painting comes to the market after decades in a distinguished private collection.

From the same collection comes an avant-garde work by Norah McGuinness, Still Life with Basket and Plant, 1951 (Lot 38, €10,000–€15,000). Evie Hone turns her attention to The Bridge Bar near Athlone (Lot 40, €3,000–€5,000). Mary Swanzy’s study of a French cornfield may benefit from the interest generated by IMMA’s current retrospective (Lot 37, €6,000–€8,000). 

Camille Souter, Looking Back, Chioggia, 1960
Camille Souter, Looking Back, Chioggia, 1960

Two painters who were born in the UK but made Ireland their home look at the Italian coastal town of Chioggia, near Venice, with very different eyes. Grace Henry presents a traditional Harbour Scene (Lot 14, €2,000–€3,000), while Camille Souter – she will turn 90 in 2019 – takes an abstract approach with Looking Back, Chioggia, 1960 (Lot 53, €5,000–€7,000).

Tain drawings

Another English-born painter who settled here, Anne Madden, is represented by the watercolour-and-crayon On the Road from Laragh to Ardgroom, 1985 (Lot 57, €600–€800). A similarly-sized watercolour-and-crayon by her husband Louis le Brocquy is priced at €5,000 to €7,000 (Lot 59, Beara).  

This is a sale rich in Le Brocquys, from a selection of Tain drawings (Lots 61-68, €1,500–€2,500 each) to a 1959 oil, Figure 28 [Woman] from the artist’s “white” period (Lot 54, €12,000–€15,000).

Mary Swanzy, Cornfield France
Mary Swanzy, Cornfield France

The evocative Image of Samuel Beckett (Lot 55, €150,000–€250,000), painted in 1994, belongs to a series of paintings which celebrate famous literary and artistic figures. The writer’s hands and his head are recreated in a work which, in its intensity, stillness and gentle humour, conveys, as the painter himself put it, “the Beckettness of Beckett”. 

The auction includes paintings by Paul Henry, Walter Osborne, William Leech, Roderic O’Conor, Basil Blackshaw, Gerard Dillon and many more.

Among the sculptures are works by John Behan, Edward Delaney, Rowan Gillespie and Carolyn Mulholland, as well as two of Rory Breslin’s “river” masks, the Shannon and the Bann (Lots 91 and 92, €8,000–€12,000).